How Will Penn State Draftees Fit With Their NFL Teams?
Thanks to a successful NFL Draft and an even busier few hours after, plenty of Nittany Lions are headed to the professional level. Six were drafted — including Penn State’s former “Lion” Tommy Stevens — and eight signed with squads as undrafted free agents — including transfers Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk.
With all of that in mind, let’s examine what kind of roles each of these Penn Staters will play on their new teams.
Yetur Gross-Matos, Carolina Panthers
Gross-Matos has a chance to make a difference early and often for Matt Rhule’s squad. The first-year NFL head coach and fellow Nittany Lion grabbed the defensive end on Friday night after he slid out of the first round, as the Panthers decided select only defensive players with all seven of their picks in this year’s draft.
Carolina is clearly trying to rebuild its defensive unit, and Gross-Matos is poised to be a key piece in its future. The athletic edge rusher who leaves Happy Valley with 19 career sacks and 37 tackles for loss now joins a defensive line that is largely anchored by Brian Burns. Burns had an extremely productive rookie campaign in 2019, and Gross-Matos will be a perfect counter on the other side of the line.
The Penn Stater now joins a young defense with quite a bit of a potential, and I expect him to be a perfect fit in Carolina. Gross-Matos is positioned to have a strong first year in Charlotte.
KJ Hamler, Denver Broncos
General manager John Elway and the Denver Broncos are clearly trying to build up a strong wide receiver corps, as they took Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy in the first round and grabbed Hamler with their second pick on Friday night. The “human joystick” was plenty fun to watch throughout his Penn State career, and he seems primed to bring the same level of entertainment to the next level.
Hamler now joins a wide receiver room with quite a few options. While he and Jeudy are rookies, both should have the opportunity to make a difference early on in their careers. Aside from them, though, the Broncos also have Cortland Sutton and fellow Penn Stater DaeSean Hamilton.
Jeudy will likely get more attention than Hamler entering this 2020 season, but that could result in a quietly strong year for the Nittany Lion. The Broncos can throw Hamler in the slot, get him the ball, and let him make plays in the open field. He may have fallen to the second round, but the wideout still managed to collect 96 receptions for 1,658 yards and 14 total touchdowns over just a two-year career at Penn State.
I expect that Hamler will quickly become a favorite target for quarterback Drew Lock in the Mile High City.
John Reid, Houston Texans
Reid wasn’t talked about a whole lot throughout his long Penn State career, but then again, that’s probably a good thing for a cornerback. After collecting 30 pass break-ups and seven interceptions over the course of his career in Happy Valley, former Penn State football head coach Bill O’Brien spent one of his fourth-round picks on the speedy defensive back.
As of now, it seems that Reid will likely battle for a back-up/rotational spot in Houston’s secondary. Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves are listed as two of the Texans’ top cornerbacks, along with Gareon Conley. Conley is battling through an ankle injury, though, and could miss the start of training camp, thus forcing Reid to possibly get some more practice reps early.
While a common knock on Reid is his size, as he comes in at 5’10” and 187 pounds, his speed is something that no scout can argue with. He ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and constantly showcased his quickness as a Nittany Lion. If he can pair that with his improving ball skills, Reid could stand out early for the Texans.
Cam Brown, New York Giants
The New York Giants are no strangers to struggles on the defensive side of the ball, and Brown could provide some depth to a roster in need of some help. General manager Dave Gettleman spent his sixth-round pick on the linebacker, as the Giants are clearly trying to rebuild at that position.
Before the draft, New York also managed to sign former Packers linebackers Blake Martinez and Kyle Fackrell. Along with those two, the Giants drafted fellow linebackers Carter Coughlin, TJ Brunson, and Mr. Irrelevant Tae Crowder.
Brown’s length and range will likely help him stand out among a crowded position group. The Maryland native comes in at 6’5″ and 233 pounds, and leaves Penn State with 199 tackles and 11 pass deflections. Despite those positives, Brown will likely need to put on some weight in order to play some meaningful snaps for the Giants.
If he can’t immediately add a ton of value to New York’s front-seven, expect Brown to play a role on special teams for the Giants.
Robert Windsor, Indianapolis Colts
After being selected just ten picks after Brown on Saturday afternoon, Windsor joins a Colts team that could use some restructuring on its interior defensive line. Aside from NFL veteran Justin Houston on the outside, the Colts don’t have too many impressive hog-mollies up front.
Windsor happens to be the only defensive lineman that Indianapolis selected in this year’s draft, so he could find himself playing key snaps for the Colts early on in his career. He proved to be a capable run-stopper during his time at Penn State, as he racked up 118 tackles and even 14 sacks on his career, and I think he’ll be able to play a similar role in the NFL.
Tommy Stevens (No. 240 overall, New Orleans Saints)
This is going to be a fun one, folks.
Sean Payton and Co. spent their last pick of the draft on Stevens late Saturday afternoon. The former Penn State “Lion” even discussed playing a role similar to Taysom Hill in the NFL about a week before the draft, and now he’ll get to play right alongside him in New Orleans.
As of Sunday morning, the Saints now have an extremely crowded quarterback room. In addition to the obvious Drew Brees and Hill, New Orleans also reportedly signed a contract with Jameis Winston. That’s only going to make things harder for Stevens to carve out a role for himself, but don’t be surprised if the Saints get even more creative and put him and Hill on the field together at the same time.
If nothing else, Stevens will get to learn from one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time, while also playing alongside a player he self-admittedly wants to model his game after. Not a bad first job out of college, if you ask me.
Steven Gonzalez, Arizona Cardinals
Gonzalez was one of the first Nittany Lions to sign a deal just minutes after the draft. While he was one of the most reliable big men on Penn State’s offensive line throughout his time in Happy Valley, Gonzalez joins a group in Arizona that is fairly deep.
While the Cardinals had their struggles last year in protecting Kyler Murray, the Nittany Lion will still need to battle hard for a roster spot. Arizona also drafted an offensive tackle with its second pick in this year’s draft.
Despite the crowded group, Gonzalez’s impressive resume is nothing to take lightly. The 6’4″, 341-pound guard started 42 games in three full seasons for the Nittany Lions, and he could certainly play a role as a back up for the Cardinals if he impresses in training camp.
Juwan Johnson, New Orleans Saints
The former Penn State wide receiver is joining his old buddy Tommy Stevens in New Orleans. While he didn’t have the most consistent Penn State career, his final season of college football at Oregon was impressive enough to help him get signed by the Saints on Saturday night.
Drops were a bit of a knock on Johnson during his time in Happy Valley, but his size is certainly an impressive attribute. Coming in at 6’4″ and 230 pounds, Johnson could serve as a big target for Drew Brees (or for Stevens on a trick play).
Despite his size, Johnson is going to need to make a name for himself quickly in training camp if he wants to hang around in the NFL. The Saints have a few impressive wide receivers, but if the Nittany Lion can prove a viable target, he could add some depth behind Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Tre’Quan Smith.
Brandon Polk, Los Angeles Rams
Similar to Johnson, Polk didn’t have the most productive career as a wideout at Penn State, but the Virginia native dominated at James Madison in his final season of NCAA eligibility. Polk started in 16 games for the Dukes, as caught 74 passes worth 1,179 yards and 11 touchdowns. His impressive season helped him sign a contract with the Rams on Saturday shortly after the draft.
Polk’s speed was always one of his most impressive attributes at Penn State; he even had some success running the ball during the 2015 season. He found a way to put that speed together with hauling in deep passes at James Madison, and if he can do the same for the Rams, I don’t see why that wouldn’t earn him a roster spot.
Despite that, it’s no surprise that the NFL is going to offer quite a bit better competition than the Colonial Athletic Association. If Polk can stand out training camp, though, he could find his name on the depth chart once the 2020 season gets underway.
Nick Bowers, Las Vegas Raiders
Unfortunately for Bowers, his Penn State career coincided with those of two extremely talented tight ends in Mike Gesicki and Pat Freiermuth. Still though, he made do with the snaps he got as a back up, and managed to haul in 10 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns as a senior this past fall.
Bowers is clearly a talented tight end, and the Raiders decided to take a chance on him by signing him on Saturday night.
Darren Waller broke onto the scene for the Raiders at tight end last season, and they even signed veteran Jason Witten during the offseason. While Bowers clearly isn’t going to start at tight end for Jon Gruden’s squad anytime soon, he might be able to earn some snaps on different offensive packages.
Garrett Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Taylor was a consistent safety at Penn State for multiple seasons, and he’ll get a chance to continue his career in Buffalo as the Bills signed him on Saturday night.
The Bills have a good amount of talent at safety, so Taylor will more likely be battling for a special teams position during training camp. He recorded a career-high 84 tackles during his senior season in 2019, so he can likely prove as a serviceable option for the Bills on kickoff and punt coverage.
Jan Johnson, Houston Texans
The former Penn State football run-on is joining John Reid in Houston, as he signed with the Texans on Saturday night.
While he wasn’t drafted, the linebacker was a key leader for Penn State’s defense throughout the 2019 season. The Texans have talent at linebacker in Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and Bernardrick McKinney, but don’t be surprised if Johnson fights for a job as a back up for one of those talents.
Considering the fact that the Mohnton, Pennsylvania native worked his way up from run-on to team captain in 2019, I expect he can battle for a spot on an NFL roster. I think fellow Nittany Lion Bill O’Brien will find a way to utilize Johnson in some way during the 2020 season.
Blake Gillikin (Signed With New Orleans Saints)
Punters are people too! A few hours after the draft, the Saints finally signed the special teams star as an undrafted free agent.
Gillikin’s Penn State career is nothing to scoff at, and he could clearly be a viable option at punter for an NFL squad. NFL and Saints veteran Thomas Morstead currently stands as the clear starting punter in New Orleans, though, so don’t expect Gillikin to add much value there. He may bounce around the league for a bit, but I think a team in need of a punter will scoop up the Nittany Lion as soon as possible.
If not, there’s always med school for Gillikin, the guy who’s good at everything.
Dan Chisena, Minnesota Vikings
Penn State fans woke up to the news of Chisena becoming the new man on the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday morning.
The wide receiver caught only three passes throughout his Penn State career, but he proved to be a force on special teams during the 2019 season. Chisena recorded four tackles throughout the season and was dominant for the punt cover team, as he even recovered a muffed punt in a rainy game against Michigan State.
Chisena also competed on Penn State’s track and field team for three seasons, so his speed and athleticism could certainly be of use to Minnesota’s special teams unit.
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About the Author
Illinois took down the Nittany Lions in the ninth overtime period at Beaver Stadium Saturday.
Illinois took down the Nittany Lions in the ninth overtime period at Beaver Stadium Saturday.
All eyes are on Penn State’s quarterbacks for this one.
Our staff thinks Penn State will cruise to a victory over Illinois this weekend.
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