The 2016 NFL Draft begins Thursday night — but until then, “Speculation Season” is in full swing.
Penn State has four prospects who could be picked up by pro teams this weekend, and a handful of other players who participated in the school’s Pro Day and hope to be at least signed to Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA) contracts once the draft ends.
The big four — quarterback Christian Hackenberg, defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel and defensive end Carl Nassib — could go anywhere from the mid-to-late rounds of this year’s draft.
But who might scoop them up?
The scrutiny over the embattled three-year starting quarterback for Penn State has only increased as the draft inches closer. Can he be a pro starter? Is he destined to be a forever-backup? Can he tweak the tics he adopted to combat a tissue-paper offensive line and a system he didn’t quite fit?
Prediction: Third round
Potential picker: Arizona Cardinals
This might be the best option for Hackenberg from a fundamental perspective. The young NFL hopeful is a carbon copy of current pocket-passer Carson Palmer (whose brother, Jordan, was Hackenberg’s private coach) and would do well to sit behind the aging quarterback and glean the knowledge that comes from more than a decade in the league and a Heisman pedigree, while also working on his own technique. Head coach Bruce Arians both loves and has experience with the same type of cerebral, solid, big-armed quarterback (Andrew Luck, Palmer), and might be itching for a do-over after his last “Palmer-esque” pickup, San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley, completely tanked. The Cardinals are looking for a pass rusher first and foremost but are also in the hunt for a mid-to-late round quarterback prospect. Unlike the early 2000s, the modern-era Cardinals have a thick and physical line, an established run game behind David Johnson and a wealth of riches at wideout, including the speedy John Brown and nine-time Pro-Bowler Larry Fitzgerald. Inheriting this experienced roster could bring back the Hackenberg that had scouts salivating three years ago.
Built with all of the physical and mental attributes an NFL coach could want in a defensive lineman — speed, bend, a 6-foot-4, 313-pound frame, immense physicality, ability to shift from a three technique to a one, etc. — Johnson could get picked up the earliest of his Penn State teammates.
A run-stuffer by trade who showed he can stunt into a pass rush, Johnson is one of the most gifted defensive tackles the Nittany Lions have seen in recent years. However, an extremely congested class of big-name linemen could sink him down a few picks despite his appeal.
Prediction: Second round
Potential Picker: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars could scoop Johnson up with their second round pick (No. 38 overall), and he’s likely an appealing pick to add some depth to a line that boasts some solid starters like Jared Odrick, Abry Jones, Tyson Alualu and Roy Miller.
Jacksonville’s scheme should be a little familiar to Johnson, and a good fit at that, in the sense that they do like to rotate bodies and look for versatile talent — sounds a lot like what Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer’s calling cards have been for the past few years.
If the young defensive tackle were to go to the Jaguars, he’d join former Penn Staters Odrick, linebacker Paul Posluszny and receiver Allen Robinson.
After becoming one of the best stories in college football — a skinny, lanky walk-on-turned national sack leader by his senior season — Nassib, a 6-foot-7, 277-pound defensive end who earned the nickname “Crazy Carl” from teammates for his passion and ferocity on the field and quirks off it, is hoping to prove he’s not a “one-year-wonder.”
Nassib, who recorded 15 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles during his last season at Penn State, also earned All-Big Ten and All-American honors as well as the Ted Hendricks and Rotary Lombardi awards. Incredibly athletic albeit somewhat raw, Nassib would be generating a lot more buzz if those astonishing numbers didn’t explode onto the scene in a single year — but from the bits of his personality he showed last season, that’s just how he likes it.
Prediction: Third round
Potential Picker: New England Patriots
The Patriots traded away star pass-rusher Chandler Jones to the aforementioned Cardinals, but that doesn’t mean they’re looking for a player to come in and start right away on the edge as a rookie. New England still has depth at the position, but will likely look to add some more.
Enter Nassib, who by no means is ready to start in the NFL but who could certainly work his way into a rotation as his technique evolves. He also could do well in the Patriots’ 4-3 scheme, and his intelligence and drive is certainly a plus for prospecting coaches.
A fan-favorite while at Penn State, the tree-tackling, mixed-martial arts-fighting, velociraptor-impersonating defensive tackle moved from the outside of the line inward to help establish the trenches alongside Johnson.
Zettel, a captain who suffered the tragic loss of his father a third of the way through his senior season, married his leadership and freaky-athletic talent (he was No. 3 on Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks” list last fall) to assist in the creation of one of the nation’s most prolific defensive lines.
His strength served him well as a Nittany Lion, but he could be an interesting prospect to many NFL teams. At 6-foot-4 and 277 pounds he doesn’t necessarily fit the prototype of either a pro interior d-lineman or a d-end. A clogged defensive line class won’t help his chances, either. However, teams would be remiss to pass up the athleticism and strength of Zettel, even if he were picked up as a project to transition elsewhere — scouts at Penn State’s Pro Day even asked him to line up as a tight end and run routes/catch a few balls.
Prediction: Seventh round, UDFA (priority)
Potential Picker: Buffalo Bills
Plenty of Bills scouts showed up to Penn State’s Pro Day (presumably for Hackenberg), but caught an eyeful of Zettel’s athleticism. While Buffalo’s pressing needs are at quarterback and filling holes at linebacker and on the offensive line, the team also likely wants depth on a shallow defensive line.
Plus, those familiar with Zettel can only imagine the antics he and a quirky character like Bills head coach Rex Ryan would devise.
The 2016 NFL Draft starts at 8 p.m. on Thursday night with coverage continuing through the weekend.