Penn State NFL Draft Preview: Defense

It should be a good week for former Nittany Lion D-linemen. But will PSU products from other defensive positions be taken? Get the straight scoop on what to expect.

Austin Johnson

THE LOWDOWN: Of the Penn State players eligible for the NFL Draft, Johnson is the most likely to contribute immediately. Hes got great size (6-foot-4, 314), good strength and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was a one-technique tackle in the Nittany Lions4-3 defense but could easily add even more bulk to play the nose in a 3-4.

The knocks on Johnson amount to nitpicking, and are offered here to explain why you wont see him going in the first round. Compared to the very best D-tackles in the draft, he is not particularly quick or athletic. Of the defensive tackles who tested at the NFL Combine, Johnson posted the third-worst 40 (5.32), second-worst vertical (26 inches) and tied for the worst broad jump (8-3).

PREDICTION: The film does not lie, and Johnson and his agent know that. While great testing at the Combine could have propelled Johnson into the first round, even after not lighting up the event he chose not repeat any of the tests at PSU’s Pro Day. He’s going to let the film from his junior season speak for itself, and were guessing thatll be more than enough for some team to take him in the second round.

FAST FACT: In the last six NFL Drafts, Penn State has had four defensive tackles selected. All have been in the fourth round or higher.

Carl Nassib

Harvey Levine/FOS

THE LOWDOWN: Nassib is an oddity in the NFL Draft in that he is a 23-year-old non-quarterback who can be viewed as a developmental prospect. As amazing as his senior season was — he won multiple national awards after leading the NCAA in sacks (a school record 15.5) — there still appears to be plenty of room for improvement and there is still a lot of tread left on the tires.

Nassib was obviously outstanding as a pass-rusher in 2015, when he was able to take advantage of PSUs strong defensive tackle play to exploit one-on-one matchups with right offensive tackles. Besides the sacks, he also had 19.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles. All this while missing all or part of the last few games due to injury. Further, at 6-foot-7, 277 pounds, he still has room to fill out.

And thats the rub on Nassib. While he was exceptional clobbering quarterbacks, his game was not well-rounded. He often struggled against power running games and in situations (such as dropping into coverage) where he wasnt just able to let things rip. While Nassib was fearsome in the backfield, he only had 27 tackles beyond the line of scrimmage.

PREDICTION: Edge rushers are extremely valuable in the NFL. Nassib is raw but has a huge upside. And the former walk-on has shown tremendous drive to get to where he is. Someone is going to take a chance on him in the third or fourth round.

FAST FACT: Since 2004, five players who arrived at Penn State as walk-ons have been drafted. That includes Rich Gardner and Matt Kranchick (2004), Ethan Kilmer (2006), Deon Butler (2009), and Josh Hull (2010).

Anthony Zettel

Harvey Levine/FOS

THE LOWDOWN: Zettel had outstanding production at Penn State the last two seasons as a three-technique tackle. The big question now is, where does he project at the next level? That explained the kind of bizarre sight of the 6-4, 277-pounder catching passes at the Nittany LionsPro Day in March.

Perhaps it is best to reverse engineer things in this discussion, and explain where Zettel WONT play in the NFL. He definitely cant be a one technique in a 4-3 or a nose tackle in a 3-4, because he just does not have that sort of frame. And wed argue hes not even big enough to play three technique in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4. So that eliminates a lot of potential suitors.

There is no question he can play end in a 4-3. Even though he does not have long arms, he is fast, quick and strong. So that would be the perfect positional fit. However, would that athletic ability translate into Zettel being able to play outside linebacker in a 3-4? If he is still on the board in the later rounds, we could see someone spending a draft pick to see if he could make that transition.

As for playing tight end, well, weve seen Zettel pull off some crazy stuff. But that might be a stretch.

PREDICTION: It only takes one team to fall in love with a prospect, and Zettel did the best he could to impress suitors when he proved to be the fastest defensive tackle at the NFL Combine (he ran an 4.81 40). Were betting someone takes a chance on him in the last couple of rounds.

FAST FACT: Penn State has not had two defensive tackles taken in the same draft since 2003 (Jimmy Kennedy and Anthony Adams).

Jordan Lucas

Harvey Levine/FOS

THE LOWDOWN: Lucas missed the last three games of 2015, the Senior Bowl and did not test at the NFL Combine after undergoing shoulder surgery last November. That made Penn State Pro Day critical for him.

He responded in a big way. Lucas ran a 4.45 40-yard dash, a 4.21 pro shuttle and 6.64 cone drill. His vertical was 38 inches and his broad jump an impressive 10-10. The strong numbers were important because, after playing safety last season, the 6-foot, 203-pounder believes he will be a better fit at corner in the NFL.

But what do pro scouts think? Lucas should be served well by the fact that he was a three-year starter for the Lions, two at corner and one at safety. He was terrific in run support, finishing with 180 tackles, 117 of them solo stops. He even had 11 tackles for loss and four sacks.

However, for someone who sees himself as a pro corner, he only had three career interceptions (none in the last two seasons) and broke up a total of 12 passes in 2014 and ’15.

PREDICTION: Had Lucas not been injured, we could have seen him as a solid mid-round pick — perhaps like Adrian Amos (fifth round) last year. The big Pro Day will help him. But there still have to be questions about the shoulder. This could be a situation where Lucas is better off being an undrafted free agent — in which case hell have a host of options — rather than being a seventh-round pick.

FAST FACT: In the last nine NFL Drafts, Amos and Justin King (fourth round, 2008) were the only Nittany Lion DBs selected.

Trevor Williams

Harvey Levine/FOS

THE LOWDOWN: Williams began his PSU career as a receiver in 2012 before becoming a three-year starter at cornerback. He improved in coverage as his career went along. But he never emerged as a playmaker. Williams had five career interceptions and 16 pass breakups. As a senior, he had only one pick and three pass breakups.

Though Williams is not small (5-11, 195), with more and more NFL teams pushing for rangier cornerbacks his size is working against him. However, he had an excellent showing at Penn States Pro Day, with a 4.45 40, 4.19 pro agility, 35.5 vert and 10-5 broad jump.

PREDICTION: We’d imagine Williams will get an invite to a camp based on his Pro Day performance.

FAST FACT: Penn State has had one pure cornerback taken in the last nine NFL Drafts (King to St. Louis in 2008).

Tarow Barney

Harvey Levine/FOS

THE LOWDOWN: Barney was a backup space-eater in 2015, usually spelling Johnson. He had nine tackles, one tackle for loss and half a sack in 2015. So the 6-2, 304-pounder is hanging his hat on a solid Pro Day showing, where he benched 225 31 times and ran a 4.99 40.

PREDICTION: The former junior college transfer will be hoping for a free-agent tryout.

FAST FACT: Penn State has not had a former juco transfer drafted since WR Mike Alexander went to the Los Angeles Rams in the eighth round in 1988.

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