Penn State didn’t have the banner season some were expecting in 2015, but it did excel in one area during this spring’s NFL Draft. Three Nittany Lions from the defensive front went in the first six rounds, although the big headline from the weekend was the selection of a much more polarizing player in quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
In April’s draft, the Big Ten churned out 47 draft picks through the seven rounds. That still trailed the SEC’s 51, but it beat out every other league and topped the previous year’s total by 12.
RELATED: Ohio State draft breakdown
This is the second part of a series that takes a look at the Big Ten’s draft picks and how they might fit in early on with their NFL teams.
Tuesday we continue with the Nittany Lions:
Penn State — 5 draft picks
Round 2, Pick 12: Austin Johnson, NT, Tennessee Titans — Penn State’s defensive front was the strength of its team last year and it showed up in the draft. Johnson was the Nittany Lions’ premier run defender and will now head to the Titans to work his way into a nose tackle role, the only one his 6-foot-4, 314-pound frame is really fit for in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme. He’ll compete with similarly sized incumbent starter Al Woods, but the path seems to be there for Johnson if he can translate his strength and power to the two-gapping principles LeBeau loves to employ. He’ll also need to continue building his pass rush — he went from one sack as a redshirt sophomore to 6.5 last season — in order to eventually be a three-down player.
Round 2, Pick 20: Christian Hackenberg, QB, New York Jets — Hackenberg might have been the most overdrafted player following a messy three-year starting career that showed little progress, but in a quarterback-driven league, teams fall in love with players with his natural size (6 feet 4, 223 pounds) and arm strength. He’ll now head to New York, which isn’t exactly an environment of patience. The Jets seem content on developing him nonetheless, which could come down to their ability to bring back 33-year-old incumbent starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, something they’ve wrestled all offseason to do. If they can’t, coach Todd Bowles has declared he’ll roll with former starter Geno Smith and 2015 fourth-round pick Bryce Petty before Hackenberg. Still, the leash likely won’t be too long if those guys struggle, given New York’s hopes of contending this season. Hackenberg will need to get a quick jump on improving his field vision and decision-making, as he completed just 53.5 percent of his passes last season. It won’t be an easy task with a much deeper playbook in the NFL, but it if he can, the reward is big, as he’d get to throw to one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.
Round 3, Pick 2: Carl Nassib, DE, Cleveland Browns — Nassib was the ultimate one-year wonder at Penn State, not starting until his senior year and then pouring in a nation-best 15.5 sacks to go along with 19.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles. The lopsided production made him a wild-card for NFL teams, dropping an otherwise perfectly measured defensive end prospect to the third round. In Cleveland, he’ll find a long rebuild suited for his own needs to continue developing pass-rush moves and play recognition. But at 6-foot-7 and 277 pounds, his potential as a 3-4 defensive end is high.
Round 6, Pick 27: Anthony Zettel, DT, Detroit Lions — Like the other Penn State defensive linemen, Zettel wins with a relentless motor, which entices teams looking for roster fillers and special teamers late in the draft. That landed him in Detroit, where his lacking size (6-foot-4 and 273 pounds) and arm length will severely limit his chances of starting in the league. However, his production, effort and technique should give him a chance at a role in the Lions’ 4-3 scheme, and learning behind a long-time run-stuffer like five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata should be a welcomed opportunity.
Round 6, Pick 29: Jordan Lucas, SS, Miami Dolphins — Bill O’Brien’s first commit, Lucas did a little of everything in a long career at Penn State, including performing as a man-cover cornerback and a sticking safety before his senior year was cut short with a shoulder injury. Lucas’ timed speed (4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash) helped him get drafted, but he hasn’t shown a wow factor in chasing receivers or making plays on the ball. He’s6-foot though, which can be an intriguing match for his cover skills. Lucas’ best long-term option might be to work into a nickel role that can combine his best traits as a corner and safety, but like many sixth-round picks, his path to making the roster will run through what he can provide early on special teams.