The first of Penn State’s potential post-Rose Bowl defections to the NFL has occurred. Junior defensive end Garrett Sickels announced Wednesday that he will skip his senior season and enter the 2017 NFL Draft.
With Sickels opting into the draft, Penn State will have to replace both of its starting defensive ends in 2017. Evan Schwan is a fifth-year senior and has exhausted his eligibility.
It also means the Nittany Lions will need to replace their top two pass rushers. Sickels and Schwan tied for the team lead with six sacks each. Senior linebacker Brandon Bell, who was fourth with four sacks, will also be gone.
Penn State’s pass rush was a key component to its defensive success this season. Despite losing three defensive linemen to the 2016 draft, the Nittany Lions finished second in the Big Ten with 40 sacks, six behind Michigan.
The defense was 50th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game and 44th in quarterback rating against, but its ability to get to the quarterback and create negative plays helped negate some of that for opposing offenses.
Penn State will be more prepared at the beginning of the 2017 season to replace Schwan and Sickels than they were this season trying to replace Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. The Nittany Lions often played nine or 10 defensive linemen in games, and 10 linemen were in on at least one sack.
Who are the top candidates to replace Sickels and Schawn? Here’s a few:
Redshirt sophomore Shareef Miller
Shareef Miller had 22 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, he is quick off the snap but could really blossom after another offseason on the team’s weight training program. He had five tackles, including both of his sacks, against Kent State in the season opener.
Redshirt junior Torrence Brown
Torrence Brown started four games this season, twice in place of Schawn and twice in place of Sickels after he was suspended for the first half against Ohio State. Brown had 33 tackles, including six against Pittsburgh in Week 2. He also scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery late in the Indiana game. Listed at 6-foot-3, 257 pounds, he might not have Miller’s upside but he could fill Schawn’s role as a steady defender against the run with some pass-rush skills mixed in.
Redshirt sophomore Ryan Buchholz
Listed at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, Buchholz offers some versatility. He had 16 tackles in 2016, but also three sacks, which was tied for fifth on the team. While Penn State is expected to return its top five defensive tackles from this season, Buchholz could push for more time while lining up inside on passing downs next season.
Redshirt freshman Shane Simmons
Penn State fans who closely follow recruiting probably scrolled past those other three guys searching for Shane Simmons’ name. Simmons was rated the No. 41 player in America in the class of 2016, according to the 247Sports composite. He was also the No. 4 weak-side defensive end and the No. 1 player in the state of Maryland.
Simmons was a star at powerhouse DeMatha Catholic, and might have played as a true freshman in the past couple of seasons when there wasn’t as much depth available. Penn State redshirted him in 2016, and he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. He could be a wild card in 2017.
So, too, could his classmate, Daniel Joseph, another 4-star prospect. Joseph was also born in Ontario before moving to Chicago.
Given that Penn State played five defensive ends on a consistent basis this season, there should be opportunities for Simmons, Joseph and maybe a true freshman like 2017 4-star commits Yetur Matos from Fredericksburg, Va., or Damion Barber from Harrisburg, Pa., to earn at least a spot in the rotation.
The Nittany Lions certainly would have liked to have Sickels back to anchor the defensive line, but they also have a bunch of intriguing options to replace him and Schwan.