Penn State's NFL Rookies How Will They Perform?

With five upper-echelon players hearing their names called on draft day back in early May, Penn State’s 2016 crop of NFL rookies might be its strongest in recent memory – at least on paper. We’re still weeks away from training camp, and months from the start of the 2016 NFL regular season, so it’s anyone’s guess how well each rookie will perform in his respective situation. But that’s never stopped us from trying our hand at predicting, now has it? Take a look at our breakdown of each player’s individual fit, and how he might project at the NFL level.

QB Christian Hackenberg, NY Jets

The semantics of New York’s selection of Hackenberg are obvious; the record-holding Nittany Lion signal-caller has been tabbed as New York’s quarterback of the future. But with Ryan Fitzpatrick in contract purgatory, Geno Smith seemingly hitting his ceiling (a low one, at that), and Bryce Petty still years away from being NFL ready thanks to the simplistic offensive system he ran at Baylor, could the Hackenberg era start right off the bat in the Big Apple?

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Presumably, no it won’t. Hackenberg’s physical tools are undeniable, and his tenure at Penn State brought along moments of brilliance, but he’s got ways to go before he sees an NFL field – partially through no fault of his own. Lackluster coaching and horrid offensive line play factored into his stunted development, which is likely the reason the Jets won’t kick the tires on Smith – yet. There’s no telling what will come of Fitzpatrick’s contract situation, so the Jets need to be prepared to fall back on Plan B. As talented as Hackenberg is, he’s not ready to start from Day 1. Give him a year to develop and familiarize himself with the NFL game, and we have a different story. Once the Jets groom Hackenberg, the world (or AFC East, rather) will be his oyster. His offensive line is stout, the receiving corps is headlined by Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and his backfield options remain plentiful. Depending on how many years Matt Forte has left in the tank, Hackenberg will have options abound when it comes to distributing the ball to his playmakers.

Barring injury, fans likely won’t see Hackenberg play a down this year. But in 2017, expect a much different scenario.

DT Austin Johnson, Tennessee Titans

Tennessee is a team on the rise, and its defensive front figures to be one of the more exciting units to watch. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is one of the most feared interior linemen in the league, and Penn State alumnus DaQuan Jones is slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with. With the selection of Johnson, the Titans gift themselves with a high-motor space eater who possesses the ability to stop the run with ease and get to the quarterback on a consistent basis.

With 78 total tackles in 2015, there’s no denying his talent versus the run. But after posting 15 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks, he proved to NFL scouts that if you select him, you get the full package. Johnson won’t be handed a starting job right out of the gate; he figures to battle Al Woods for time at the nose tackle position, where he projects at the NFL level given his relentless pursuit and speed off the snap.

Given Tennessee’s current outlook on the interior line, it’s tough to project Johnson starting from Day 1. He’ll likely be used in a rotational role, but if he starts consistently making plays, newly-minted head coach Mike Mularkey will be forced to supplant Woods with Johnson in the lineup. Depending on when Johnson breaks out, we could see him on a week-to-week basis sooner rather than later.

CB Jordan Lucas, Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins plan on converting Lucas back to cornerback, his natural position. He was quite the safety for the Lions in 2015, but his calling is at corner, and he has a chance to make Dolphins’ brass very happy with their late round selection. Lucas does it all: He hits, he’s relentless when the ball is in the air, he can cover anybody, and he’s quick-twitched. Statistics can be deceiving, and that notion rings true with Lucas. Though he doesn’t stand out in the sexy-stat category (three career interceptions), he finished his tenure in Happy Valley with 25 passes defended, and with 181 total tackles.

He gives everything he’s got, so expect Lucas to play a key role as a gunner on special teams as he battles the likes of Tony Lippett, Xavien Howard, and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for time at slot cornerback. The reason Lucas has a chance to best all of them could be his nose for the ball – in the air or on the ground. It’s a rarity to find cornerbacks who embrace the art of tackling, and the Dolphins scored one of those players. Lucas could carve himself a role as the team’s No. 4 or No. 5 corner, but as he improves, expect to see him contend for the coveted No. 3 role, where he could fully utilize his talents playing inside someone like Byron Maxwell, who patrols his island on the outside. At 6-foot, roughly 200 pounds, he’s the ideal combination of height and speed teams covet on the inside, and with some development, it could be his job for the taking. I estimate he’ll be in that role by year two or three at the latest.

DE/DT Carl Nassib, Cleveland Browns

After Cleveland front office members indicated that they want Nassib to put on weight and slide to defensive tackle, it’s anyone’s guess how his time in Cleveland will be spent. My initial guess was that he’d be used similarly to how the Browns utilize Paul Kruger: play him as a DE/pass-rushing LB and allow him free reign to rush the quarterback. Whether or not Nassib’s one year of record-breaking production was a byproduct of his reliance on raw talent and speed instead of pure technique is still up for debate. Former Penn State great Aaron Maybin burst onto the scene after a dominant year rushing the passer, but soon flamed out of the NFL after struggling to find a fit.

Upon studying Nassib, I struggle with the notion that his production was purely based on talent alone. Sure, he had his down moments, but given the opportunity, he shined brighter than most defensive linemen in the country. For those skeptical of his NFL future, consider this. Nassib finished with eight total tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks against an Ohio State team loaded with NFL talent. If he was able to penetrate that offensive line, something tells me he’s got the ability to replicate those performances in a similar capacity at the NFL level.

Nassib needs polishing, no doubt, and if the Browns do end up converting Nassib, his ascension toward the top of the depth chart may take more time than expected. Regardless, talent is talent, and if he can rack up sacks and prove his worth, he’ll see plenty of snaps. Expect Nassib to operate in a rotational capacity for his first few years in Cleveland.

DE/DT Anthony Zettel, Detroit Lions

I personally love the fit for Zettel in Detroit. He’s in a 4-3 defensive scheme, and while he has a number of teammates he needs to beat out for playing time, he’s got one of the best in the business to learn from. With Haloti Ngata at the top of the depth chart, Zettel has the opportunity to learn from him as he hones his craft along the interior of Detroit’s line. This isn’t the first time Zettel hasn’t been expected of much; he struggled to see the field during his first couple of seasons consistently in Happy Valley before bursting onto the scene in 2014. With A’Shawn Robinson -- whom the Lions drafted high in the second round – primed to assume an aggressive, pass-rushing role playing opposite Ngata, Zettel will be forced to make his own luck and force coaches to recognize his skill. I’ve never seen a player with a higher motor, and if Zettel can fully grasp the nuances of playing inside at the NFL level, the sky is the limit for him.

He’ll likely earn opportunities along the inside as well as defensive end. He may not meet the NFL’s weight criteria for defensive tackles, you simply can’t teach innate hustle and effort. Zettel has plenty of both, and complemented by his vast array of pass-rushing moves, he could blossom into a diamond in the rough for the Lions. He likely won’t play much in his first season, but that can change in an instant with injury or a surge in production.  

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