The 2016 NFL draft process is in a critical stage as evaluators scurry to find potential steals in the coming event. While focusing on one team or player, it can be easy to overlook other playmakers. When focusing in on Penn State’s defensive line in 2015, there was clearly a trio of impact defenders among the front four.
The Nittany Lions defense was one of the stingiest in the nation last year. The unit allowed just 21.8 points per game, which ranked as the 26th-lowest amount of all Division 1-A teams. Penn State also had a terrific pass rush, which finished third in the country with 46 sacks.
That type of production is eye-opening because it takes significant talent to amass such a total. The majority of the disruption and production came from the dynamic trio of Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. Those three defensive linemen accounted for 30 sacks.
Projecting talent into the NFL isn’t as easy as reading the stat sheet, but production is one important aspect of it. We’re going to look deeper at each lineman and see why each can be at least a solid NFL player, if not a standout.
Let’s start with the 2015 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Carl Nassib.
One of the biggest storylines of the 2015 college football season was the breakout play of defensive end Carl Nassib. The former walk-on was just 218 pounds as a freshman, and he had never started a single game in high school. His intense dedication in the weight room and personal development paid off with an incredible senior season.
The 6’7”, 272-pounder totaled 15.5 sacks in his first season as a starter. He had just two sacks in his first two years, as he was buried on the depth chart. Amazingly enough, Nassib had more tackles for loss in 2015 with 19.5 than he had total tackles in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Playing in Penn State’s versatile defensive front allowed Nassib to align outside of the offensive tackle at times and also the inside shoulder. His time spent in a creative 4-3 allowed him to show an explosive skill set that will translate to the next level.
His ability to go through or around offensive tackles makes him a tough player to block. He has more length than most defenders and showed strong hands that keep him clean when he must disengage to finish a play. When Nassib has the chance to finish, he’s proven he’s a playmaker.
Maybe even most impressive from Nassib’s season was his ability to create turnovers. He led the NCAA with six forced fumbles.
Projecting Nassib to the NFL, he has a ready-made game despite just one year of extended experience. His hand usage is solid, and he has a good feel for the game. He tends to make plays when his team needs them most.
To maximize his potential, Nassib would be best served in a 3-4 defense that allows him to play in a limited space. His quickness often catches blockers off guard, so keeping him over the tackle won’t expose his lack of elite burst like the best edge-rushers have. But he will need to increase his functional lower body strength before he is ready to start.
As the season wore on, Nassib was exposed to more powerful blockers that controlled him in the run game. We know Nassib will put in the work to be great. If he can add another 15-20 pounds in his lower body, it’ll be just a matter of time until he’s a three-down player.
His draft value is projected to be Round 2, according to CBS Sports. That is where I’d put Nassib, who can be an impactful rotational player until he’s ready for a full-time role. His upside is high, and his rapid development to this point is a significant selling point.
The lone junior of the Penn State defensive line trio is tackle Austin Johnson. The 6’4”, 323-pound one-technique defensive tackle was the key cog for this unit to be successful. Without Johnson demanding double-teams, his teammates wouldn’t have had as much success.
Johnson is thick in his lower body, boasting mammoth thighs and rear end. His power is drawn from his impressive lower body and projects very well to the NFL. He has no size concerns as he makes the transition from college.
The former 3-star recruit wasn’t just eating blocks every play despite the deserved attention. When he had the chance to split a double team or he faced one blocker, he showed great power and surprising speed for someone his size. Johnson finished with 78 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2015.
While Johnson is more of a run defender than pass-rush threat, he is very active and has a terrific motor despite his size. He cleans up sacks effectively, which gives him three-down value. When he’s asked to hold his own at the line of scrimmage, he rarely disappoints.
Teams looking for a reliable man in the middle of their 3-4 or 4-3 front should be interested in Johnson. He has the ability to play either, although he is most experienced lining up between the guard and center. He commands double teams consistently, which is excellent for teams that have quality pass-rushers on the outside that need to be one on one.
The knock on Johnson is that he’s not more of an explosive pass-rusher. This limits his value and is why CBS Sports has a second-round projection for him. He should be a long-term starter with upside to develop into one of the best run-stoppers in the league.
Maybe the most well-known name of the trio is defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. Zettel was the biggest prospect of the bunch from high school, coming to Penn State as a 4-star recruit. His career really took off as a junior in 2014 when he moved from defensive end to tackle.
At 6’4” and 284 pounds, Zettel is very quick to get into the backfield. He is a splash player who disrupts plays as much as he finishes them. While his production could be better, he shines on tape because of his ability to affect plays even without logging a statistic.
Zettel finished his four-year career with 119 tackles, 38 tackles for loss and 20 sacks. The emergence of his two peers may have hurt his 2015 numbers, which were considerably lower than his 2014 totals. Regardless, he stood out as a solid NFL prospect even next to Nassib and Johnson.
His greatest strength is his quickness. Zettel is tremendous against zone offenses because he routinely beats the blocker to the zone. This can single-handedly wreck a zone-running offense and force it to become more one-dimensional. When he’s paired with a solid gap-eater, Zettel can take over the game for stretches.
Although Zettel doesn’t have the lower body strength to be an NFL starter right away, 4-3 defenses should love his ability to produce as a tackle or end in sub-packages. He is too explosive to keep off the field on obvious passing downs, or when facing a zone-running team. His blend of hustle and quickness is very disruptive. As he continues to add mass to his legs, his ability to stop the run should also improve. He must hold up at the line of scrimmage better to ever start in the NFL.
CBS Sports currently has Zettel as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. That seems low for such an explosive rusher, but it does reflect that he has some room to grow before he can start. As a rotational piece, he has the talent to earn meaningful snaps early in his career.
As this group proceeds through the NFL draft process, expect to hear their names as standout performers. Each member of the Penn State defensive trio has the size, athleticism and skill to be a quality NFL player. The fact they’re all coming from the same school is highly impressive and a testament to the recruiting and coaching at the program.
Johnson, Nassib and Zettel all have NFL futures based off their excellent Penn State careers. Their NFL journeys can be very successful if they continue to improve like each did in the past few seasons. Don’t be surprised if this trio helps the Nittany Lions produce the best draft class of any collegiate program in 2016.
All stats used are from Sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.