Durst’s 2020 NFL Draft: Penn State Preview
As part of Hogs Haven’s pre-draft coverage, since August, I have been previewing one team per week throughout the college football season. Penn State will mark my 20th, and likely my final team preview, before shifting to Senior Bowl coverage and individual prospects.
The Nittany Lions (10-2) finished their regular season ranked No. 10 and will play No. 17 Memphis (12-1) at noon ET on Dec. 28 in the Cotton Bowl.
If you’ve been following the NFL Combine in recent years, you might have noticed many of the Penn State players have been testing like freak shows. Specifically, Chris Godwin, Saquan Barkley, Mike Gesicki, Troy Apke, and Miles Sanders, have all preformed very well at the post-season event, which is a testament to their strength and conditioning program, led by Dwight Galt. Galt’s resume also includes working with Vernon Davis, Shawne Merriman, Torrey Smith, and Darrius Heyward Bey at Maryland.
Penn State had six players drafted each of the past two years, and has averaged 4.2 over the past five years.
While LB Micah Parsons isn’t draft eligible, and both OT Will Fries and TE Pat Freiermuth have announced they will return to school for the 2020 season, there are still plenty of PSU players to get excited about for the upcoming draft.
This year, I watched Penn State play Pittsburgh (BTN in 60), Iowa, Michigan (ESPNU replay), Minnesota (condensed highlights) and Ohio State.
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND PROSPECTS
#99 - Yetur Gross-Matos (Jr.) DE 6-5 / 264.
Gross-Matos came to Happy Valley rated as a four-star prospect by all four major recruiting outlets.
A full time starter as a sophomore, he finished the 2018 season with eight sacks, and 20 tackles for loss.
A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2019, he has already declared for the draft.
Entering his final game, Gross-Matos already has 39 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss, with 8.5 sacks, and 7 QB hurries, despite missing a pair of games due to injuries and suspensions.
Perhaps his most impressive game was against the Buckeyes, when Gross-Matos finished with 9 tackles, including 3.5 TFL with 2 sacks. He also won his match-up with Ohio State LT Thayer Munford, who he beat for a sack, a tackle for a loss, and drew a holding penalty.
Most mock drafts have him going anywhere between the middle of the first round to the early second round in April’s draft.
POSSIBLE DAY TWO (ROUNDS 2-3) PROSPECTS
#1 - KJ Hamler (rSo.) WR/PR 5-9 / 176
The team’s 2019 MVP, Hamler said he will address his decision on if he is going to declare for the draft following the Cotton Bowl.
In high school, KJ led St. Mary’s Prep in Orchard Lake, Michigan to back-to-back state titles as a sophomore and junior, before transferring to Florida’s prestigious IMG Academy for his senior year. There, he sustained a serious knee injury in his first game at IMG, and would not play in another game for two years.
In 2018, Hamler broke the Penn State freshman record for all-purpose yards with 1,417, topping the previous mark of 1,237 set by none other than Saquon Barkley in 2015.
Here, Hamler breaks away from Ohio State’s Shaun Wade and Isaiah Pryor for 93-yard touchdown catch and run during the second quarter on Sept. 29, 2018.
TOUCHDOWN— CFB Kings (@CFBKings) September 30, 2018
93-YARD FOOT RACE WON BY PENN STATE’S KJ HAMLER. pic.twitter.com/oR5rdQjnoM
In their 2019 win over Michigan, Hamler caught six passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, and had this 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown called back because of holding.
Penn State's KJ Hamler ran 100 yards in roughly 11 seconds while returning the 2nd-half kickoff—a play that was called back for holding #MICHvsPSU pic.twitter.com/OSA0xV3C2y— Kevin Boilard (@247KevinBoilard) October 20, 2019
Here is a full highlight video.
Though just a redshirt sophomore, Hamler could decide to forgo his final two seasons of college eligibility and enter the NFL Draft this spring.
#6 - Cam Brown (Sr.) LB 6-5 / 233
Rated a four-star prospect by 247Sports, ESPN and Scout, Brown has started all but one game at outside linebacker since the start of his junior season. After finishing with 63 tackles in 2018, Brown considered leaving early for the NFL, but said he wasn’t satisfied with his career at Penn State. His senior season was his best so far, but was it good enough?
#LBU! Senior captain @Freakyy6ix was an All-B1G third team selection by the coaches & picked up a career-high 69 tackles this season. #WeAre pic.twitter.com/7KBmretqcV— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) December 10, 2019
Often positioned as an overhanging defender, Brown frequently lines up well outside the tackle box, and even out over the slot receiver.
Going into my study, I thought Houston’s Zack Cunningham would be a good comp, but despite ideal athletic traits, there seems like something is missing. While Brown is a senior and two years starter, it’s clear he is not as impactful as true sophomore Micah Parsons.
A Senior Bowl snub, Brown will instead play in the East West Shrine Game. He should perform well in NFL Combine drills and could be a post season riser.
LIKELY DAY THREE (ROUNDS 4-7) PROSPECTS
#74 - Steven Gonzalez (rSr.) G 6-4 / 341
After earring three starts in 2016, Gonzalez has started every game for the Lions the past three seasons. While Gonzalez can be a people mover in the running game, and a large barrier for pass rushers to get around, I feel like he is a notch below Connor McGovern who was the 90th pick in the 2019 draft class.
#18 - Shaka Toney (rJr.) DE 6-3 / 243
Rated as a three-star prospect by all four major recruiting outlets, Toney didn’t start until the 2019, while playing behind Gross-Matos and the since departed Shareef Miller (Rd4, 2019).
While Toney has been a very productive players in his first season as a starter, I am not sure that NFL teams will view him as a better prospect than Miller, who fell outside of the top-100 (Pk#138).
#5 - Tariq Castro-Fields (Jr.) CB 6-0 / 197
Castro-Fields came to Happy Valley rated as a four-star recruit by 247Sports, Rivals and Scout. A true junior, TCF made just three starts prior to the 2019 season, but still led the Big Ten in lowest passer rating allowed during the 2018 season. He mostly played well as a full time starter.
✈️ CB @ayeewonton had 2 INTs & 8 PBUs in 2019, earning himself an All-B1G third team nod.#WeAre pic.twitter.com/b6FRKQHFqN— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) December 11, 2019
There is a lot to like about TCF. In fact, this ranking may be too low. Physically, he is similar to previous PSU corners Amani Oruwariye (Rd5, 2019) and Christian Campbell (Rd6, 2018).
#4 Journey Brown (rSoph.) RB 5-11 / 206
The wildcard on this team could be Journey Brown. With Saquan Barkley and Miles Sanders in the NFL, Penn State split the carries more this season, but Brown emerged as the lead back in 2019.
However, with talented freshman Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, along with sophomore Ricky Slade also in the rotation, Brown’s hold on the starting position could be in doubt. After leading the team in rushing, Brown could decide to strike while the iron is hot. With just 121 career carries makes his draft projection dubious at best.
#54 - Robert Windsor (Gr./Sr.) DT 6-4 / 285
Windsor was an absolute best against Iowa, finishing with 2 1⁄2 tackles for loss, including 1 1⁄2 sacks, plus 2 QB hurries, while also stuffing the Iowas running game.
There was a reason Robert Windsor made the Team of the Week in the B1G. pic.twitter.com/bx7QhCbqwW— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 14, 2019
Unfortunately, that game appeared to be somewhat of an aberration.
An undersized, interior pass rusher, some offensive lineman have found Windsor too much to handle, while against others, he was dominated at the point of attack. At his best, he reminds me slightly of Anthony Zettel (Rd6), but I think Zettel was a better athlete.
#29 - John Reid (rSr.) CB/PR 5-10 / 181
After Reid’s first two years at Penn State, it seemed like he was on the path to greatness, until a knee injury in the spring of 2017, forced him to miss the entire 2017 season.
In 2015, Reid was named to the ESPN All-Freshman team. In 2016, he started all 14 games, and finished third in the conference in punt return average.
After his medical redshirt, Reid returned in 2018, playing in 11 games and finishing 24 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions in the 2018 season.
In 2019, he has 34 tackles, seven pass break-ups, and two picks.
While Tariq Castro-Fields’ traits are probably more similar to Amani Oruwariye and Christian Campbell, Reid is more physically similar to Grant Haley, who went undrafted in 2018.