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2016 NFL Draft: Potential Panthers? The Penn State Defensive Line

In 2015 Penn State had one of the best defensive lines in the country. Defensive end Carl Nassib and DTs Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel combined to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Could any of them help the Panthers?

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the season, there was a buzz about Anthony Zettel, but he quickly became overshadowed by the size and power of Johnson and the stats put up by Nassib.

Nassib is such an amazing story. As the former HS basketball player wasn't even a starter on his high school football team, Nassib walked on at Penn State, as a 218 pounder, but slowly built himself into a 6'7, 272 pound defensive end who is rumored to run a 4.7 second 40 yard dash.

Entering his fifth season, Nassib had yet to start a single game, and had only 18 tackles with a pair of sacks in his entire career. He played for four different coordinators, three head coaches, and two defensive line coaches.

In 2015, Nassib led the nation with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles and finished second with 19.5 tackles for loss. He broke the PSU single-season sack record, despite missing the final three games.

Just when it seemed Nassib had answered any questions about him as a football player, the unanimous All-American is now facing questions from draft analysts.

Draftbreakdown's Joe Marino feels Nassib may be a one year wonder and wrote:

"Despite his 6’7’’ frame, Nassib plays with good pad level, square shoulders and maintains proper outside leverage. My primary concerns go hand-in-hand; a lack of twitch, agility and balance. Nassib’s approach to pass rushing is predictable and lacks the "juice" needed to win in the NFL with the same level of consistency that he did in college. NFL offensive tackles are long-armed and fleet-footed. Without the ability to head fake, shift hips/shoulders, bend and other subtle moves that gain advantages in the NFL, Nassib’s ability to pressure the passer is severely mitigated. When coupled with a lack of balance to play through contact, the fear that Nassib is simply going to be a better college football player than NFL player becomes very real."

After his breakout season in 2014, Anthony Zettel was the most heralded coming into last year. As a junior, Zettel finished second in the Big-Ten in tackles for loss (17), behind only Joey Bosa. He also had eight sacks and three interceptions.  Some saw him as a poor-man's Aaron Donald.

Last summer, Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman listed Penn State DT Anthony Zettel No. 3 on his list of top 25 freaks in college football.

"In addition to being one of the best tackles in the country he is a weight-room beast. He set PSU records in the hang clean (425) and the power clean (390). Zettel can throw a football farther than Christian Hackenberg, drive a golf ball 375 yards, has a 92 mile-per-hour fastball, does mixed-martial-arts training, and holds the Michigan state high-school shot-put record (61-8)."

Zettel's MMA training is apparent, as he uses his powerful hands and quick feet to rip through offensive lines.

Zettel was often overshadowed in 2015 by Johnson and Nassib.  He finished just seventh on the team in tackles (47), and his TFL decreased to 11 with his sacks decreasing from eight to just four. However, what has doubters are most concerned is his size. He was officially measured at 6'4/273 at the East-West Shrine Game.'s Lance Zierlein wrote that Zettel is "missing the necessary sand in his pants to take on double teams or down blocks without being pushed out of the gap."

One may who clearly has enough "sand" is Austin Johnson. Johnson is a huge zero-technique defensive tackle. At 6'4/323, Johnson excels against the run. Despite his size, Johnson is quick enough to shoot gaps and create havoc in the backfield. This past season, he finished with a career-best 78 tackles, with 15 for loss including six 1/2 sacks.

While ESPN's Todd McShay wrote Johnson "showed the ability to anchor against double teams" at the Senior Bowl, not everyone was as impressed.

Bryan Broaddus of Official Dallas Cowboys Team Site wrote Johnson "was a disappointment during one-on-one drills at a practice and showed a lack of activity while rushing the passer which was a strength of his on tape."

While Johnson was a productive pass rusher last season (6.5 sacks), that won't be his strength in the NFL.

Austin Johnson currently is graded as a second-round draft prospect but could use the NFL Combine to showcase his athletic ability and possibly move up to a first-round grade.

While I had seen Penn State on TV twice last season, I wanted to watch them again, and watched the Maryland game a few days ago.

Against Maryland, Zettel had eight tackles, including four solo, with one sack. Johnson had nine tackles, five solo, with one-and-a-half sacks. Nassib had four total tackles, including a pair of sacks. However, Maryland, specifically their quarterback, was able to run on them (241 yards rushing) despite their lack of offensive talent.

Other tidbits from this contest: Maryland DE/LB Yannick Ngakoue had four total tackles, including a pair of sacks, and looked like an NFL pass-rusher. Christian Hackenberg threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns, including many deep passes. PSU CB-turned-safety Jordan Lewis was unimpressive.  Maryland safety-turned-corner Sean Davis had an inconsistent performance. Reminds me of PJ Williams (FSU, Saints).

Zettel is a high-motored relentless disrupter displaying explosion, quickness, strength, agility, and power, but he is undersized. Nassib is the long-limbed pass-rushing giant, who is great in a straight line, but struggles with change of direction. Johnson is a mountain of a man, with the strength to stuff the run, but may have to be substituted for in passing situations. Combined, they formed one of the best defensive lines in the nation, but separated, their flaws may be exposed in the NFL. I have Johnson just outside my top-50, Nassib just outside my top-100, and Zettel as a fifth-round prospect.