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Penn State Football: A 'Contract Year' for Barkley, Campbell & Co.

by on June 11, 2017 9:30 PM

James Franklin was talking two months ago about Christian Campbell's final spring as a Nittany Lion.

Campbell arrived in 2014, Franklin's first season at Penn State. Now, the 2017 campaign will be his last.

Campbell played immediately as a freshman, has started three games in his career — one in 2014, three in 2016 — and has contributed extensively over the past two seasons.

Still, in some ways, the potential Campbell brought with him to campus from Phenix City, Ala., has been somewhat unrealized. Two picks, 57 tackles, 10 pass break-ups and a fumble recovery are good. But not great.

With three years under his belt and a big opportunity after starting cornerback John Reid went down with an injury during spring drills and thus will likely be lost for the year, the 2017 season is Campbell's last chance at Penn State. Campbell got things started in the Rose Bowl, making a career-high six tackles.

"He's had the best off-season he's ever had," Franklin said a week before the Blue-White Game. "Christian has always had kind of little issues here or there that have held him out of morning workouts or have held him out of spring or whatever. He's had his most consistent off-season.

"We were kind of making fun of him. We told him that this must have been a contract year for him. It's his last year. He knows he has to capitalize on it. And he's really had a good off-season; we're expecting big things from him.

"He's always been a guy who can run. He's one of the fastest guys on our team. He had to get bigger and stronger. And he's done that. He's played a lot of football for us. We looked at him as a starter for us the last three years. We felt like we had three starters. Obviously, he's going to have more of a significant role this year."

THREE TIERS

Campbell is one of upwards to 15 Nittany Lions for whom the 2017 season will be their last. Or, at least, their final one in a Penn State uniform. And a last chance — save for the invite-only NFL Combine or next spring's Penn State pro day — to make an impression on future football employers. Their work this fall will be on tape that cannot be erased. As far as their futures go, the 15-day stretch of Michigan-Ohio State-Michigan State will be as intense as any career day ever in the BJC.

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Top-tier NFL prospects in their final year for Penn State include safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and tight end Mike Gesicki.

At the next level are offensive linemen Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, in this group instead of tier one largely because both are returning from significant injuries; wide receiver Saaed Blacknall, who has the raw skills of and has shown flashes of brillance equal to predecessors Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin; and Campbell. Wide receiver DeSean Hamilton (38 career starts), who is 19 receptions from breaking Deon Butler's Penn State career record of 179, and cornerback Grant Haley (22), who owns considerable special teams skills, are in their final season at PSU, and possess considerable savvy, maturity and experience that should help in their quest to play at the next level.

The half-dozen seniors remaining need big-time seasons to think about the NFL. In that group are kicker Tyler Davis, who may have the best shot if he shows a bigger leg in 2017 (his career long is 42 yards); defensive linemen Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren and Tyrell Chavis; linebacker Brandon Smith; and safety Troy Apkke.

ONE MORE

You must, of course, add another name to that group:

Saquon Barkley.

Although the Penn State running back has played for only two collegiate seasons, and will be a junior academically and eligibility-wise in 2017, it's been far from "only." He's already run for 2,572 yards, caught 48 passes and scored 30 touchdowns. Barkley is eligible for the NFL draft next spring and — barring injury — is a presumptive, first-round, top-five pick. It is almost a foregone conclusion that this will be Barkley's final season. He is a de facto senior. 

Barkley is the latest in an elite PSU-NFL draft lineage that covers 35 years and over 9,500 yards. Penn State running back forerunner Ki-Jana Carter was the first overall selection in the 1995 draft; Blair Thomas was second overall in 1990; and Curt Warner was third overall in 1983.

So, just as it is for Campbell, the 2017 season is a "contract year" for Barkley and his senior compatriots. For the Nittany Lion superstar back, the stakes are a lot higher, at least dollars-wise.

MAKE OR BREAK SEASON

For a select few of the Nittany Lions, their senior season can make them, ala Carl Nassib. And for others, it could break them, a la Christian Hackenberg. The difference between great and very good can mean millions.

Nassib's senior season at Penn State in 2015 is the stuff of legends. A walk-on defensive end who Bill O'Brien told would never make it, Nassib persevered. In his fifth and final year, he had 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss, was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year and won the Lombardi Trophy Award as the nation's top defensive player. By comparison, in 2014, Nassib had 7.0 tackles. Total.

Talk about a contract year. Nassib took those accolades and stats to the bank in the spring of 2016, after being drafted in the third round by the Cleveland Browns with the 65th pick overall. Nassib subsequently signed a four-year, $3.6 million contract that included a signing bonus of $890,000.

QUARTERBUCKS

Hackenberg did a bit better. But not nearly as much as anyone would have expected — and Hackenberg himself had hoped — after a sterling freshman year as the Nittany Lions' quarterback in 2013.

Frustrating seasons in 2014 and '15 landed him with the New York Jets in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. He was the 51st pick overall and the fourth QB taken. Hackenberg signed a four-year, $4.6 million contract with the Jets, including a $1.6 million signing bonus and $2.2 million of it was guaranteed.

Good coin, of course. But by contrast, here are the deals of the three quarterbacks taken ahead of Hackenberg in the 2016 draft:

Jared Goff, first round, 1st overall, L.A. Rams —  four-year, $27.9 million contract, including an $18.5 million signing bonus, with $27.5 million of it guaranteed.

Carson Wentz, first round, 2nd overall, Philadelphia Eagles —  four-year, $26.7 million contract, including a $17.6 million signing bonus, with $26 million of it guaranteed.

Paxton Lynch, first round, 26th overall, Denver Broncos — four-year, $9.5 million contract, including a $5 million signing bonus, with $7.8 million of it guaranteed.

Take note, Saquon.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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