2017 NFL Draft May Include a Mixed Bag of Penn Staters: Past, Present and Early Pros
It may be too early to think about the 2017 NFL Draft.
Unless you’re the NFL.
Although the league just completed its 2016 selection process, it will soon forge ahead with its initial evaluations of next fall’s senior collegiate prospects.
And those official preseason reports should begin circulating sometime in June.
Expect among that group Penn State senior linebackers Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White.
Former Nittany Lion wide receiver Geno Lewis, who graduated from PSU and has transferred to Oklahoma for his final year of eligibility, will also be evaluated. Running back Akeel Lynch, who also transferred in the offseason – to the University of Nevada – might also be in the mix.
In addition, two wide receiver teammates that Lewis left behind – true junior Chris Godwin and redshirt senior DaeSean Hamilton – will also be eligible for the 2017 draft. That’s not to say they will turn pro after the 2016 season, but they could.
Of that group, all have a shot at being selected in the 2017 Draft, which will likely be held in Philadelphia at a yet-to-determined date around this time next spring. Here’s a closer look at each, knowing of course that there is another full college season to be played and, in a few cases, injuries that need to be fully mended:
NYEEM WARTMAN-WHITE (6-foot-1, 252 pounds) is a fifth-year player coming off an ACL injury suffered in the 2015 season-opener against Temple. A heady player with 21 career starts at Penn State, he will contend to start at middle linebacker after seeing limited time in spring drills. CBSSports.com has him listed as the No. 17 inside linebacker in the 2017 draft, while WalterFootball.com – run by Penn State grad Walter Cherepinsky – has Wartman-White as the No. 16 outside linebacker, slated to go between the sixth round and signing as a free agent. His prospects hinge greatly on his recovery and his role in Penn State’s defense in 2016, alongside Bell and Jason Cabinda.
BRANDON BELL (6-2, 231) is a true senior, with 22 starts at outside linebacker for Penn State. CBSSports.com has Bell as its No. 22 outside linebacker in next year’s draft. Bell, banged up a great deal last fall, also saw limited practice time in the spring. Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry has this to say about Bell: “The thing about Brandon Bell is that he has tremendous instincts… He does very well out in space. He’s strong, he’s hard to block. Receivers and offensive players on the perimeter find it hard to block him, to get an angle on him. …He’s just very good at diagnosing and reading and cheating at the right time. He’s a very savvy, instinctual player who has been very productive.”
DaeSEAN HAMILTON (6-1, 214) sat out the 2013 season, his first at Penn State, following wrist surgery. So even after the upcoming season, he will have another year’s worth of eligibility remaining. If he wants to use it. Over the past two seasons, he’s made 25 (out of 26) starts and caught 127 passes for 1,479 yards. In 2014, he was the Big Ten’s top receiver, from beginning to end. He’s bulked up over the past several months and will play more in the slot, where his tight route-running skills and new size will be on display. If he has the kind of year that Joe Moorhead’s top receivers typically have in the new O-coordinator’s offense, it’s not difficult to see Hamilton being a pro a year from now.
CHRIS GODWIN (6-1, 208) will likewise be eligible come the 2017 draft, even though he’ll be a true junior next season. Godwin’s progress from 2014 (25 catches, 321 yards) to 2015 (69-1,101 yards per catch) was significant. His ability to win 50-50 balls and be a YAC brute – yards after catches – play well at the next level. Despite just two seasons at the college level, Godwin ranks No. 16 on WalterFootball.com’s big board of wide receivers in the 2017 draft. That puts him in the fourth- to sixth-round range. He’s not quite where Allen Robinson was at this point – he’s two inches shorter and several pounds lighter, to begin with -- but another big season puts him in that conversation. And that’s a very good place to be; after three seasons at Penn State, A-Rob was the 61st pick overall when he was drafted by Jacksonville in the 2014 draft, and he went to the Pro Bowl in 2015.
GENO LEWIS (6-1, 208) hit his high-water mark at Penn State in 2014, when he caught 55 passes for 751 yards and a 13.7-yard average. That sandwiched two seasons that didn’t quite cry NFL potential – 2013 (18 for 234) and 2015 (17-196, 3 TDs), although he did show intriguing glimpses. Now, Lewis is with Oklahoma, part of a very potent passing attack led by Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield that gained over 4,000 yards in 2015. Two of the Sooners’ top four receivers have departed, including Sterling Shepard, a 2016 second-round NFL draft pick who caught 86 passes for 1,288 yards with 11 TDs last season. Lewis will pair with Dede Westbrook, who caught 46 passes for 743 yards (16.2 ave.) and was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. A juco transfer, Westbrook is a senior and ranked No. 35 by CBSSports.com.
Lewis ranks No. 60 among eligible receivers by CBSSports.com, which still lists him as a Penn Stater. Lewis has the raw skills to think NFL, but precise route-running is where he needs to improve. With Lewis, it’s hard not to be reminded of Justin Brown, who transferred form PSU to Oklahoma in 2012. Brown had 73 catches for 1,047 yards in three seasons at Penn State, while in one final year at Oklahoma he caught 73 passes for 879 yards. He subsequently was picked in the sixth round of the 2013 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers; he spent a year on their practice squad and then played eight games the next season, catching 12 passes.
AKEEL LYNCH (5-11, 220) is, at this point, the least likely of this group to get drafted next spring – although a slot as a free agent is not totally out of the question. It all depends on how much he gets the ball this fall at Nevada, and what he does with those opportunities. That includes improving his receiving and blocking skills. CBSSports.com, which still lists Lynch as a Nittany Lion, has him as the No. 21 in the 2017 draft. Lynch left PSU after being squeezed out by Saquon Barkley – who won’t be NFL-eligible until 2018 -- and the impending arrival of Miles Sanders. At Nevada, he’ll have to contend with its leading rusher from 2015, James Butler, who led the team with 1,153 yards and eight TDs on 183 carries, for a 6.3-yard average. Lynch averaged 5 yards per carry and ran for 1,318 yards at Penn State.
OTHER NFL POSSIBILITIES next spring may include senior safety Malik Golden, who is poised for a breakout year. Golden (6-0, 205) is smart, solid, savvy and mature -- and has a countenance that is already NFL-ready. Golden may be more of a free agent-type. That may be the route also taken by long snapper Tyler Yazujian (5-11, 253), a veteran with a good track record – he’s now on scholarship – as well as discernible short and squatty size, and the requisite consistency that comes with the position. Other long-shots might include Brian Gaia (6-3, 286), who can boast longevity (he already has 25 starts) and versatility and pro-quality adaptability (he’s playing center for the first time after being a guard after moving over from defense). A strong season by defensive end Evan Schwan (6-6, 252) and an unbelievable season by Paris Palmer (you can’t teach size: he’s 6-7 and 302) could have them thinking NFL free agency next spring.