McGONIGAL: Preview of Penn State football standouts who could get drafted by NFL in 2020
- Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos is a potential first-round 2020 NFL draft pick.
- One source has Steven Gonzalez as the No. 6 guard in the 2020 NFL draft class.
- The same source has Cam Brown rated the No. 14 outside linebacker for 2020.
Mock draft season ended last Thursday — and started again Sunday.
All eyes have shifted to 2020 with the 2019 NFL draft in the books.
With that comes way-too-early mock drafts and player evaluations, some of which will be spot-on and others significantly off. Still, it’s worth assessing, at the very least, who will be in the 2020 draft class. And Penn State — after seeing six players drafted over the weekend — should have a few players hear their names called next year, too.
As far as notable players with expiring eligibility, cornerback John Reid, defensive tackle Robert Windsor, offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez, safety Garrett Taylor and linebackers Cam Brown and Jan Johnson lead the way. And then, of course, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, wideout K.J. Hamler, cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, center Michal Menet, pass-rusher Shaka Toney and offensive tackle Will Fries could leave early.
All 12 of those Nittany Lions could get drafted. Johnson, for example, might be overlooked but had the second-most tackles on the team last year. Windsor could build on his 7.5-sack campaign in 2018. Menet, a former top-30 recruit, could come into his own and maul his way into an easy January decision. And Toney might solidify himself as more than just a sack artist.
But five Nittany Lions stand out when it comes to 2020 draft potential. Let’s take a closer look.
DE Yetur Gross-Matos: Gross-Matos would have to forgo his final year of eligibility at Penn State to declare for the draft in 2020. But if the way-too-early projections hold up, the pass-rusher’s decision ought to be an easy one. Gross-Matos — after a breakout 2018 season featuring 20 tackles for loss (second in Big Ten, ninth nationally) and eight sacks — is a possible first-round pick in 2020.
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound “freak,” per Penn State assistant Sean Spencer, went No. 7 overall to the Arizona Cardinals in a 2020 mock by DraftSite.com. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Eddie Brown projected Gross-Matos to the Los Angeles Rams at No. 30. And both SB Nation and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had him landing in Indianapolis at No. 25. (The draft order, for what it’s worth, is based on Bovada’s Super Bowl odds).
Brugler wrote of Gross-Matos, “He needs to develop more of a plan and expand his bag of tricks, but his draft arrow is pointing north.”
The last time Penn State had a defensive player drafted in the first round was Jared Odrick in 2010. Gross-Matos could end that drought.
OG Steven Gonzalez: Gonzalez almost left Penn State for the 2019 NFL draft with teammates Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates. “I was leaning (toward entering the draft early) most of the time,” Gonzalez said in March. “It came up to the final weeks. ... We just felt like it was the best decision for me to come back.”
But, according to the 29-game starter, there was a compelling case to leave. Gonzalez said his underclassman draft evaluation pegged him as a late Day 2 or early Day 3 selection — essentially, a third- or fourth-round pick. Which was, frankly, a bit surprising to hear at the time. But Gonzalez has a bit to offer.
The No. 6 guard in the 2020 class, per DraftScout.com, stands at 6-foot-4, 349 pounds and is an impressive run blocker. Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders get the credit — most of it deservingly so — but Gonzalez used his frame well to open holes on the interior.
A first-team All-Big Ten selection by Pro Football Focus in 2017, he has the potential to lead Penn State’s offensive line in 2019 and build actual draft hype entering 2020.
LB Cam Brown: Brown was perhaps overshadowed by the Micah Parsons hype train last year. But the rising senior — after already putting together a solid season in 2018 — figures to be the breakout player on Brent Pry’s defense come the fall.
Brown, a front-runner to land the defensive captaincy, had 63 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, six pass breakups, five quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and two sacks last season. His length at 6-foot-5 was a problem both causing disruption in the backfield and getting in passing lanes. In a pass-first NFL, that could be useful.
One would think Brown’s weight (230 pounds) would be an issue at the next level. But that shouldn’t preclude him from being drafted. Utah linebacker Cody Barton (237 pounds), BYU’s Sione Takitaki (238 pounds), Stanford’s Bobby Okereke (239 pounds) and NC State’s Germaine Pratt (240 pounds) all went in the third round of the 2019 draft. None of them have the frame — all either 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 — to fill out like Brown can when put in an NFL weight room.
Brown is the No. 14 outside linebacker in the 2020 class, per DraftScout.com. And he can rise up that list with a do-it-all 2019 season.
CB John Reid: In the 2019 draft, 32 cornerbacks were selected. Oddly enough, Reid is the No. 32 corner in the 2020 pool, per DraftScout.com, making his odds at being drafted — at least right now — rather dicey.
After a rough start to 2018, that ranking is somewhat understandable, too. Getting back in a rhythm from an ACL tear in the spring of 2017, Reid was periodically and obviously hampered by rust.
But Reid’s form prior to his ACL tear was worthy of All-Big Ten consideration. His versatility, on the outside and at nickel, and his cerebral approach make the fifth-year senior an intriguing draft candidate entering his final season at Penn State.
WR K.J. Hamler: Four of the first eight receivers off the board in 2019 were undersized speedsters: Oklahoma’s Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (5-foot-9, 4.33-second 40-yard dash), Georgia’s Mecole Hardman (5-foot-10, 4.33), Ohio State’s Parris Campbell (6-foot, 4.31) and UMass’ Andy Isabella (5-foot-9, 4.31). The pass-happy NFL is looking for big-play burners who can take the top off a defense. And Hamler fits that mold.
Hamler — Penn State’s electrifying slot receiver and kick returner — was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award (most versatile player in college football) in 2018. As a redshirt freshman, he led the Nittany Lions in catches (42) and receiving yards (754). His 26.2 yards per kick return ranked second in the Big Ten and 12th in the country among those with 20 or more attempts.
Now, Sean Clifford will likely run the offense with Trace McSorley gone and Tommy Stevens transferring — and that ought to be a good thing for Hamler. The wideout said in March that he has worked out in camps and showcases with Clifford since the ninth grade. Hamler called the Nittany Lions’ obvious successor “the main reason” why he committed to Penn State in the first place.
Should Ricky Rahne get the ball in his best playmaker’s hands more often than 2018 — Hamler had seven games with three catches or fewer — the speedster’s national recognition could grow. Then Hamler would have a decision to make come January: Return to Penn State, or leave after two productive seasons and possibly become the next Hollywood Brown.