Penn State's Potential NFL Draft Early Entrants

By Matthew Filipovits on December 16, 2019 at 8:49 am
Oct 19, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KJ Hamler (1) runs with the ball after a catch for a touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions already have answers on several key player's NFL Draft decisions. Pat Freiermuth, Michal Menet, and Will Fries have all opted to stay for another year, while Yetur Gross-Matos will forgo his senior season.

Let's take a look at some of Penn State's other players who could declare for the Draft and what their decisions would mean for the Nittany Lions.

KJ Hamler

Hamler has been one of the most exciting players in the country for the past two years, so you know the NFL has had its eyes on him for some time now. The redshirt sophomore was Penn State's leading receiver the previous two seasons, but truly became the focal point of the Nittany Lion offense this year.

Hamler's departure would be a big blow for Penn State's receiving corps, making Jahan Dotson the only returning receiver to register more than seven catches this season. Justin Shorter could still take his name out of the transfer portal as well and return to Penn State, giving the Nittany Lions a huge boost. That seems unlikely at the moment, however.

There's a lot for NFL scouts to like about Hamler's game. He has blazing speed, making him a threat to rip off a big play anytime he touches the ball. He can line up in the slot or out wide, and has shown he's willing to get the job done as a blocker. Also an electric returner, Hamler can make an impact in more ways than one. 

This is a very deep draft class for receivers, so Hamler could fall a bit lower than he would in most years. However, there's not too much for the 20-year-old to show that NFL teams don't already know. At 5'9, 176 lbs, he's probably not going to get much bigger and guys his size often have short shelf lives in this sport. While it's certainly realistic for him to return for another run, it's easy to see the allure of the NFL being too much to pass up.

Declaration Likelihood: 4/5

Shaka Toney

In his first season as a starter, Toney changed the narrative that he was just a pass-rush specialist. The defensive end put his newly bulked-up body to good use, becoming a much more complete defensive end.

Toney, along with Gross-Matos, led all Penn State defensive linemen with 39 total tackles. He racked up eight tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks. He also registered five quarterback hurries, and one blocked kick.

The Nittany Lions have recruited defensive end as well as any other position, so they are stocked with young, albeit unproven talent. Losing three starters on the defensive line would be tough to overcome, but guys like Shane Simmons and Jayson Oweh have patiently waited for their breakout seasons.

Toney has all the physical tools to make an impact at the next level, but he probably doesn't have enough on film for scouts to fall in love with him. Staying one more season could do wonders for his draft and guarantee his spot as an early-round pick.

Declaration Likelihood: 2/5

Lamont wade

A former five-star prospect, Lamont Wade emerged as one of the best safeties in the conference this season, playing a remarkably physical brand of football.

Wade showed a lot of flexibility, coming up and playing the Star role in obvious passing situations. His corner background made him an asset in pass coverage, but it was his tackling ability that really jumped out. His 64 tackles were good for fourth-most on the team this season, while adding in 4.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. 

Losing Wade would be a big blow for a Penn State secondary already losing two starters (John Reid, Garrett Taylor) to graduation. Jaquan Brisker and Jonathan Sutherland would take over as starters, but Tyler Rudolph and JUCO transfer Ji'Ayir Brown would be the only non-true freshman scholarship safeties behind them.

Although he is on the smaller side, Wade's physicality and flexibility should be enough for him to be on the NFL's radar. Some recent social media posts seem to imply he's leaning towards coming back for his senior season, which should only help his draft stock. 

Declaration Likelihood: 2/5

Tariq Castro-Fields

Castro-Fields has been a key cog of Penn State's secondary for three years, but 2019 was first season as a starter.

TCF led the Nittany Lions with eight pass breakups, and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. He led all corners with 48 tackles, including three tackles for loss. He played his best football early in the season, before suffering an undisclosed injury. He never really looked the same, shouldering a lesser workload as a result.

The Nittany Lions have loaded the cornerback room with young talent, made evident by the two true freshmen who had their redshirts burned this season. Donovan Johnson has looked excellent but just hasn't been able to stay healthy. Rising redshirt sophomore Trent Gordon would give Penn State at least four game-ready corners should Castro-Fields opt to go pro.

Had Casto-Fields stayed healthy, this decision would be a lot clearer. He has the talent to make an impact at the next level, but he needs a fully healthy season to guarantee his name gets called. Showing his body is back at 100 percent would alleviant a lot of concerns and give scouts a more clear picture of what kind of player he can be.

Declaration Likelihood: 1/5

Underclassman have until January 20 to declare for the NFL Draft.

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