While they don’t have the conference and national success to match, the Penn State Nittany Lions enter the 2023 NFL Draft cycle with one of the more reliable producers of NFL talent. Players like Odafe Oweh, Micah Parsons, Jahan Dotson, and Arnold Ebiketie have all breached the early rounds in recent years. Who’s on track to carry forth the trend in the 2023 cycle?
Penn State prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions lost a notable amount of talent to the 2022 NFL Draft. But Penn State has rarely delayed in the face of losses. Penn State has managed to sustain a steady influx of talent with recruiting and athletic development. Those processes project to reward the Nittany Lions — and NFL teams — once again in 2022 and beyond.
Sean Clifford, QB
If it feels like Sean Clifford has been with the Nittany Lions for half a decade, it’s because he has. Clifford first suited up for Penn State in 2018, and from 2019 onward, he’s been the team’s full-time starter.
Five-star recruit Drew Allar creates some pressure behind Clifford, but it’s more likely that Franklin sticks with the sixth-year senior in the starting lineup. Clifford has been a decent starter for Penn State, but nothing more than that. He’s a good college QB with a fairly limited NFL projection, yet his experience may be coveted in a backup role.
Keyvone Lee, RB
With Noah Cain having transferred to LSU, there’s a demand for a new lead back in Penn State’s RB room. The Nittany Lions haven’t had as much stability since the days of Saquon Barkley, but perhaps Keyvone Lee can help change that.
Lee may not get a workhorse share of the reps with highly-rated recruit Nicholas Singleton entering the conversation. Nevertheless, he does have nice early-down ability with his 6’0″, 234-pound frame. That said, if Lee is to declare early, he’ll need a standout season.
Parker Washington, WR
The loss of Dotson no doubt stings for the Penn State offense. But in Parker Washington, the Nittany Lions have a potential star in the making to replace him.
Washington is an exciting prospect in his own right. He might not have the top-end speed that Dotson did, but he’s still very explosive. And at 5’10”, 212 pounds, Washington has an incredibly dense frame, which he can use to withstand contact and rack up run-after-catch yards. Add in his exceptional timing and body control at the catch point, and Washington’s primed to break out. If all goes well, he could be an early-round 2023 NFL Draft pick.
Mitchell Tinsley, WR
Mitchell Tinsley was one of the more high-profile transfers in the most recent offseason cycle. After racking up 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns on 87 catches with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2021, Tinsley hit the transfer portal, where he eventually landed with Penn State.
Taking Dotson’s No. 5 jersey, Tinsley is already expected to be a major contributor in 2022. Listed at 6’1″, 203 pounds, he doesn’t have elite burst or athleticism. But his contact balance, catching instincts, and run-after-catch ability all make him a worthwhile watch.
Brenton Strange, TE
One prospect who might help fill out the depth of the 2023 NFL Draft tight end class is Brenton Strange. Listed at 6’3″, 248 pounds, Strange has enough size to outmatch defensive backs at the catch point, and he’s also a decent athlete in the open field. Strange was a modest producer last season, catching 20 passes for 225 yards and three scores. But with the departure of Dotson, he may be relied upon as an extra offensive weapon.
Caedan Wallace, OT
The Nittany Lions’ left tackle from the 2021 season, Rasheed Walker, was drafted on Day 3 of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. In 2023, the team’s right tackle could ultimately follow in his footsteps.
Caedan Wallace has similarly appealing size, standing around 6’5″, 319 pounds. On tape, his frame density and length stand out as valuable assets. He’s not the quickest athlete, but a strong year could help validate his place in a tumultuous OT class.
Hunter Nourzad, OL
The Nittany Lions were active in the transfer portal on the offensive side of the ball. Not only did they add Tinsley, but they also picked up offensive lineman Hunter Nourzad from Cornell.
Nourzad, who stands around 6’3″, 310 pounds, most recently played tackle. However, for the Nittany Lions, he’s projected to factor in on the interior. Nourzad was a second-team FCS All-American for Cornell in 2021, so there’s hope that he can provide stability at an important position for Penn State.
PJ Mustipher, DT
Months removed from a season-ending knee injury in October that required surgery, PJ Mustipher is working his way back to 100%. He’s on track to be good to go by the start of the season, but he hasn’t been idle in the meantime.
Always an active leader on the sidelines, the 6’4″, 329-pound defensive lineman stays present and focused. Soon, he’ll be able to reap the benefits of that focus with a final season. A formidable interior presence, Mustipher can be hard to move, and he frees up other teammates with his strength and size.
Coziah Izzard, DT
Being a redshirt sophomore, it’s not entirely likely that Coziah Izzard hits the NFL draft circuit in 2023. But Izzard is at least a player to keep in the memory banks. Listed at 6’3″, 296 pounds, he has a stout frame and flashes great explosiveness off the line. That explosiveness is only confirmed by the 34.8″ vertical jump he registered out of high school.
Izzard still has a lot of room to grow; his hand usage isn’t consistent, and he can get stronger. But that first step alone gives him great potential.
Adisa Isaac, EDGE
You won’t hear anyone in Happy Valley complaining about the impact that Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa had for the Penn State defense in 2021. But it was supposed to be Ebiketie, Luketa, and Adisa Isaac. Isaac was expected to take the next step in 2021, but unfortunately, an Achilles tear in the offseason put those plans on hold.
Now, however, Isaac is working his way back, and he’s expected to make a triumphant return in 2021. He’s long, explosive, and bendy — and he has the tools to carry on the NFL tradition of Penn State edge rushers.
Nick Tarburton, EDGE
Simply by demand, Nick Tarburton is worth keeping an eye on in Penn State’s EDGE rotation. After losing both Ebiketie and Luketa to the 2022 NFL Draft, someone needs to step up for the Nittany Lions. And there’s a sense that redshirt senior Tarburton will be given the first chance.
Tarburton has good size and strength at 6’3″, 260 pounds, and that frequently translates in run defense. However, he’s an unproven entity as a pass rusher, and he doesn’t show the same athletic gifts that past Penn State edge rushers have boasted.
Smith Vilbert, EDGE
It’s assumed that Penn State will defer to veterans Tarburton and Isaac to replenish their edge-rushing corps. But don’t count out redshirt junior Smith Vilbert.
Vilbert has an incredibly long frame at 6’6″, 260 pounds, and flashes great initial burst out of his stance on tape. He’s still relatively raw for his experience level, and he doesn’t have much in-game experience to begin with. Nevertheless, his three-sack performance in the bowl game against Arkansas last season opened some eyes.
Curtis Jacobs, LB
He’s not nearly the size-speed freak that the Nittany Lions have produced in recent years with Micah Parsons and Brandon Smith. Still, Curtis Jacobs has merit as a potential 2023 NFL Draft prospect.
He’s a bit undersized, especially compared to his predecessors. Listed at 6’1″, 227 pounds, Jacobs’ frame is visibly light in congestion. But Jacobs frequently makes up for it with his short-area athleticism. In coverage, he can easily match offensive players and clog the passing lane. Jacobs could be more consistent with his run fits, but there’s upside here.
Joey Porter Jr., CB
The son of former All-Pro linebacker Joey Porter Sr., Joey Porter Jr. profiles as one of Penn State’s most exciting prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft. There’s still a sense that Porter’s breakout hasn’t come yet, but he’s been showing promise year in and year out with the Nittany Lions.
Last season, Porter put up 50 tackles, an interception, and four pass deflections. His long 6’2″, 195-pound frame enables him to make plays on the ball, but Porter brings excellent explosiveness as well. He also flashes instincts in zone.
Daequan Hardy, CB
Another name to watch in the Penn State secondary — especially with the departure of Tariq Castro-Fields — is Daequan Hardy. Listed at 5’9″, 182 pounds, Hardy is notably undersized, but he’s flashed playmaking ability. He accounted for two interceptions and six pass deflections in 2021. That number could go up in 2022, assuming he takes on an increased role in his redshirt-junior season.
Ji’Ayir Brown, S
Jaquan Brisker may be gone, but there’s still a playmaker at safety for the Nittany Lions to build their secondary around. Ji’Ayir Brown was even more productive than Brisker in 2021, putting up 73 tackles, six interceptions, five pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble.
At 5’11”, 204 pounds, Brown has great size, and his physical foundation affords him great versatility. He can come downhill and make plays as an enforcer or close on passes and attack the ball in the air.
Keaton Ellis, S
Joining Brown at the safety position will most assuredly be Keaton Ellis, who garnered a great deal of rotational experience throughout the 2021 season. At 190 pounds, Ellis doesn’t quite have the same frame density that players like Brown and Brisker have. But Ellis is a great athlete. He’s light on his feet and offers good closing speed. What’s also appealing is Ellis’ ability to play two-high safety or roll into the slot and play cornerback.
Jonathan Sutherland, S
One more defensive back worth knowing in the Penn State secondary is Jonathan Sutherland. Sutherland is a veteran who’s played at both safety and linebacker spots. At 5’11”, 210 pounds, he can best be classified as a box safety, and he brings coveted urgency in close quarters.
Sutherland has been a team leader for some time in the Penn State locker room. A multi-year captain and willing special teamer, those qualities alone should endear him to NFL teams in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle.