It’s unlikely that anyone in the NFL this year has drawn more criticism for not understanding player value than Bill O’Brien, head coach of the Houston Texans. This is perhaps as true of O’Brien in 2020 as it was in 2019, 2018, and certainly back in 2012, 2013 when he was the head coach at Penn State.
“He said to me, “Football is really important to me. I’m going to play pro football,” and I said to him, “Are you kidding me? You’re going to play pro football? You need to be concerned about playing at Penn State, forget about pro football.”
That’s a conversation between O’Brien and then-walk-on Carl Nassib, as recounted by O’Brien. Apparently he likes to sit back and reminisce on all the times he was wrong.
By 2015, when that quote was attributed to O’Brien by O’Brien, he was ready to admit his faults. How could he not? At the time, Nassib was leading the NCAA in sacks for the Nittany Lions despite the fact that he couldn’t crack the field for O’Brien as a sophomore in 2013. Replaced by a much more successful James Franklin, who made Nassib a starter in 2015, Penn State grew a monster on their defensive line and he went from walk-on to third round draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
The results for the Cleveland Browns were underwhelming, as results for the Cleveland Browns tend to be, but Nassib posted 12.5 sacks and 25 QB hits with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the last two seasons. The Las Vegas Raiders signed him to a three-year, $25 million contract this offseason, hoping that he’s a lot more like the version we saw under Franklin and a lot less the version we’ve seen under O’Brien or Hue Jackson.
By the time O’Brien was passing over poor player evaluations as motivation, Carl Nassib had already seen his older brother Ryan start three seasons for Syracuse and become a fourth round pick to backup Eli Manning at quarterback. Perhaps that was more of the real motivation he needed and after four years of getting either no run time or only time on special teams, Nassib became a starter on the defense in 2015.
Think again about a non-QB college football player sitting for four years before finally getting his shot in year five. Now consider this too: Nassib didn’t start any games in high school either!
He wasn’t gonna waste it.
In his first start for the Nittany Lions, Nassib posted 2.5 tackles for a loss and one sack against Temple. (Temple’s QB that day: recent XFL star and current Panther P.J. Walker.)
In his second start, Nassib had three sacks, one interception, and two forced fumbles against Buffalo.
In his third start, one sack against Rutgers.
In his fourth start, two sacks and a forced fumble against San Diego State.
In his fifth start, a sack against Army.
(Don’t worry, I’ll stop when I get to a game where he didn’t have a sack.)
In his sixth start, two sacks and two forced fumbles against Indiana.
In his seventh start, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss against undefeated Ohio State, a team with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett at QB, plus Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas.
In his eighth start, two sacks against Maryland.
In his ninth start, a sack against Illinois.
In his tenth and final start, a sack, a forced fumble, and a batted pass against Northwestern.
I didn’t stop because Nassib didn’t stop: 10 games, at least one sack in every game, 15.5 total, 19.5 tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles. Now, Penn State didn’t play against great competition, you can see, but Nassib showed up every week and outside of few exceptions like Ohio State, seemed to be the best player on the field when he was on the field. (When his offense was on the field, Saquon Barkley was on the field. So was Chris Godwin. Penn State went 7-6.)
Unfortunately, Nassib played less than five total snaps against 14th-ranked Michigan and sixth-ranked Michigan State to end the season, and also didn’t play against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl that season. Which, do I really even have to mention that? I think it’s a given because we all remember what happens every year in that classic matchup known as “The TaxSlayer Bowl.” We used to all gather round for the Super Bowl or The Masters or The Masked Singer, but now we all gather round for ... the Tax. Slayer. Bowl.
Nassib would slay no taxes or players that day but he did do enough to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, as well as awards given to the nation’s top defensive end and top lineman or linebacker. He lost the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the nation’s best former walk-on, to Baker Mayfield. (The 2018 winner of that award? Hunter Renfrow.)
After beating up Illinois and Northwestern, it would have been nice to see the nation’s best defensive lineman go up against some of the nation’s best offensive linemen in those final three games, but it didn’t happen. Still Nassib was in pretty good standing for his declaration that he’d become a professional football player some day.
Which is impressive given that he hadn’t started a single football game in his life until maybe eight months before the draft. Now he was the nation’s top defensive linemen, and at a major college program.
At the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, Nassib was tied with DeForest Buckner as the second-tallest defensive lineman at 6’7, behind the 6’8 Shawn Oakman of Baylor. Nassib was leaner than Buckner — 277 lbs to 291 — and that also made him faster in the 40, 3-cone, and shuttle. Considerably faster.
Nassib ran a 4.84 in the 40-yard dash, a 7.27 in the 3-cone, and a 4.37 in the shuttle.
Buckner’s numbers were 5.05, 7.51, and 4.47, respectively.
Joey Bosa, the third overall pick, came in at 6’5, 269, and ran a 4.86/6.89/4.21.
But combine numbers aren’t that important to me. They confirm your biases and then later on when they don’t, you forget them or explain them away. In that same combine, Vernon Butler and D.J. Reader were basically the exact same physical body. They both ran a 5.33, slowest of any defensive linemen. Butler was a first round pick. Reader was a fifth round pick. Butler is fine, Reader is great. Butler signed a two-year, $15 million contract this offseason. Reader signed a four-year, $53 million contract.
Nassib’s senior season at Penn State was great. He went to the Senior Bowl, but didn’t play because of a “minor injury” though he got good marks in practice. Did well at the combine. And he made his way into the conversation as a decent NFL draft prospect.
After seeing the LA Rams trade up and eventually take Jared Goff, the Philadelphia Eagles trade up and eventually take Carson Wentz, followed by Bosa, then Elliott, Nassib could only wait and wonder when he’d officially prove O’Brien wrong.
Buckner went seventh. The Oakland Raiders took Karl Joseph 14th. Butler went 30th. The Cleveland Browns selected defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah 32nd. Chris Jones, another somewhat out of nowhere prospect, went 37th. The player who was right next to Nassib on Penn State’s defensive line, Austin Johnson, went 43rd. The Oakland Raiders took a defensive end, Jihad Ward, 44th. Michael Thomas went 47th. Another Nassib teammate, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, went to the New York Jets at 51. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took kicker Roberto Aguayo 59th.
Then finally as the second pick of the third round, the Browns selected Nassib with the 65th overall pick. By little fault of his own, he’d be a part of one win over the next two seasons.
In his NFL debut, Nassib recorded a sack, two QB hits, and a pass defensed while playing in 70% of the snaps against the Eagles. The next week, he broke his hand.
When Nassib returned in Week 5, he got a QB hit on Tom Brady. Two weeks after that, Nassib had two QB hits and a shared sack against the Cincinnati Bengals. The week after that, three passes defensed against the Jets. But while Nassib was serviceable, especially for a team as bad as Cleveland, the total production was lacking.
Strangely, he had sacks in Week 1 of both 2016 and 2017. He had sacks in Week 17 of both 2016 and 2017. But he only had 1.5 sacks total in between the first and final week of both of those campaigns. Also, three of those four Week 1 and Week 17 games were against the Pittsburgh Steelers and three of his career 5.5 sacks up to that point came in the state of Pennsylvania.
Could Nassib produce anywhere else? We’d find out after the Browns released him in 2018, the same year that he became a financial advising star on Hard Knocks. (Nassib planned to go to medical school after he was done Penn State, if not for all those pesky sacks.)
He was picked up by the Bucs, who were going into the season with Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry at defensive end, with William Gholston and Noah Spence as backups. Five games into the season, Pierre-Paul was looking like a star again, while Curry was fine, putting up 1.5 sacks and four QB hits with three tackles for a loss. But an ankle injury forced Curry to miss games starting in Week 6, opening the door for Nassib.
Up to that point, Nassib was playing between 25% and 43% of the snaps on defense. In his first start, Nassib played in 93% of the snaps and he was facing off against ... the Cleveland Browns.
The quarterback was ... Baker Mayfield.
The right tackle was ... Chris Hubbard. Who is Chris Hubbard? He had spent the previous two seasons as a tackle for ... the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If we all aren’t living in a simulation, then at least maybe Nassib is.
In the second quarter, Nassib batted down a pass intended for Nick Chubb. Soon after, he’d sack Mayfield, forcing a punt as halftime neared. After the Browns tied the game with 2:28 remaining and Tampa kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a would-be winner from 40 as time expired, overtime commenced. Cleveland got the ball first, going 3-and-out. Jameis Winston then picked up gains of 23 and 11 to Godwin and DeSean Jackson, respectively.
Un-respectably but totally in Winston’s wheelhouse, he threw a pick near midfield, giving Mayfield the ball at the Bucs 45 and needing maybe 10 yard for an attempt at a winning field goal.
The Browns had 3rd-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 38, perhaps good enough to give Greg Joseph a shot. No shot was coming, but Nassib was, sacking Mayfield for a loss of seven and forcing a punt. The Bucs got the ball back, then punted, then recovered a muffed punt return by Jabrill Peppers, then watched Jameis get sacked twice — one by Myles Garrett, one by Ogbah — until they were at 3rd-and-29. I recall this only because it’s worth remembering that after a missed 40-yarder and 3rd-and-29, Winston picked up 14 yards to Jackson, then Catanzaro made a game-winner ... from 59.
Assist: Carl Nassib. (And Jabrill Peppers.)
Over his first 35 games, mostly with Cleveland, Carl Nassib posted 5.5 sacks, 13 TFL, and 16 QB hits. Over his first eight games after being named as a starter in the wake of Curry’s injury, Nassib posted 6.5 sacks, seven TFL, and 12 QB hits. He didn’t record a sack in the final two games, but did have three more TFL and another QB hit.
Starting the first seven games of 2018, Nassib posted three sacks, six TFL, and six QB hits, but injured his groin early against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8. He missed two games and upon his return, Nassib saw his play time decrease from 80-90% of the snaps down to 41-56% of the snaps in the last six games of the year. There was also the matter of coaching changes, as the Bucs hired Bruce Arians as the head coach and Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator.
For Bowles, what Nassib could do was fine. But what Shaquill Barrett could do — 19.5 sacks, 37 QB hits, 19 TFL, six forced fumbles — was better. For what Bowles wants. It doesn’t mean that Nassib doesn’t have a ceiling higher than the one that was believed for him by O’Brien. Higher than the one believed for him by Jackson and Gregg Williams. Higher than the one maybe even believed for him by Arians and Bowles.
It’s certainly the ceiling that Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden hope they paid for at $25 million.
While averaging six sacks per year wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for a defensive end, I believe Nassib has proven that he’s capable of more if not for injuries and coaching decisions. In some cases, maybe those decisions were smart. In others, the coaches were Bill O’Brien and Hue Jackson.
The Raiders have another surprising player at defensive end in Maxx Crosby and the 2019 fourth overall pick in Clelin Ferrell, so probable that Nassib finds himself in another situation where he isn’t starting. But successful teams often have depth, especially at pass rusher. Nassib had to work his way up the depth chart at Penn State. He had to fight through being a part of the least-successful coaching regime in NFL history. He had to climb over Vinny Curry only to find himself on the wrong end of Shaq Barrett. So I have little doubt that Nassib has the ability to make a lasting impact on the Raiders.
I’m also encouraged by the fact that Bill O’Brien didn’t sign him.