Last month, the Jets confirmed the signing of former Packers defensive lineman Mike Pennel, one week after his agent had confirmed the Jets were signing him to a one-year deal.
This concluded an unusual series of events for Pennel who was reinstated at the end of last season after having negotiated a ten-game suspension down to four. Having been waived by the Packers during the postseason, Pennel found himself claimed by the Jets. However, as a pending restricted free agent that the Jets opted not to tender, he was back to being an unrestricted free agent until last month's signing was finally completed. One can only assume the Jets claimed him with a view to having the inside track on signing him once free agency began.
The 25-year-old Pennel is listed at 6-foot-4, 332 pounds, and saw plenty of action as a rotational lineman with the Packers over the last three years having gone undrafted out of Colorado State-Pueblo. He started five games, all in 2015, and recorded 40 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.
Pennel started off at Scottsdale CC, recording 71 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and seven sacks over two seasons before joining Arizona State as a much-hyped junior college transfer. Unfortunately, his time with the Sun Devils was short-lived as he got frustrated over a lack of playing time and ended up getting kicked off the team after airing his grievances on twitter. He had recorded just four tackles.
After transferring to Division 2 CSU-Pueblo, Pennel racked up 36 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks. He also added four passes defensed, three hurries, two fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. During the pre-draft process, Pennel was a combine invitee and a potential late round draft choice but went unselected and was signed by the Packers as an undrafted free agent.
After a rookie year where he played in 13 games but did not contribute much, Pennel made strides in his second season, starting five games and recording a career high 25 tackles. However, his development was derailed by a four-game suspension under the substance abuse policy, which caused him to miss the first month of last season. Having returned to the line-up in week five, Pennel contributed well off the bench, only to then receive a second suspension for another substance abuse policy violation.
Initially slated for a 10-game suspension, Pennel decided to appeal and would have faced a one-year ban had he lost. Ultimately, he agreed to accept a reduced four-game suspension, which he served over the last four weeks of the regular season. He would have been eligible to play in the playoffs but the Packers opted not to use him and then cut him loose. The Jets claimed him after the Super Bowl during the postseason waiver period and then signed him to a low-level deal having opted not to offer him a restricted free agent tender.
Let's move onto some more in-depth analysis of what Pennel brings to the table, based on my research and film study.
Pennel obviously is big with good length and has good athleticism. He ran a 5.27 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 2014 and his explosiveness numbers are good for his size. While his agility numbers were below average, college coaches and teammates have praised his agility in the past, noting that he showcases impressive athleticism on the basketball court. On arrival at Arizona State, he was referred to as a “once-in-20 years physical talent”.
Pennel is regarded as strong, although he only registered a modest 23 reps in the bench press at the combine, and he displays that ability on film. Here’s an example of him bursting into the backfield to register a sack in college:
While you might assume that a 330-pounder would instantly be slotted in as a space-stuffing nose tackle, Pennel’s athleticism has enabled him to also play some defensive end. As a rookie, he played mostly at defensive end both in preseason and regular season action, but that may just have been a case of finding what opportunities they could to get him playing time. The Packers seemed to work towards him playing more exclusively on the inside, including some work as a pure nose tackle, but he was still getting plenty of reps at defensive end, even last season.
In college, Pennel also saw some package work on offense, as an extra blocker on the line or in the backfield.
Pennel has faced some questions about his effort levels over the course of his collegiate and pro career, but is regarded as someone who can elevate his play if he buys in. He’s yet to show he can thrive as an every-down type of player as the most snaps he’s played in a regular season game is just 30 and he’s only narrowly surpassed that twice in preseason action.
Pennel’s play against the run has been a developing area for him over the course of his pro career. He displays an ability to move laterally, stand his ground against double teams and generate penetration when single-blocked. Coaches have praised his footwork and how well he uses his hands.
At the point of attack, pad level can be an issue so sometimes he loses leverage. However, when he engages cleanly, he can often drive his man into the backfield and he is effective at holding his ground in short yardage situations.
Here’s a good example of Pennel (#64 at left defensive end) initially rocked by a double team, but then battling back to penetrate and force the runner to redirect. He still escapes for a big gain though:
Since he plays primarily on the interior, the bulk of Pennel’s statistical production will come from bottling up runs so he doesn’t get many chances to make tackles in space. However, he has displayed this ability at times. He has the reach and arm strength to prevent a tackler from breaking away from him, and only missed a couple of tackles since entering the league. He also shows good effort in pursuit, diving to bring down a ball carrier on a few occasions.
Pennel’s power lends itself well to collapsing the pocket in pass rush situations, as evidenced by his 10 sacks in college. He’s also recorded one sack in the NFL and another in preseason action. He’s also had several quarterback hits over his first three seasons.
While Pennel’s production is primarily generated by creating a surge as a bull rusher, he also uses his hands well. I saw him use a swim move and a spin move to get off his block and generate pressure, but his most effective move seems to be a bull jerk and he displays good short-area explosion once he disengages from his blocker.
Here’s his only NFL sack to date, as he drives his man back to flush the quarterback from the pocket, disengages and then makes a diving tackle.
With his 6’4” frame, Pennel has the ability to bat down passes at the line. He’s done this once in an NFL game, but had four in his senior year at CSU-Pueblo. Pennel hasn’t dropped into coverage much at the NFL level, just dropping off the line a couple of times in preseason action.
Pennel hasn’t made any significant special teams contributions but has been used on placekicking units, both on the placement protection and kick-rushing units. The Packers have had some issues with blocked kicks while Pennel was on the team, but none of these appeared to be his fault.
Pennel posted a 23 on the Wonderlic test at the scouting combine in 2014 and has been flagged for just two penalties at the NFL level, jumping offside on each occasion. On the field, his vision could be better, as there were a few plays where he penetrated into the backfield and basically ran himself out of a play.
Pennel doesn’t appear to have had any major injury issues at college or since entering the NFL. As a child he reportedly underwent chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer and as a result lost half of one of his kidneys, but it should be stressed that this isn’t something that has affected his career and, if anything, speaks to his toughness.
Pennel seems to have a fun character and is a popular teammate who brings energy to the field. He’ll often get chippy with opposing linemen.
The questions that surrounded his commitment in college after he clashed with coaches and made the controversial comments on twitter seem to have been set aside by the fact he did make it into the NFL as a solid contributor. However, his substance abuse suspensions are also a cause for concern.
Much of what the Jets do on their defensive line will depend on what they do with Sheldon Richardson. If, as anticipated, the Jets trade Richardson around draft time, this will free up more reps along the defensive line. If not, then Pennel will likely find himself competing with the likes of Deon Simon and Steve McLendon for limited opportunities at the nose tackle spot. However, his experience at end gives him a shot at stepping in should there be any injuries.
This seems like one of those classic low-risk, high-reward reclamation projects that a rebuilding team will always strive for. The Jets should continue to be strong on the defensive line anyway, but Pennel has been a good rotational player for the Packers and still perhaps hasn’t reached his full potential.
The current regime hasn’t completed shied away from adding players with off-field issues and they are adding Pennel at a point in his career where he will be well aware that he needs to be on his best behavior. Should Pennel get into any kind of trouble again, the team can likely move on from him without having committed much money or leaving a void on their defensive front.
If he does end up in a battle with McLendon and Simon, that could get interesting. Simon responded well when McLendon got hurt down the stretch last year and the team might be ready to hand him a bigger role, despite the fact part of McLendon’s salary is guaranteed. A motivated Pennel should be a good measuring stick by which to judge this battle and he’ll be ready to grab a role for himself given half a chance.
UP NEXT: We’re going to take a look at edge defender Corey Lemonier, who played briefly for the Jets at the end of last year and was re-signed for the upcoming season.