Despite an underwhelming college career, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg still has franchise quarterback potential.
Christian Hackenberg endured one of the most turbulent careers of any college quarterback in the last five seasons. He was the top high school quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class and ranked 15th overall in ESPN’s Top 300. His 6‘4, 212 lb. frame and potential to be a superstar pro-style quarterback excited scouts. Before he even set foot on Penn State’s campus, Hackenberg’s NFL future was as much of a topic as his upcoming collegiate career.
Hackenberg’s commitment to play in Happy Valley came just a few months after the NCAA hammered the school with sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. In the darkest of times for Penn State Football, Hackenberg was the touted savior who was going to help keep the program afloat as it endured its punishment. And many expected former Head Coach Bill O’Brien to groom Hackenberg into a top NFL quarterback during their time together.
Unfortunately for Penn State, Hackenberg’s career never blossomed into what many thought it could be following a promising true freshman season in 2013. The digression began when O’Brien accepted the head coaching position with the Houston Texans and left the Nittany Lions after just two seasons. Current Head Coach James Franklin took over before Hackenberg’s sophomore year but never saw the production that O’Brien did with his quarterback.
|2013 (With O’Brien)||58.9||2955||20||10|
|2014 & 2015 |
*Stats courtesy of ESPN.com
Hackenberg also lost his top receiving target, Allen Robinson, who declared for the NFL Draft a year early following the 2013 season. Robinson caught 97 of Hackenberg’s 231 completions and accounted for nearly half of his quarterback’s passing yards.
Penn State’s offensive line didn’t make Hackenberg’s life any easier. During his sophomore and junior seasons, he was sacked more than 70 times, including an FBS-high 44 times in 2014. In the 2015 season opener against Temple, Hackenberg was dropped 10 times.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZVhow-MP8k
These external factors are only a partial reason for the decrease in Hackenberg’s productivity throughout his career at Penn State. The rest of the blame lies with a frustrating level of inconsistency with his throwing and decision-making.
Hackenberg has spectacular arm strength. However, he will occasionally trust his arm too much and fail to make a proper read before releasing the ball. After nearly three quarters of nonstop pressure from Temple’s pass rush, Hackenberg tried to complete a quick pass to a receiver on the outside but did not see the defensive end who had dropped into pass coverage:
Against Michigan State, Hackenberg had one of his top receivers in single coverage on the outside. The defensive back was not giving up any ground, but a back shoulder throw would have given Penn State’s receiver a better shot at making the catch. Instead, Hackenberg threw it ahead of his man, and the result was an easy interception:
Despite his questionable decision-making, Hackenberg has shown flashes of why he is going to be a great NFL quarterback. For example, he made this long third-down throw look easy by placing the ball perfectly to allow only his receiver to make the catch:
When given time, Hackenberg has proven that he can calmly step up in the pocket. During his freshman season against Syracuse, his line gave him plenty of time to let the routes develop and find a receiver who had beaten the coverage:
But it is throws like these that have haunted Hackenberg since arriving at Penn State:
That inaccuracy is certainly not going to impress any general managers on Draft Day.
Hackenberg is currently 63rd overall in ESPN’s NFL draft rankings, and Todd McShay has him as this year’s fifth-best quarterback prospect. Size and strength remain his most attractive attributes, but his below-average accuracy drops him into the late-second or early-third round. With another year of eligibility remaining, some argue that Hackenberg would be better off returning to Penn State for his senior season to work out some of the kinks that have diminished his draft stock.
But how would Hackenberg improve his accuracy if opposing pass rushers constantly harass him? Penn State’s offensive line ranked 117th out of 128 FBS teams in standard down sack rate (8.6%) in 2015, according to Football Outsiders. The Nittany Lions’ offensive game plan began to include more screens and short passes to compensate for the poor pass protection, but one more year of this is not going to allow Hackenberg to make the improvements he needs to make in order to fulfill his NFL potential.
Hackenberg’s mid-round projection is perfect for a player with his types of flaws. With obvious upside, he as a great investment for a team looking to groom a quarterback for the future. He won’t have the pressure of a high first round pic,k and he will be able to work out his accuracy issues before becoming a starter. In fact, some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks over the last 15 seasons took this exact route.
|First NFL season||First start||Years as a starter|
|Carson Palmer||2003||2004||10 (with CIN, OAK, and ARI)|
Hackenberg will have a chance to improve his draft stock at the NFL Scouting Combine later this month (Feb. 23-29). This will be a chance for him to showcase his arm strength in a controlled environment. More importantly, it will be an opportunity for him to show scouts that his accuracy has improved.
Of course, Hackenberg’s NFL success will depend on whether or not he lands in the right place on draft day. Based on the “draft and develop” career path that seems fit for him, here are a few teams with whom he has the greatest chance to maximize his potential:
This one is obvious. A reunion with Bill O’Brien would reignite the flame that burned during Hackenberg’s most successful college season. The Texans were a playoff team in 2015 and have one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins. However, they used four different starting quarterbacks, none of whom are long-term solutions. This would not necessarily be a situation where Hackenberg would have to wait a few seasons before becoming a starter, but his familiarity with O’Brien’s philosophy would give him an advantage over most rookie quarterbacks.
The Eagles revamped their coaching staff last month and are now in the hands of two former NFL quarterbacks: Head Coach Doug Pederson and Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich. Reich has worked with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Philip Rivers in San Diego, and Pederson comes from the quarterback-friendly coaching tree of Andy Reid. Whether the Sam Bradford returns to Philadelphia next season or not, the Eagles need to consider who their quarterback will be in the near future. This would be a suitable environment for Hackenberg to develop into an NFL starter.
New Orleans Saints:
The seats beneath both Drew Brees and Sean Payton are getting a little warmer after the Saints missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. It does not seem likely that either will be leaving New Orleans in 2016, but another subpar season could result in the end of one of the game’s most successful coach-quarterback duos. Payton was the quarterbacks coach in Dallas when Tony Romo emerged as the Cowboys starter, and he has enjoyed tremendous success with Brees in 10 seasons with the Saints. Brees has a lot to offer and would be a tremendous mentor for Hackenberg.
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Teams with glaring quarterback needs (i.e. Cleveland, St. Louis, etc.) will likely pass on Hackenberg for one of the higher-rated options early in the draft. But there are teams with more complex quarterback needs that may not necessarily become a problem until a few years from now. Hackenberg is the perfect candidate for those squads. He is an NFL prototype who has proven that he can perform in the right system with proper coaching and game planning. By taking a backseat for a few years, he will have a chance to learn the game from some of the NFL’s most gifted players and work through the flaws in his game.
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- Dallas Cowboys
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- New England Patriots
- Houston Texans