By Charlie Campbell
Summary: After a star-crossed collegiate career, Christian Hackenberg is one of the most discussed, debated and scrutinized prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft. He was a top recruit for current Texans head coach Bill O’Brien while at Penn State, and Hackenberg was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year playing for O’Brien in his pro-style offense. With some good talent around him like the Jacksonville Jaguars’ young play-making wide receiver Allen Robinson, Hackenberg completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2013. He also ran for four touchdowns. That season had NFL scouts and executives thinking Hackenberg could become an elite “top of the draft” quarterback prospect.
However as a sophomore and junior, Hackenberg had rough seasons playing for James Franklin. He was misfit in Franklin’s college read-option attack, and the sanctions for the Penn State scandal led to a horrific offensive line that allowed Hackenberg to be sacked over 80 times across those two seasons. In 2014, Hackenberg completed 56 percent of his passes in 2014 for 2,677 yards with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Hackenberg completed 54 percent of his passes in 2015 for 2,525 yards and 16 touchdowns with six interceptions. He had terrible games against Rutgers and Temple, but good outings against Buffalo, San Diego State, Indiana and Illinois. Sources say that Penn State head coach James Franklin beat Hackenberg down and handled him terribly. Team evaluators say that Franklin has a preference for “his guys” and Franklin had a chip on his shoulder against Hackenberg – among others. Teams admire that Hackenberg could have transferred in the face of a lot of adversity for the program, but he stayed committed to trying to help get things headed in the right direction in Happy Valley.
For the NFL, Hackenberg is a difficult evaluation. He has a good arm with size and field vision to work though his progressions. In every game, Hackenberg would make beautiful throws deep downfield into tight windows that beat good coverage. Unfortunately for him, a lot of those impressive throws were dropped by inadequate receivers. Hackenberg has the arm talent to be a dangerous pro quarterback who can make money throws.
There also are a lot of flaws to Hackenberg. His accuracy is inconsistent, and he misses badly on far too many routine completions. Hackenberg has a habit of overthrows on check downs to the flat, while in the pocket, he is a statue who can get rattled by the rush. The steady pass-rushing bearing down on Hackenberg at Penn State caused him to make some bad decisions. That was an issue as a sophomore especially, and he did show improvement at avoiding interceptions as a junior.
At the combine, sources say that Hackenberg had mixed interviews. He did well for teams from an X’s and O’s perspective, plus showed a quality football I.Q. and play recall. The things sources didn’t like was they felt that Hackenberg made too many excuses and passed too much blame elsewhere for some of the troubles over the past two years.
Hackenberg has the physical skill set to be an NFL starter. His best fit would come in a downfield pro-digit offense that lets him throw the ball vertically and to the sideline. It would be best if Hackenberg was paired with a strong running game as he does well throwing off play-action. The West Coast system has a lot of high-percentage quick passes to move the chains, so it might not work well for Hackenberg because of his inaccuracy.
For the 2016 NFL Draft, Hackenberg could go as high as the second round and as low as the fourth round. In speaking with sources, some teams grade Hackenberg on the third day of the 2016 NFL Draft as a fourth-rounder, but others have graded him in Round 3. Even the teams that graded him after the third round expect him to be selected on the second day. Hackenberg could at least be a quality backup and a developmental project who has the skill set and upside to become a good starter.
Player Comparison: Carson Palmer/Brandon Weeden. If things go well for Hackenberg, I think his ceiling would be a Carson Palmer-type quarterback. Palmer is a strong-armed pocket passer who can excel with talent around him. That was Hackenberg as a freshman.
If Hackenberg is a bust, I think he would resemble something like Weeden; a player who struggles with accuracy and lacks mobility. However, both have more natural arm talent.
Perhaps the most likely outcome for Hackenberg’s career is being somewhere in between those extremes, which could be a rather mediocre NFL quarterback and more of a backup-caliber signal-caller.
NFL Matches: Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New York Jets, Buffalo, Dallas and Kansas City
There are a lot of teams in the NFL that are in need of a franchise quarterback. The Browns’ quarterback odyssey looks poised to continue. Hackenberg isn’t good enough for Cleveland’s first- or second-round pick, but he could be in play in the third or fourth round if the Browns take position players in the first two rounds. But, in speaking with sources, it sounds like Cleveland is likely to take North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz.
The 49ers are in the market for a starting quarterback with Colin Kaepernick potentially on his way out of San Francisco. Also in California, the Rams continue to have a big need at quarterback. However, Hackenberg isn’t a good fit for Chip Kelly.
In the early going, Hackenberg appeared destined for Houston, but that was before the Texans signed Brock Osweiler to a big contract. They could still consider Hackenberg in the third or fourth round as a backup to Osweiler. Obviously, Hackenberg is a good fit for Houston’s offense and Bill O’Brien.
The Bills and Jets need a long-term answers at quarterback. Both teams have been scouting the position hard. Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan was the college scouting director for Houston when O’Brien when arrived from Penn State, so Maccagnan heard O’Brien rave about Hackenberg after his freshman season.
Dallas could consider Hackenberg as an understudy to Tony Romo on the second day. The Chiefs also could look for some competition behind Alex Smith.
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