Christian Hackenberg is kind of a mystery prospect. People either seem to love him as an NFL prospect or dismiss the possibility of him going in the early rounds. His play on the field certainly hasn’t done much to stabilize these arguments either. After a tremendous freshman season which saw him named Big 10 Freshman of the Year, Hackenberg regressed immensely under new head coach James Franklin. So which Hackenberg will NFL teams be getting? Let’s dive in and see.
Christian Hackenberg Bio
College: Penn State
Recruiting Ranking: #13 (#2 QB)
2013 Stats: 231/392 (58.9%), 2955 Yds, 20 TD, 10 INT
2014 Stats: 270/484 (55.8%), 2977 Yds, 12 TD, 15 INT
2015 Stats (through 5 games): 66/125 (52.8%), 824 Yds, 5 TD, 2 INT
Christian Hackenberg committed to Penn State before the Jerry Sandusky scandal and stuck with his commitment despite the turnover in Happy Valley. Fortunately for Hack, Penn State hired Bill O’Brien, a quarterback guru who was the perfect coach to unlock Hack’s talents. He enjoyed a very good freshman season, but lost both O’Brien and stud wide receiver Allen Robinson, a second round draft pick in 2014, in the offseason. Penn State hired James Franklin to replace O’Brien and Hack struggled immensely in his new system. While O’Brien ran a pro-system that took advantage of Hackenberg’s natural arm talent, Franklin’s system relies on short passes that depends on the quarterback making quick decisions. This is something that Hackenberg struggles at, which is why his numbers dropped tremendously in 2014.
Part of the reason why Hackenberg regressed in 2014 is because the offensive line play was terrible. Penn State averaged 3.4 sacks allowed per game (122nd in the nation) and Hack was sacked 44 times on the season. So far, Penn State’s offensive line doesn’t seem to be doing much better. They lost their best player, 2nd round pick Donovan Smith who is now starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Hack has already been sacked 12 times through four games, ten of which came in their season opening loss to Temple. In the clip below, Temple is playing a prevent defense, sends two rushers and still gets the sack.
Similar to Jared Goff, Hackenberg has not had the luxury of being surrounded by blue-chip players in Happy Valley. Obviously, the talent on the offensive line was lacking and Hackenberg lost his favorite target in Allen Robinson last offseason. In 2013, Hack and Robinson connected 97 times, which was 72 times more than his next favorite target. Per SBNation’s Football Study Hall, Hackenberg targeted Robinson 150 times and on 38.8% of his throws. He spread the ball around more in 2014 (#1 WR targeted 138 times, 82 catches, 29% target rate, #2 WR targeted 100 times, 55 catches, 21% target rate), but it was clear that the offense as a whole missed Robinson’s presence on the outside.
This is where scouts and draft analysts start to divide on their opinions of Christian Hackenberg. The believers will point out that he has good NFL size (6-4, 228) and a rocket for an arm. The doubters will say that he lacks pocket presence and his decision making is questionable.
The clip above demonstrates Hackenberg’s good mobility and pocket awareness. With the pocket starting to give, Hackenberg rolls out to his left and fires a laser to his wide receiver across his body for a first down. He keeps his eyes down field and waits to make a play with his arm rather than his legs. Hackenberg’s arm talent is definitely his best trait and something that NFL scouts should be drooling over.
On the flip side, the clip above shows his questionable decision making. On this throw, he doesn’t see the defensive lineman dropping into the flat coverage and tries to get the ball out quick to his receiver, which the lineman easily pulls in for the interception. One of Hack’s biggest flaws is his attempts to force balls into coverage and his inability to see underneath defenders. NFL teams may be able to fix this with time, but it may be something that keeps Hackenberg out of the early rounds.
Physically, Hackenberg is everything that NFL scouts are looking for in a quarterback. He has size, mobility, and arm talent. The mental part of the game is fixable and the best case scenario for Hackenberg may be to sit and learn behind an experienced starter for a year or two. Of course, in a quarterback-driven league this may not be feasible. If Hack is drafted early, and it seems like there’s a good possibility that he will be, he may be forced into starting duties. A team drafting early like the Browns, Jets, or Redskins would force him to start from day one. Meanwhile, the best case scenario would be for him to go to a team like the Cowboys or Saints with an aging but firmly entrenched starter at quarterback to learn behind.
The most intriguing story of this draft season will be if Hackenberg reunites with Bill O’Brien in Houston, similar to the Marcus Mariota-Chip Kelly rumors that floated around last year. While Houston may not be the best case scenario for Hack with a starter not firmly entrenched there, O’Brien was able to get the most out of Hackenberg at Penn State and Hackenberg already knows his offense fairly well. Depending on where the Texans land on the draft board, there’s a good chance you could see Christian Hackenberg being selected by Houston in the late first or early second round in 2016.