What the Film Shows
Christian Hackenberg is probably the most polarizing quarterback prospect in this draft class, and it’s pretty easy to see why on film. He does a number of things well, just not at an elite level. Hackenberg is composed in the pocket, and displays quality athleticism, though nobody should confuse him as a designed runner. He gets the ball out quickly once he decides where it’s going, especially on three-step drops. The football explodes out of his arm when he delivers it, showing above-average strength there. He is also great in the play-action game. As a pure passer, he trusts his playmakers, throwing quality jump balls in the red-zone and down the field.
The Mr. Hyde side of Hackenberg can make him look pedestrian at times though, starting with his accuracy. He is erratic on throws, and needs to be more consistent at the next level. A lot of that looks to be the result of footwork that can go dead out of the shotgun, and a lack of balance at other times. He takes a ton of sacks, which I think is partially to blame on the Penn State offensive line, but he also seems to lock up sometimes when his top receiver is covered. His general feel for the pass-rush is inconsistent as well.
What His Numbers Say
Here are Hackenberg’s career passing numbers courtesy of Sports Reference:
And here is his final season statistics broken down by week, along with the Football Outsiders S&P+ pass defense ranking of the opponent:
|San Diego State||52||21||35||60||296||3||0||159.3|
The first thing that should jump out to you statistically is that his freshman season was the best year of his college career. We can speculate as to why he never got any better, at least with regards to the numbers. Hackenberg spent his freshman season being coached by Bill O’Brien, who is currently the head coach of the Houston Texans. When he left for the pros, Penn State replaced O’Brien with James Franklin, formerly of Vanderbilt.
While I think Franklin is a good college coach, he brought along with him a system that was not friendly for a perhaps elite signal-caller like Hackenberg: lot’s of wildcat, plays with Hackenberg not on the field, loads of screens and simple reads. In other words, it is possible that what stunted his development was coaching, though I’m sure there were some other contributing factors as well. This is just something I like to keep in the back of my mind with regards to the incoming rookie.
The statistics also reflect a lot of that same inconsistency seen on film. Hackenberg played a rather tough schedule, especially down the stretch, and performed with no real semblance of predictability. For instance, he struggled with a terrible Rutgers defense, but then later in the year had probably his best game against an Illinois team ranked 17th in S&P+ pass defense.
Player Comparison: Eli Manning
To be clear here, I’m not saying Hackenberg is going to go out and win two Super Bowls. What I am saying is that Eli Manning and Hackenberg were very similar prospects at this juncture of their respective college careers. Check out their junior years side-by-side.
As you can see, outside of the obvious gap in attempts, the two were remarkably similar in terms of efficiency and quarterback rating. Manning also had (has) a huge penchant for being brilliant at times, and remarkably pedestrian at others, while possessing a terrific set of tools. Manning obviously returned for what ended up being a terrific senior season, and had an elite last name, so he wound up being the top pick in the 2004 draft. Hackenberg is going pro, so we will see where he ends up and if he can have the same kind of fortune Manning did.
Ideal Landing Spot: Texans
Call me cliche, but I think it would be incredible for Hackenberg to reunite with his former college coach. O’Brien got the best out of him as a freshman in the B1G, and could do the same as a rookie in the NFL. The Texans are starving for a quarterback upgrade, and O’Brien is one of the best coaches for the position in pro football. Armed with elite wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Hackenberg would be in a great position to succeed as a rookie and long term. Whether it’s at pick 22 overall (unlikely) or in the second round (more likely), Houston will have a great shot at nabbing the former projected top pick.
The corollary to this is that I think if Houston has multiple chances to select Hackenberg in the draft, but DON’T pull the trigger, that could be a serious bad omen about his future. That would tell me O’Brien, the coach who has been the closest to Hackenberg out of all 32 in the NFL, does not think he can get it done as a professional starter. Throw up the red flag in that case.
Current 2QB Fantasy Rookie Draft Projection: 2nd Round (Late 3rd Round in 1QB)
By virtue of having a wide range of draft outcomes (anywhere from late-first round to third-round would not surprise me), it is hard to nail down exactly where Hackenberg might go in rookie drafts. However, I think given his natural talent and easily recognizable profile, there is probably going to be someone willing to gamble on him in the second round in 2QB leagues. Exactly how high probably is determined by landing spot and how high he goes in the actual draft. I would not fault anyone for taking Hackenberg as early as the 2.01 should he wind up in Houston with one of their first couple of picks, but a team like the Rams would probably be much less enticing.
I went into my film study of Hackenberg expecting to be disappointed, having tracked him statistically throughout his college career. I came away impressed though, and it would seem to me Hackenberg is a classic case where the statistics probably do not tell the entire story. He has gone, for me personally, from someone I wasn’t even looking at, to one of the most intriguing quarterbacks of the draft. He could absolutely end up having a terrific pro career.
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