The New York Jets most polarizing selection of the 2016 NFL Draft was unquestionably second round pick (51st overall) Christian Hackenberg, quarterback from Penn State. Why was the pick so unpopular in most post-draft analysis? What did the Jets see that prompted them to use a mid-round draft pick on a quarterback for the second year in a row? Let’s step into the film room and find out…
The Numbers: 6’4, 223 pounds, 9′ hands, 4.78 forty yard dash, 31 inch vertical jump, 32′ arm length, 7.04 second three cone drill, 114 inch broad jump
- 2013: 12 starts, 58.9 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 7.5 yards per attempt, 2,955 passing yards
- 2014: 13 starts, 55.8 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 6.2 yards per attempt, 2,977 passing yards
- 2015: 12 starts, 53.5 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 7.0 yards per attempt, 2,525 passing yards
When it comes to measurables, Hackenberg checks many of the boxes you look for from a physical perspective at the quarterback position. He is a tall, well-built big armed passer who has the ability to make every necessary throw in a NFL playbook. You can not teach arm talent, similar to how you can not teach speed at the receiver, running back or corner position. It is an incredibly valuable base to have for any quarterback prospect, particularly a mid-round one.
The Jets drafted a vertical receiver in the second round last year and they want a quarterback who can take advantage of him and other components of their offense which threaten the intermediate and deep targets of a defense. Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled substantially with this. Hackenberg has the raw skills to push the ball down the field effectively.
This ability lets him take advantage of favorable one on one match-ups for his wide receivers down the field. We saw this most frequently during his freshman year, when he relentlessly funneled the ball to Allen Robinson. The clip below is from last season but demonstrates it well. The Jets are going to build their roster with tall targets on the outside, who are going to ideally help elevate the production of their quarterback.
Hackenberg’s arm strength will not only benefit the offense when attacking down the field. He can drive the ball into tight windows when he stays in rhythm with his footwork. Below you see him work through his progressions on 3rd down before going back to the curl/flat combination frontside to move the chains with a perfectly delivered throw.
Beyond the physical, Hackenberg succeeded in a pro style offense as a freshman. He also regularly demonstrated an ability to diagnose a defense at the line of scrimmage and at times make the proper adjustment and throw. Not many quarterbacks are regularly given the freedom to change plays at the line but Hackenberg showed an ability to handle it and work through full field progressions. The process of him learning the playbook and converting to a NFL offense will not be an uphill climb the way it was/will continue to be for somebody like Bryce Petty, who the Jets took in the 4th round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Where Hackenberg Must Improve
We have all heard the primary reasons for Hackenberg’s decline and generally poor performance over the past two years: a new coaching staff and a bad offensive line. There is some validity in both of those reasons but Hackenberg’s problems went beyond issues that can be attributed to other parts of his team. The primary problems for him throughout his college career were accuracy (he never eclipsed 60% and declined with each passing season, nearly sinking below 50% last year), decision making and poor footwork.
What is concerning is that Hackenberg regularly misses on “gimmes” or the shortest, simplest throws. There are incompletions and turnovers that are a result of poor protection or unimaginative play design but there are far too many misses on plays that have nothing to do with either. These are just poor throws on basic concepts, which should not happen with any notable frequency.
The amount of hits Hackenberg took did clearly have an impact on him. He began to look at the rush often, instead of going through his progressions or holding on to the ball too long, occasionally taking sacks when he did not need to. He also had a bad habit of letting poor plays snowball and impact his performance. There wasn’t enough of a “short memory” on display throughout his struggles.
Hackenberg’s decision making regularly hung his wide receivers out to dry, as they were exposed to hits like this with far too much frequency. As mentioned above, these throws exponentially begin to appear when he struggles early in a game or is under consistent pressure.
Many Jets fans have pointed to this analysis from Brett Kolmann as ironclad proof that Hackenberg is an excellent prospect who was undone by this system around him. It is thorough and compelling analysis but is flawed in some of its praises as accurately pointed out here.
Kollman praises the opponent – Temple – for their “pro-style defense” and notes that because they adjust to Hackenberg changing the play, that factors into the play ultimately failing. He later goes on to show an example of where Hackenberg makes an effective adjustment with a less-advanced defense remaining in their initial set and the offensive play working like a charm as a result.
That’s great, and excellent evidence of Hackenberg’s ability to make a pre-snap read and an appropriate adjustment to the playcall. But the flipside is that in the NFL, all defenses are “pro-style defenses” so here he is merely exploiting a college level defense that isn’t advanced enough to adjust to him changing the play. He won’t get a chance to do that at the pro level, so as advanced as his ability to exploit college defenses is, that won’t help him at the next level.
Where Hackenberg Fits
Hackenberg was not a first round selection in a weak quarterback class for a reason. He is not ready to play this season and the Jets seem to be aware of that. The Jets are likely to initially have him be their third quarterback with a hope to get him on track to play in 2017, although it wouldn’t be shocking if he saw the field late in the season, if they are out of playoff contention.
The Jets are clearly confident in their infrastructure being able to develop and boost the performance of a quarterback. They saw it last year, where Chan Gailey’s system, a productive running game and two excellent receivers helped carry a journeyman with limited physical ability to a 30 touchdown season. With the proper support, the Jets are hoping Hackenberg can exceed what they saw from Fitzpatrick in 2015 because of his superior arm strength and overall physical ability. However, he will need time to be fully broken down and built back up again because right now his mechanics are a mess.
The tape on Hackenberg is ugly. The physical potential is there but substantial accuracy and mechanical issues are difficult to overcome. If everything goes right with his development, Hackenberg can be a Andy Dalton type quarterback with a Jay Cutler type arm who performs well with a strong supporting cast around him. He will not elevate the play of mediocre talent. If his development does not go right, he is stuck with a weak supporting cast or it just doesn’t click for him at this level, Hackenberg is going to look like a poor man’s Rex Grossman. The Jets are rolling the dice here but when you are in quarterback purgatory, sometimes you need to take a gamble.
Photo Credit: NJ.com