From the time he committed to Penn State as a high school quarterback at Fork Union Military Academy, Christian Hackenberg has been hyped as a future No. 1 overall pick.
However, his performance on the field for the Nittany Lions will need to improve significantly in his junior season if he's going to legitimize that hype in the 2016 NFL draft.
A 6’4”, 236-pound, pro-style pocket passer with the arm strength to make any throw on the field and good movement skills for his size, Hackenberg possesses a skill set akin to that of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.
Because of that skill set, many media draft analysts—including Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and ESPN’s Todd McShay—consider Hackenberg to be the best NFL quarterback prospect in the nation heading into the upcoming college football season.
According to ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha, NFL scouts are likewise looking at Hackenberg as a potential top prospect for 2016. At least one AFC scout considers Hackenberg to be “the best talent” in comparison with Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, two of the other quarterbacks being viewed in league circles as potential first-round picks.
Looking beyond Hackenberg’s physical tools and taking a closer look at his film and statistical production, however, makes it look curious that he is receiving so much love so early in the draft process.
In reality, Hackenberg appears to be an overrated prospect who needs to make major strides in his development if he is going to end up being an early first-round pick in 2016.
One of the Nation’s Least Efficient Quarterbacks
Most NFL scouts and draft analysts emphasize physical tools over collegiate production when it comes to evaluating players as potential pros. College statistics are not considered to be accurate predictors of NFL success and are therefore only viewed as a small piece of the puzzle within a draft evaluation.
Hackenberg’s stats from the 2014 season, though, are too awful to ignore.
|Christian Hackenberg's Passing Statistics at Penn State|
Despite ranking ninth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 484 passing attempts last season, Hackenberg only threw 12 touchdown passes, the lowest total among the 40 quarterbacks to throw at least 400 passes at college football’s highest level last season, according to CFB Stats.
On the other side of the equation, Hackenberg was one of just 13 FBS quarterbacks in 2014 to throw 15 or more interceptions. Among the 40 quarterbacks with 400-plus attempts, Hackenberg was one of only four to finish the year with more interceptions than touchdowns.
Hackenberg’s completion rate of 55.8 percent ranked 88th in the FBS last year, while his 6.2 yards per passing attempt ranked 94th. In the 128-team FBS, Hackenberg’s overall passer rating of 109.44 was not even good enough to rank him within the subdivision’s top 100 quarterbacks.
Ultimately, there will be many other variables—some of which carry much greater weight than his college stats—that play a part in determining Hackenberg’s draft stock. After all, Florida State’s Jameis Winston ranked just 27th in passer rating and threw 18 interceptions last season yet still went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Even so, it would be unprecedented for a quarterback with statistics as putrid as Hackenberg’s to be selected at the top of the draft. If he is going to put himself in position to turn pro after his junior year and be a first-round pick, he needs to be much more efficient in 2015.
Some have made excuses for Hackenberg’s poor play last season, pointing to the struggles of Penn State’s offensive line, as well as the fact that Hackenberg had to adjust to a new offensive system under new coach James Franklin after playing in a more traditional pro-style offense under former Penn State and current Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien in 2013.
Being able to deal with pressure and to adjust to new offensive playbooks, however, are both areas that could make or break Hackenberg’s ability to succeed in the NFL. Going beyond those concerns, there were numerous fundamental flaws evident in Hackenberg’s game last year that played a big part in his unexpected struggles.
Watch a number of Hackenberg’s games from last season (most of which are available for viewing at Draft Breakdown), and you will see that his high interception total was no fluke. While he threw at least one interception in 10 of Penn State’s 13 games, he had many additional passes throughout the season that went off defenders’ hands and could have been picked off.
The biggest reason for Hackenberg’s high interception rate and low completion percentage is that he too often forces throws into coverage.
One example of Hackenberg forcing a throw and paying the price can be seen in the following screenshots from last year's game against Ohio State. Despite running a play action bootleg right off the snap, Hackenberg locked onto Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin for the entire play—even though he was tightly covered by Ohio State defensive back Tyvis Powell—and threw the ball on the move, back across his body, into Powell's coverage to enable an interception.
When Hackenberg is at his best, he shows he is capable of making multiple reads over the course of a play and going through his progressions to find an open receiver. A more regular sight last season, however, was that of Hackenberg locking onto his intended target from the snap, staring his receiver down and allowing a defender to jump the route for an interception or pass breakup.
One of the most glaring examples of that problem occurred in Penn State’s loss to Northwestern last September. As can be seen in the clip below, Hackenberg directly stared down a five-yard throw to wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton over the middle, which enabled Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker to read the quarterback’s eyes and pick him off for an interception he would return 49 yards for a touchdown.
Another alarming trend in Hackenberg’s game highlighted by the clip above is his tendency to throw the ball flat-footed.
Had Hackenberg stepped into the above throw and released the ball more quickly, he might have been able to drive the ball to its target past the linebacker. His lazy throwing mechanics on the play, however, played a big part in Walker's pick-six.
While all of these tendencies are flaws that Hackenberg might be able to overcome as he gains more experience and becomes more comfortable in Franklin’s offense in 2015, they were apparent in his game with alarming frequency in 2014.
High Upside, High Downside
Although there are additional reasons for NFL teams to be concerned about whether Hackenberg will be able to realize his potential, we would be remiss to go any further without taking a look at why his potential is considered to be so high.
Even with the recent successes of some smaller and more mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, NFL teams still tend to favor traditional dropback passers who are tall and pocket-centric. Hackenberg, who meets those criteria while also exhibiting top-notch arm strength and ability to move within the pocket, fits the league’s prototype for the position.
Hackenberg has the arm talent to make any throw on the field. He exhibits the ability to throw the ball more than 50 yards downfield and can fit passes between tight windows to all regions of the field.
In the following highlight, Hackenberg showed his ability to thread the needle and make a big-boy throw by stepping into a pass and connecting with Hamilton more than 25 yards downfield between a cluster of four defenders.
Another trait that stands out about Hackenberg is his ability to pump-fake and progress off it. Convincing in the motion, Hackenberg is often able to fool defenders with his pump-fake, then take advantage by moving his eyes to find open receivers and throw the ball their way.
That skill led to one of Penn State’s biggest plays of the game in their season opener against Central Florida. As shown in the following video and screenshot, a well-executed fake throw by Hackenberg made multiple Knights defensive backs bite forward and allowed wide receiver Geno Lewis to get wide open up the left sideline beyond them, leaving an easy pitch-and-catch for Hackenberg to connect with his wide receiver for a 79-yard touchdown.
Another example can be seen in GIF form below. By briefly fooling the cornerback and attracting his eyes to the backfield, Hackenberg enabled Lewis to beat his opponent on a double move up the left sideline, upon which Hackenberg delivered a 25-yard connection downfield.
An example of Hackenberg progressing out of a fake to find an open receiver can be seen in the following screenshots from last year's game against Akron. After initially looking to the right side of the field and pump-faking, Hackenberg—with time to throw, a rare occurrence for him last season—was able to work his eyes across the pocket, making multiple reads before finding Lewis, breaking open from the left side across the middle, for a connection 16 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Hackenberg is not considered to be a dual-threat quarterback and is unlikely to be a regular running threat in the NFL, but he is an impressive athlete for his size. He has the quickness and burst to extend plays with his feet, enabling him to throw on the run or take off if he gets open field in front of him.
One of his most impressive examples of in-pocket mobility can be seen via multiple angles through the following GIFs. Hackenberg was able to sidestep a potential sack and run up toward the line of scrimmage, generating momentum with his feet to transfer into a high-velocity, 14-yard strike to Hamilton for a 3rd-and-10 conversion.
Seeing examples of what Hackenberg does well might be enough to convince you that the Penn State product can be the next Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers. Yet there are other reasons to be concerned as to whether Hackenberg can be a successful starting quarterback at all, based on his overall body of work from last season.
Despite having demonstrated ability to throw deep balls with laser-like precision, Hackenberg is inconsistent with his ball-placement at all levels of the field. His play last season included far too many instances in which he failed to connect with open receivers—even at times when he was not under pressure—because he threw passes that were uncatchable.
It is fair to suggest that Hackenberg’s performance in 2014 was adversely affected by his offensive line’s inability to consistently provide adequate pass protection. As the season progressed, opposing defenses increasingly recognized Penn State’s blocking as a weak point and exploited that by sending heavy blitzes toward the backfield.
A great quarterback, however, can minimize the effects of a struggling offensive line by staying composed and making quick yet effective decisions in the pocket. Hackenberg, on the other hand, mostly compounded the effects.
In addition to his aforementioned tendency to force passes into traffic, Hackenberg took 44 sacks last season, many of them from him simply staying sedentary in the pocket for too long. As he moves forward to the upcoming season and to the NFL—where he is only going to continue to see frequent pressure in passing situations—Hackenberg needs to learn when to throw the ball away rather than force a pass or take a sack.
Where Should Hackenberg Be Drafted?
The debate over this question could prove to be one of the most interesting storylines in the months that lead up to the 2016 draft. While it is clear that some talent evaluators are ardent supporters of Hackenberg, there are others—at least within the media—who do not see Hackenberg as a valuable prospect at all.
Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, whose company grades all Football Bowl Subdivision players and uses those grades to project players to the NFL, has stated on Twitter that Hackenberg does not grade out as a prospect of quality right now.
RealGM’s Jeff Risdon, meanwhile, has tweeted that he considers Hackenberg to be “undraftable” unless he can improve on his current flaws.
When the dust settles, the reality with Hackenberg will likely lie somewhere in the middle.
As Hackenberg will be heavily scrutinized throughout the upcoming season because of his standing as a well-known quarterback prospect, he will need to make significant progress this year to avoid seeing his draft stock free fall. While he could get a free pass for his 2014 struggles if he has clearly improved in 2015, he will no longer continue to get the benefit of the doubt if he continues to be inefficient this season.
Ultimately, though, it would be a big surprise if Hackenberg does not take a step forward in his development in 2015. Assuming he does, there will almost certainly be a team in the 2016 NFL draft—probably sooner than later—who is willing to take a chance on him, given his physical makeup and mental potential.
If his career to date at Penn State is any indication, teams that emphasize efficient game management and mitigating risks at the quarterback positions will want to stay far away from Hackenberg.
Teams that want a gunslinger at the quarterback position and are more willing to live and die with a balance of big plays and mistakes are the ones who should ultimately be attracted to Hackenberg.
While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hackenberg could develop into a master of the position like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, his current game is far more similar to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Like Cutler, Hackenberg has the tools to make plays that many other quarterbacks simply cannot but can also be frustratingly inconsistent and mistake-prone.
Interestingly enough, Hackenberg told reporters last fall that Rodgers and Cutler are both among his favorite NFL quarterbacks to watch, according to Audrey Snyder of Penn Live:
"I'm not going to say I'm similar to any other guy or anything like that, but I enjoy watching guys like (Tom) Brady, I like watching Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. I actually like Jay Cutler. He's a really good football player and he's had sort of an up and down career, but I really like watching him play. He throws the ball really well, he makes a lot of plays moving around outside of the pocket, unorthodox throws, not really having great fundamentals and mechanics but still being able to execute the play.”
Unlike at this time last year, when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota already stood out as the 2015 NFL draft’s top signal-callers, there is no consensus choice to be at the top of the 2016 draft board among quarterbacks. That said, there are many players who appear to be candidates for that conversation, including Cook, Jones, California’s Jared Goff, Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson, USC’s Cody Kessler, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel and TCU’s Trevone Boykin.
Hackenberg, in the eyes of some draft analysts, leads that conversation right now. He’s going to have to improve in many facets of his game, however, if he’s going to stay there.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.