It's becoming tougher and tougher to write articles like this. At what point do I, as a Penn State alumnus and fan, step back and try to be even more subjective about the NFL draft stock of Christian Hackenberg? It seems like the only people in the world (vocally, at least) who are willing to defend him are individuals in the similar positions to myself. Though Jon Gruden will probably love Hack when his episode of Gruden's QB Camp airs because he would never bash a kid on national television like that, but that's beside the point.
It's been known since his freshman season that Christian would be a polarizing draft prospect, but that train has run so far off of the rails at this point that someone needs to revive John Stevens to help build said train a new track. It's not that the stories coming out concerning him are surprising (negative comments, meetings with coaches, etc. are commonplace this time of year), but the #takes on him have such a ridiculously wide range that there seems to be no middle ground.
Is Hackenberg a first round pick? As things stand right now, surely not. Is he an un-drafted free agent type? As things stand right now, surely not. Yet there are still article coming out, like this.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: Pro Football Focus is good at doing what it's designed to do, which is analyze players on a play-by-play basis, using the numbers to back up the large majority of their opinions. But as SB Nation's own Bill Connelly always says, numbers only tell part of the story.
As is the case with many college players being scouted for the NFL, people who have followed the team and the player for their entire collegiate career simply have a different perspective on said player. Sam Monson notes that he combed through the numbers and watched play-by-play of Hackenberg to come to his conclusions. Credit to Sam, because that's more than most people writing articles like this have done in preparation. But there is still plenty to pick apart.
Let's start with the two sentences that capture the essence of the article.
"Even the best of Hackenberg is an average, inaccurate passer with a few worrying qualities. In my opinion, his NFL ceiling is as a backup a team hopes it never has to play."
Let's agree to disagree. The best of Hackenberg is a quarterback who has shown an ability to make throws that some NFL quarterbacks struggle to make (looking at you, 15-20 yard out routes), is adept at fooling defenses with play action, understands when and how to change the play at the line and puts the ball where only his receiver can get to it. You think I'm being biased? That's fine. But go back and watch the Wisconsin game in 2013, the Boston College game in 2014, or the San Diego State game in 2015 as three quick examples off the top of my head, and tell me that at his best, Christian Hackenberg is "an average, inaccurate passer" with "worrying qualities". At his best, Christian Hackenberg is what you expect a former five-star recruit to be.
The first major talking point of the article delves into Hack's accuracy issues. Christian Hackenberg is by no means perfect, and missed plenty of throws over the course of his Nittany Lion career. The consistent misses on the bubble screens were indeed troubling to watch, but it's not a problem that is impossible to fix. When James Franklin and John Donovan came in and installed their offense, Hackenberg was immediately pulled away from the pro-style system that suited his skill set, and thrust into a smorgasbord of various schematic elements with the only true consistency coming in the form of the screen game.
Should Hack have been able to make the adjustments to hit on these throws more consistently? Absolutely. But the large majority of his inaccuracy issues stem from that one pass type, a problem that a team of NFL coaches will surely be able to fix with some improved footwork to help him avoid throwing flat-footed. Plus as Jenny Vrentas explained in her piece about Hackenberg from The MMQB last week, "He learned two offenses in three years, with different terminology and pass concepts and footwork." This is really tough for any QB to do, let alone a college quarterback, and when Hackenberg is in a place where he can get one offense with one set of plays and pass concepts drilled into his head, I'll bet this is an issue that's, at the very least, improved a bit.
Of course, we haven't yet mentioned the offensive line that allowed opposing defensive linemen to run free in the backfield, the offensive line tendencies that allowed even the most casual fan to recognize whether a pass or a run was imminent, a lack of adjustments made by the coaching staff, an offense that never truly allowed the quarterback to get into a rhythm or inexperience in the wide receiver corps. The PFF article lays out the numbers nicely, but those numbers hardly tell the full story the situation that Hackenberg was engulfed in.
The indictment on Hackenberg's decision-making, as outlined by the article, basically seems like it boils down to "he didn't audible enough." The article talks about how turnovers are detrimental in the NFL, which is absolutely true. Thankfully for Christian Hackenberg, he threw just six interceptions last year. Sooo, let's just move on from that point, shall we?
When James Franklin took over at Penn State, the offensive coaching staff tried to implement a lot of new things, in a very short time frame. As our own bscaff has written about plenty of times, most of those new play calls were absurdly complicated and difficult to call, leaving Hackenberg and the rest of the team barely enough time to even get to the line and snap the football. Where exactly within that time frame is he supposed to be able to make audible calls?
In fact, one of the most historic plays in Penn State football history happened in 2013 thanks to a Hackenberg audible, something that he is allegedly such a disaster with. Remember this Bill Belton run?
That would be the longest scoring run play in Penn State history, and it happened because Hackenberg read the defense and audibled into it. Imagine that.
And as far as the example the author brought up with the Indiana screen pass, what was failed to mention was that the coaching staff called the exact same play twice in a row. So if you're looking to assign blame for that play, it starts with the play call. Should Christian still have thrown the ball? Of course not. But the defender who made the play was also shielded by right tackle Brendan Mahon at the time of release, so it's at least defensible on Hack's part.
Here's another perfect example of numbers not telling the full story.
"Don't get me wrong: Hackenberg's line was not good at Penn State, but it wasn't the prohibitive collection of uniformed turnstyles that they've made out to be, either."
The offensive line may have had its moments here and there, but they were absolutely as troubled as advertised. Even in games where they did pick up their play to a certain degree, there was typically pressure allowed early and often, shell-shocking the quarterback for the rest of the game.
One of my favorite parts of this section, however, is his example picture used. He cites that "Hackenberg was surprised by the free rusher despite only having five men in protection." Well, there are six guys in that picture. It's not too difficult to see how the line could have shifted themselves to allow Brian Gaia, Brendan Mahon or whoever was playing left guard at that point to the free rusher in the middle, allowed Paris Palmer to engage with the defensive end and let Brent Wilkerson or Akeel Lynch, whoever it is, try to block the edge rusher. It's possible that Wilkerson/Lynch was just throwing a chip block on their way out to a route, but based on how engaged their arms seemed to be, I think it's safe to say they were in there to hold a block.
Finally, the cited numbers here imply that Hackenberg himself caused more sacks than any of his linemen.
"In fact, since he has been the quarterback, Hackenberg has been directly to blame for more sacks than any single lineman blocking for him, and that doesn’t even touch the ones he was indirectly at fault for by being unable to effectively diagnose the pressure looks he was presented with."
Let's reiterate the chorus of this article one more time: numbers don't tell the whole story.
Lack of Upside
But What About 2013?
Anyone who watched Hackenberg play football in 2013 knows that he wasn't perfect. He was more comfortable and clearly had a better understanding of the offense than he did in 2014 or 2015, but he wasn't perfect. Penn State fans and NFL draft fans weren't excited about him because they thought he could have played in the NFL as a sophomore. They were excited because as far as true freshman seasons go, it's hard to ask for too much more.
Then, we have "The Catch".
"This pass is a good example, as it was thrown straight to a corner who had position over the top and leverage on the receiver, but simply misplayed the ball in the air. Robinson, on the other hand, went up and high-pointed the ball, bringing it in for a big gain. This was a pass that ended up looking very nice based on the result, but probably shouldn’t have been thrown in the first place — even to a receiver as talented as Robinson."
It was a risky pass, yes. There were also 27 seconds left in regulation, and Penn State trailed by a touchdown. Do you expect the offensive to try to dink and dunk down the field with 27 seconds left on what was still a good Michigan defense? Or would you rather have your rocket-armed quarterback let your all-Big Ten wide receiver make a play for him when it matters most?
Like I said, Hackenberg wasn't perfect as a freshman, everyone knows (or should know) that. But at least use an example of a play that actually outlines that.
Oh, also: by PFF's grading system, which you can read about here, Hackenberg was more than twice a bad as a freshman (-24.7) than he was as a junior (-12.1). This, of course, is hogwash and makes everyone at Black Shoe Diaries question PFF's grading system, because anyone with at least one working eye and the cognitive ability of a 2-month old koala could tell you that Hackenberg was not twice as bad as a freshman than he was as a junior.
Since I started this article off going after the author's conclusion, I'm giving my own here instead.
Christian Hackenberg is not the top-five pick he once seemed destined to be, and that's okay. He has his flaws, and he's already started to work to eliminate them with Jordan Palmer. To call him un-draftable, however, is overreacting to numbers, not understanding the situation, discounting external factors and showing ignorance of how the NFL draft process works.
Not every draft pick is expected to be a superstar from day one, especially quarterbacks drafted outside of round one. Even the most primitive fan can understand that a kid drafted lower than round one probably has some things he needs to work on before he can take the reigns. Barring something very surprising, that's exactly the situation Hackenberg will be in. Maybe behind Carson Palmer in Arizona, maybe behind Tony Romo in Dallas, maybe behind Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh – wherever he winds up, it's a safe bet to assume that team will have its quarterback situation pinned down for the new few years.
Hackenberg has the arm, the potential, and the intelligence to succeed in the NFL. He's spent the last two years in a system that just didn't fit his strengths. It's up to the team that drafts him to reintroduce him to the concepts that he felt comfort with as a freshman, and to help him reset his trust in an offensive line. Would you take a chance on a quarterback with his size and his arm in the third or fourth round? As an NFL executive, you should, because it happens every single year.
And no, Sam Monson, Tim Tebow is not a good comparison for Christian Hackenberg.