I have never been a scout or a NFL general manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It's no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can. To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, click here.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State - 6-foot-4, 234 pounds - junior - No. 14
The draft is filled with many stories and many circumstances that we need to try to figure out. In many cases, we are considering players that we had a real blank slate on when we enter the process. Unfortunately, being football fans, there are plenty of others where preconceived notions are difficult to avoid. And where has this ever been more the case than with Christian Hackenberg, the Penn State quarterback, who, just 24 months ago, was touted as a No. 1 overall pick in whatever draft he would choose to enter.
Before that point, he was a five-star recruit who was one of the many Penn State signings that decided to ignore the scandal and remain firm on his commitment despite the chance he was taking to join a program that was going to be rather hamstrung with talent and structure for a bit. With (now-Houston Texans head coach) Bill O'Brien, Hackenberg took the field as a true freshman and impressed all throughout the 2013 season as he made things at the college level look pretty easy.
Then, O'Brien left town, James Franklin took over, and Hackenberg's college career and pro draft value dropped lower and lower as the quarterback was sacked more times in the past two seasons (82) than any quarterback in college football. This led to many issues, including ridiculous statistics, poor habits and at times, a problematic demeanor. And that led to scouts and draft nerds alike trying to figure out what to make of the kid. He is as talented as they come and yet put some amazingly poor tape out in 2014 and 2015 where there were almost no examples of great games against reasonable opponents. But, there were flashes -- flashes that said somewhere amidst the chaos and the beatings he was taking that there is still a big-time quarterback with a big-time future if someone can find it.
What I liked: He is a very big man with a very big arm. He can make some very impressive NFL throws and he will make them on frozen ropes. He also can move around in the pocket (he got a lot of practice as his offensive line was quite substandard) and make throws on the run. He is a nice athlete. But, perhaps his best attribute is seemingly having the mental capacity that is required in the NFL, as his pre-snap reads and knowledge of defenses was there to see as he manipulated safeties and got his team into decent situations with his mind. This was difficult because, at a certain point, your guys have to block and catch, but I thought, looking at the quarterback's job and his ability to play in tough circumstances, he was able to show through at times. Again, all in doses, but the NFL is said to value "traits over production" and he definitely has traits that are rare.
What I did not like:Well, here is where it gets sticky. He was beaten up repeatedly so by 2015 that he had bad habits everywhere. First, his eye level was down -- which means when the pocket breaks down repeatedly, he is no longer seeing the field, but rather trying to save himself from getting rag-dolled again. He was actually sacked on a play (below) where Temple rushed two guys against six blockers and still got to him in two seconds. He also lost a lot of footwork, which then killed his accuracy. At times, he was throwing with all upper body, so as he sprayed simple throws under duress, it was usually because his feet were a mess. While there are no questions about his arm strength, one can watch these games in 2015 and certainly call into question his accuracy and his touch. There were throws left on the field and it seems that he needs to hit his targets better. What is disconcerting, of course, is it is rare for this to improve on Sundays. If you are missing throws under duress against Temple, odds are pretty good that will continue in the NFL. Also, his morale dropped more than a few times, which is not a great characteristic. Bad things are going to happen, and we can't have Jay Cutler's body language no matter how rough it gets. The team feeds off you -- either way.
Summary and potential fit with the Cowboys: There is no question that this one is a very tricky study. Part of me says that he is easily the best quarterback who is not in the "Big Three" group in terms of tools and traits and an impressive football brain. And then part of me wonders if the last few years of his career have ruined him and given him a permanent case of the jitters and happy feet and poor habits. He seems shell-shocked, but he is also only 21 years old.
I have no doubt that with the right amount of instruction, there are coaches at the next level that can imagine how to "fix him" and thereby gathering a top 10 talent far later in the draft. At the same time, I have no feel for where he will actually go. I hear some people say Day 3 and others - just as knowledgeable -- think he could go in Round 1. Honestly, the more you consider the case of Hackenberg, the more confusing it gets.
The tape is there (great in 2013; horrid in 2015). The talent is there. The reasonable idea was that when he had a coach and a scheme that knew how to use him, he was terrific. Then, things fell apart. Can he be salvaged? The Cowboys have brought him in for a personal workout. Could they fix him and let him learn for a few years? Would you trust the Cowboys coaches to be able to develop a quarterback like this?
I like a lot of things about him, but in the case of this prospect, how much you pay to get him and to try to fix all that is wrong might determine how you should feel about it.