The State Of Christian Hackenberg’s Volatile Draft Stock
Ever since the day he stepped foot in Happy Valley, NFL scouts gushed over Christian Hackenberg’s raw athletic abilities. They raved about his NFL-ready build and rocket arm, and labeled him as a can’t-miss prospect for the 2016 NFL Draft — the first year Hackenberg is eligible to enter. After a stellar freshman campaign, the hype amplified, and Hackenberg was labeled a surefire first-round pick. Fast forward two years, and the raw talent is still there, but questions regarding Hackenberg’s recent inability to produce the kind of statistics expected of such a highly-touted prospect loom over his head as he enters his pivotal third season.
Take a look as we compare Hackenberg’s playing style and statistics to some of the nation’s top 2016 quarterback prospects, and see how Penn State’s prized possession stacks up to the rest of the field.
Jared Goff | Cal
Jared Goff has long been in the first round mix, having been the lone bright spot on some atrocious Cal teams since his freshman year in 2013. But in 2015, Goff has been a revelation for the Golden Bears, who currently stand at 3-0 after a stunning upset of Texas on the road. The architect behind the the quick turnaround has been Goff, who exudes the confidence and leadership of a quarterback who’s been around the block. Not only has he willed Cal to the brink of the AP Top-25, but he’s also significantly bolstered his rapidly rising draft stock.
Watch in this scoring play against Texas as Goff quickly releases the pass, staying cool in the pocket despite crashing ends coming free off both edges. Not only does Goff get the pass off quick, but he wedges the ball over the cornerback’s back shoulder, placing the pass where only his receiver can make a play. His footwork is crisp, and his flawless weight transfer allows him to fire a bullet along the sideline. The result is six points for the offense, and is just a brief example Goff’s propensity to make tough throws with pressure looming.
Hackenberg was routinely criticized last season for holding onto the ball too long as a result of staring down one side of the field during reads. There was an air of hesitancy about Hackenberg’s play in 2014, highlighted by this play below during Penn State’s visit to Indiana. Unlike Goff, who senses pressure approaching and quickly fires a pass, Hackenberg seems rattled despite Indiana only showing a four-man rush. While the two scenarios differ slightly, there is still no reason for Hackenberg to succumb to the pressure. As Hackenberg looks downfield, he completely disregards the checkdown option that could’ve picked up some yardage, especially with all three linebackers dropped deep into coverage.
On a statistical level, Goff seems to be lightyears ahead of where Hackenberg should be, and a side by side comparison indicates that. Looking at the respective 2014 campaigns of each prospect, Goff recorded 3,973 yards, 35 touchdowns — a figure that trailed only Marcus Mariota and Cody Kessler — and a mere seven interceptions. Hackenberg, on the other hand, trailed in every department. He posted 2,977 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, seeming hesitant and uncomfortable throughout the entire year, save for performances against UCF and Boston College.
Cardale Jones | Ohio State
Though we haven’t seen much of Jones — six games is a rather small sample size — he’s been able to flash stunning feats of athleticism under center for the Buckeyes. The first aspect that stands out about Jones’ overall game is his cannon of an arm — a trait both he and Hackenberg have in common. But look more closely, and you’ll find that Jones extends this aspect of his game to the entire field. Watch below as Jones steps up to avoid the crashing ends, extends the play outside of the pocket, and delivers a dime downfield while still on the run for a monster gain. Not only that, but he makes smart decisions despite facing imminent pressure. There are plenty of other scenarios in which Jones is faced with heavy pressure, yet he’s still able to make the right move and prevent unnecessary turnovers.
Christian Hackenberg’s displayed incredible poise in the pocket during his time at Penn State, and he’s also dispelled the notion that he should be confined solely to the pocket. That said, Hackenberg developed a knack for making erratic decisions at times, forcing throws when he should instead throw the ball away or — gasp — take a sack. In the play below against Michigan, Hackenberg is forced out of the pocket early as a result of heavy blitzing up the middle, but escapes the pocket and gives himself an extra second or so. Instead of cutting his losses on third down, he forces a dangerous throw across his body that’s ultimately picked off. Instead of settling for a punt, Michigan received a gift deep in Penn State territory, something that contributed to Michigan’s eventual victory.
Christian Hackenberg is a talented quarterback, there is no denying that. His freshman season was no fluke, but signs of regression are tough to deny. Honing in on the mental game is imperative to Hackenberg’s success moving forward, both this season and long term. But from what he’s shown over the last year, Hackenberg’s overall game needs fine tuning before an NFL General Manager invests a high draft pick in the young signal-caller.
The season is still young, and the issues that plagued Penn State’s offensive line seem to be a thing of the past. One thing’s for certain, Christian Hackenberg has time to put it back together, and prove to scouts that he is indeed the real deal.