There is a player in the 2016 NFL Draft class that is going to be over-drafted because scouts will fall in love with him. He's a big-bodied quarterback with a strong, but inaccurate arm, a bad decision-maker, and a reclamation project who looked good initially before regressing the following year.
In this case, I'm not talking about Cardale Jones. This article is about Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and out of the quarterbacks the Buffalo Bills have been linked to this pre-draft season, he's the one that I like the least.
Hackenberg was the top pro-style quarterback recruit out of high school, a five-star prospect from a military academy in Virginia who committed to Penn State before the Sandusky scandal became public knowledge. Despite the ensuing sanctions and the departure of several top players, the school managed to bring in new head coach Bill O'Brien, and Hackenberg stuck with the Nittany Lions. He ended up earning the starting quarterback job as a true freshman.
Hackenberg had as strong a start to his career as one could hope for. He married well with O'Brien's complicated offensive scheme (the same system of reads and adjustments that was used with Tom Brady in New England), and often earned praise for the way he set up the offense before the snap. He threw 20 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, and had a good rapport with wide receiver Allen Robinson. He led the team to a better record than expected, and at 18 years old, he was already being discussed in the same sentence as Andrew Luck.
Then Murphy's Law kicked in. O'Brien left for the Houston Texans, taking much of his staff with him. His replacement, former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, was more of a recruiter than a tactician, and he has struggled to craft a winning record with the mostly barren cupboard that O'Brien and the NCAA sanctions left behind. Hackenberg was placed into a simplified offense with no real talent (save for left tackle Donovan Smith), and he struggled with sacks, poor accuracy, and a lack of production as a sophomore.
In 2015, his junior season, Hackenberg played better, but Penn State continued to struggle. He declared for the draft as an early entrant, and the statement he put out made headlines for thanking everyone at the school - except his head coach, Franklin.
Now 21 years old, Hackenberg is something of an enigma, one which The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas tried to unravel last week. Teams have undoubtedly been poking and prodding throughout the pre-draft process, trying to find answers to simple questions. Was he trying too hard to carry a bad team, making mistakes on the way? Why did he express disgust with lousy teammates and a head coach he didn't agree with? Why didn't he transfer to a system that fit him better? Are his issues correctable?
Hackenberg was chosen as a team captain starting in 2014, making him the first-ever sophomore to be a captain at Penn State. He has a girlfriend who interned at ESPN, and he majored in broadcast journalism.
Hackenberg has a lot that would appeal to scouts looking for a pocket passer. Standing at 6'4" and weighing in at 225 pounds, he has a strong arm, and is capable of throwing deep, threading the needle, and hitting players in stride when everything is in sync. He has nice shoulder drive on his throws, which creates easy velocity.
Here's one example: a throw where Hackenberg navigates a messy pocket, steps up, and throws a dart to his receiver streaking down the sideline.
Hackenberg is a prototypical pocket passer. He ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash in February, but don't let that convince you that he can run the zone read. His movement, especially side to side, is much more deliberate than athletic.
Mechanics and accuracy
For a pro-style quarterback recruit who worked with an NFL quarterback coach as a freshman, Hackenberg's mechanics are, frankly, embarrassing. He exhibits frustratingly bad footwork, such as this snap against Boston College. Yes, he progresses through three reads before making his throw, but his feet are stuck in concrete the whole time.
For Hackenberg, lazy feet come up again and again, and they usually cause two problems: bad accuracy, and bad escapability.
Hackenberg has a major problem with accuracy, and there's just no denying it. He'll miss in every conceivable way: under-thrown deep balls with poor trajectory, throwing passes over his receiver's heads, or hitting them in their knees. He has a special weakness with screen passes. He just fastballs them like he's never thrown one in his life. Try searching Twitter for the phrase "Hackenberg screens." You'll see a lot of results like this.
Here's just one example of a play that has no excuse to be thrown badly.
Hackenberg has never completed more than 60 percent of his passes in a season. Some of it comes down to his footwork, some to his throwing motion, and some you just chalk up to a player not having a good sense of ball placement.
Hackenberg's ability to set up an offense pre-snap, manage blocking assignments, audible into different plays, and diagnose defensive weaknesses has been extolled as one of his prominent virtues. Not being able to exist on the field with Hackenberg, we can assume that some of this is true, and use what we can watch at home to infer the rest.
Hackenberg is a confident player after the snap. Much like Connor Cook of Michigan State, he is very willing to pull the trigger if he thinks he has a throw. Like Cook, this decision-making process gives him opportunities on deep balls and one-on-one situations that other quarterbacks can't take, but it opens him up to disaster when he throws inaccurately or makes the wrong read.
One great quality of Hackenberg's: his ability to make pre-snap reads. The confidence in those reads allows him to throw with anticipation. In this play, Hackenberg is throwing the ball well before his receiver has turned around. It would, however, be nice if the pass were better placed.
Here's an example of where Hackenberg's process comes back to bite him. He doesn't see a defender dropping into a shallow zone, goes straight ahead with completing his pass, and throws an interception that's nearly a pick-six.
The other fear with Hackenberg, owing to his years spent with a totally patchwork offensive line, is that he may just be damaged goods. While he drops to a good depth after the snap, and understands how to step up in the pocket, he just doesn't play with good awareness, nor is he mobile in the pocket. A free rusher will usually take him down.
This is the infamous two-man rush sack, from Penn State's 2015 season opener against Temple. Yes, his linemen were inexcusably bad on this play, but Hackenberg makes it easy for the pass rushers to bring him down by not hurrying his process and throwing the ball away.
At times during Hackenberg's junior year, he either showed blindness to the pass rush, or just seemed to fold up if he had a defender near him. Whether or not he can develop enough pocket poise to handle pro-level pass rushes is a major question mark.
Hackenberg is far more of a project than his pro-style pedigree would let on. Frankly, I don't see how a prospect with his combination of bad accuracy and bad pocket presence can come into the NFL and lead a team to the playoffs. Lance Zierlein at NFL.com compares him to Ryan Mallett, and I think that makes a lot of sense. He's an immobile, big-armed quarterback with accuracy issues. I don't think that will work in the NFL.