PENN STATERS IN DRAFT: Hackenberg enigma still unsolved
- Christian Hackenberg was sacked 82 times in his last two seasons at Penn State.
- Hackenberg's completion percentage has dropped in each of his three seasons at Penn State.
- Jon Gruden believes Hackenberg is a top-35 pick and a potential first-round selection.
This is where we stand concerning Hackenberg's NFL draft future: Dissecting his decibel level at the line of scrimmage.
At this point, everyone knows that Hackenberg has the size, arm, knowledge and, evidently, the verbal capacity of a first-round pick. But he also has two years of Penn State game film that he has spent the past two months defending in interviews with NFL decision-makers.
Ultimately, where does that place Hackenberg on the draft spectrum? Gruden double-downed last week on Hackenberg, calling him a top-35 pick and potential first-rounder, in his opinion. Even Penn State coach James Franklin advocated for Hackenberg being selected in Thursday night's first round.
"Christian has all the things people look for at that level," Franklin said. "That wouldn't surprise me one bit."
Other analysts, meanwhile, still quiver at the sacks, interceptions and responses to both that hindered Hackenberg the past two seasons. They see a quarterback who needs time to reset in the NFL, to study behind an established starter who can provide guidance while Hackenberg refreshes his fundamentals.
"He needs to be rebuilt," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said.
Rebuilding his perception: Since the NFL combine in February, Hackenberg has spent time rebuilding not only his mechanics but also the public perception about his game. In three years at Penn State, Hackenberg saw his completion rate drop each season, bottoming out at 53.5 percent last season.
His touchdown/interception ratio (16/6) as a junior was his best at Penn State, but Hackenberg also had the fewest attempts (359) and passing yards (2,525) of his career. Further, Hackenberg had to explain how he handled 82 sacks over the past two seasons.
For some, that statistic is a caveat for two years of inconsistent production. Too many plays had too little chance to be successful, Gruden said. Too many factors conspired against him.
"He's just got to regain his confidence not just in himself, but that he can actually have the time to drop back to pass and make the throws he made as an 18-year-old freshman," Gruden said. "But he was surrounded by way too many negatives at Penn State. All the sanctions, the coaching changes, they had a lack of personnel. I don't think the offense suited him, and expectations have been soaring since he stepped on campus."
But elsewhere, Hackenberg's recent history suggests a quarterback whose future won't restart simply with a change of scenery. McShay called the disparities in Hackenberg's game striking.
McShay said Hackenberg might be better off if he is drafted in later rounds.
"He needs to get with the right organization that has time to develop him and has the right people in place to do it," McShay said.
But what does that entail? Rebuilding quarterbacks isn't guaranteed in the NFL. In fact, Ron Jaworski, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and current ESPN analyst, said that quarterback at the NFL level "just might be the worst-coached position in football."
Jaworski's list of necessary traits for NFL quarterbacks — consistent mechanics, great pocket presence, size, impeccable character — is a good test for Hackenberg. The quarterback grades well on the last two, inconsistently on the first two.
Needing time to develop: Because of that, most analysts believe Hackenberg will need time to develop. But will he get it?
"I believe it's absolutely critical, when talking about young quarterbacks coming out of the college level to the NFL, that you have not only a coordinator but a position coach who understands the intricacies of playing quarterback," Jaworski said. "Far too often, these guys are forced to play too early, they don't understand what's supposed to happen when they get on the field and they're never coached properly how to play the position on the NFL level."
In the NFL, though, the long view is limited. "Who has time to develop quarterbacks?" Gruden asked. "We don't even have a rookie symposium anymore." As a result, Hackenberg might not have a developmental luxury wherever he is drafted.
Still, Gruden said he can't forget Hackenberg's freshman season, when the quarterback threw for 2,955 yards learning Bill O'Brien's pro-style system three months after graduating from high school.
That year — and not the past two — is the base from which Gruden wants Hackenberg to rebuild. Gruden suggested Hackenberg could turn his smarts, toughness, arm strength — and, yes, snap-count volume — into a prosperous career.
"I think he's very eager to prove he's a better player than he put out on tape," Gruden said.
PSU DRAFT NOTES
Defensive linemen dominate: Penn State's defensive line has produced eight NFL draft picks over the past decade, including first-rounders Tamba Hali (2006), Aaron Maybin (2009) and Jared Odrick (2010). The Lions likely will add three more draftees this week.
Austin Johnson —Up/down: The all-Big Ten nose tackle was the centerpiece of Penn State's defense, and perhaps the team's best player overall, last year. He moves so well for a 6-4, 314-pound lineman, which he proved on a 71-yard touchdown run against San Diego State. Could use some work as a pass-rusher, though. Projection: Round 2.
Carl Nassib —Up/down:Nassib led the nation with a school-record 151/2 sacks, going from former walk-on to Big Ten defensive player of the year at lightning speed. Everything about his game was based on desire, from gaining 50 pounds to become a pass-rushing end to his ceaseless quarterback pursuit from the position. But does he have enough size or strength to bull- or speed-rush NFL linemen? Projection: Rounds 3-4.
Anthony Zettel — Up/down: Zettel has experience both inside and outside, where he could end up in the NFL. At 6-4, 277, he's not built to play tackle but moved there as a senior at Penn State to fill a need. Shifting back to end will help his production, which was consistently strong in pass defense. Still, scouts have noted size issues at both positions. Projection: Rounds 6-7.