Eagles Wake-Up Call: Evaluating Hackenberg



If you want to know how focused the Eagles are on the quarterback position, just look at their coaching staff.

Doug Pederson, former quarterback. Frank Reich, former quarterback. John DeFelippo, former quarterback.  Howie Roseman has mentioned on multiple occasions the benefit of having access to so many QB experts as they go through their evaluations. That expertise should certainly come in handy while sifting through the 2016 quarterback class in search of talent that will translate, and will absolutely be put to the test when it comes to former Penn State signal-caller Christian Hackenberg.

He’s not an easy prospect to make sense of, which is why opinions on him are so split (and in some cases, so extreme). He acquitted himself well as a freshman under Bill O’Brien, throwing 20 touchdowns to 10 interceptions en route to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

“When he got to Penn State, we threw a lot at him and he was able to learn it,” said O’Brien, now head coach of the Texans. “Now it wasn’t everything that we’re doing in Houston or that we did in New England, but what we did throw at him, he learned it, and then he was able to execute it on the field. He was only 17, 18 years old at that time. I think he’s a guy that’s going to work hard at it. He’s got a good ability to learn. He asks good questions, he watches a lot of film. He’s got a good future.”

Hackenberg was operating in a pro-style system under O’Brien, and proved adept at handling pre-snap responsibilities during his three years in Happy Valley. Brett Kollmann illustrated multiple examples of this in an informative scouting video on Hackenberg, including the following play against Maryland in 2015 in which he reads blitz based on pre-snap alignment, makes a check, and takes advantage of a one-on-one matchup on the outside.

Hackenberg 1

His understanding of the game certainly seems to be next-level. According to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, O’Brien once told Hackenberg’s father:  ‘[T]he only quarterback to pick up his system so quickly ‘is going to the Hall of Fame.’ That would be Tom Brady.

“Christian ran an NFL system at 18,” his dad said, via Dodd. “[Others] didn’t do it with 50-man scholarship roster. He did…This is why Christian is hard for a lot of people to evaluate.”

The troubling part, though, is that Hackenberg’s in-depth understanding didn’t net better results. He never completed more than 59 percent of his throws at Penn State. Threw 12 touchdowns to 15 interceptions while transitioning to James Franklin‘s system in 2014;  and finished with a career-worst 53.5 completion rate this past season.

“I think he’s got two significant issues,” offered Greg Cosell in a phone conversation with Birds 24/7. “Number one, he’s very scattershot. Number two, he has almost no pocket presence. So when he drops back and the play is defined and he can throw within the rhythm he can look terrific…but he’s very scattershot and has almost no feel in the pocket. And those are two things that are hard to overcome.

“He’s very static in the pocket. Even though he’s not a bad athlete, he gets his feet stuck.”

The clips below demonstrate what often happens when Hackenberg slips on the footwork.

Hackenberg 4

Hack 6

Kollmann believes this issue crops up mostly when Hackenberg is operating out of the shotgun. When the feet are moving and he’s working the play-action or rolling out from under center, he often looks the part.

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Hackenberg footwork

Given how much Franklin put Hackenberg in a shotgun/pistol look, the theory goes, it should be no surprise that his accuracy fell off compared to when he played under O’Brien, who had him under center more.

“I studied his two years after I left,” said O’Brien at the owners meetings. “Everybody’s like, ‘He played terrible.’ I don’t see that. I think he played pretty decently. Sometimes he threw an incomplete pass. Sometimes he held the ball too long. Nobody’s perfect. I thought the guy played pretty well to be honest with you. I think he’s going to be a good player in our league.”

Many blame Hackenberg’s decline on the coaching choices by Franklin after he took over for O’Brien — a theory Hackenberg apparently agrees with, according to Robert Klemko of MMQB.

Per two personnel sources on two separate teams who have shown interest in drafting Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, the quarterback has said all the wrong things in interviews when asked to explain his declining sophomore and junior numbers (a combined 28 touchdowns and 21 interceptions). Hackenberg has shifted blame to coach James Franklin, who took over in 2014 when coach Bill O’Brien departed for the Texans. Said one evaluator: “Despite the fact that it’s probably true, you don’t want to hear a kid say that.”

Some will look at the 6-4, 223-pound frame, the live arm and the cognitive skills and determine that Hackenberg is a prospect with tremendous upside. Others will have a hard time getting past the flaws that have hindered him to date.

“Somebody could fall in love with the fact that in shorts and a t-shirt he might look great,” said Cosell, “but it’s going to be tough going for him.”

There was some speculation that O’Brien could pull the trigger on Hackenberg at 22. Others think he’ll be a Day 2 selection. CBS Sports projects him to go in the second or third round, where the Eagles hold the 77th and 79th picks.

Roseman and company have been busy looking at some of the top quarterback prospects of late. Perhaps they’ll end up grabbing either Carson Wentz or Jared Goff in the first round. But it’s entirely possible that they go in another direction on Day 1 — whether because of circumstance or design — and will be looking for a quarterback further down the line.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Pederson, when asked if quarterback is an option at 8. “But I know if you’re looking for that third quarterback, there’s some good ones in this draft, taking out, say, the top three. There’s still some guys you can develop and would be good fits at the No. 3.”

Is Hackenberg a project worth taking on? Pederson and the rest of the QB aficionados will have their hands full trying to solve that riddle before they get on the clock come late April.


Josh kicks off our Draft Daily series with an in-depth look at quarterback Jared Goff.

Keep up with all the Eagles-related draft action with our visit tracker.

Asher on Ezekiel Elliott and the value of the running back position.

Good wake-up call by Paunil on the Eagles and cap commitments.


Brandon Lee Gowton of BGN on the Eagles working out Wentz.

The Eagles have been connected to Wentz in draft rumors recently. One NFL executive thinks the Eagles might trade all the way up to the No. 2 pick to get Wentz. Another report has the Eagles potentially trading up to the No. 1 overall pick to get a quarterback such as Wentz or Goff.

While it remains to be seen how much truth there are to those rumors, we do know the Eagles plan to draft a passer at some point this year. Neither Sam Bradford nor Chase Daniel can be considered sure-fire long-term options at the quarterback position. The Eagles are seemingly interested in drafting a guy and having him develop on the bench. It’s just a matter of when the Eagles will take a quarterback in this year’s draft.

Maybe Wentz is the guy the Eagles are after. Some think the North Dakota State passer is the top prospect from this year’s class. The 23-year-old passer completed 64.1% of his passes in college for 5,115 yards (8.4 yards per attempt), 45 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. The mobile Wentz also ran for 1,028 yards and 13 touchdowns. Not only did Wentz produce in college, but he also tested well at the 2016 NFL Combine. He scored a 40 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test, which is very good.

Dave Zangaro of CSN Philly writes about some potential QB fits beyond the first round in this year’s draft.

For me, the most intriguing mid-round prospect is Dak Prescott from Mississippi State. He’s a big-bodied passer with a good arm and is very athletic. There are technical issues in his game, like any quarterback who lasts past the first round, but I think they’re correctable.

The other answer might be Kevin Hogan from Stanford. I’m not sure the ceiling is quite as high for Hogan, but playing in a pro style offense certainly gives him an advantage. Hogan could be a third-day player.


Our Draft Daily series continues.