In a quarterback class filled with questions and doubts, Jets draftee Christian Hackenberg may pose the biggest conundrum of all.
This is hardly the class of ’83, when the NFL saw the great collective infusion of quarterback talent that featured future Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. And even though quarterbacks Jared Goff of Cal-Berkeley and Carson Wentz of North Dakota State went 1-2 and Elway, now the Broncos’ GM, made a trade near the bottom of the first round to get Paxton Lynch, this can hardly be considered a can’t-miss class.
Put Hackenberg smack dab in the middle of the skepticism, because his head-scratching career at Penn State creates more uncertainty than promise. Especially now that the Jets have invested a second-round pick in him, effectively anointing him the quarterback of the future. That this will work out any better than the last second-round quarterback who faced a similar introduction to the Jets is anyone’s guess.
It was only three years ago that former general manager John Idzik selected Geno Smith in hopes he’d duplicate the success of Russell Wilson, a third-round pick during Idzik’s run in Seattle as GM John Schneider’s right hand man. But after two mediocre seasons as a starter and one star-crossed year as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s backup, thanks to a training camp punch that took away his job, Smith may be on the way out.
At best, he begins the season as a starter if Fitzpatrick continues to be unyielding in his contract demands and the Jets tell him to get lost if he can’t meet their offering price. But if Fitzpatrick comes back, clearly in the role as a “bridge” quarterback until either Hackenberg or, less likely, 2015 fourth-round pick Bryce Petty is ready to play, then Smith is likely the odd man out.
Second-year general manager Mike Maccagnan passed on a chance to get Lynch, who enjoyed a highly productive run in Memphis’ spread offense, and gambled instead on Hackenberg, who offers a more conventional skill set to go with his prototype size — 6-4, 225 — and strong arm. But Maccagnan has taken a quarterback who showed major signs of regression after a promising start at Penn State, where he had 20 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions as a freshman. Over his next two seasons, Hackenberg combined for 28 touchdown throws and 21 interceptions, hardly the kind of production that inspires confidence for a successful run in the NFL.
Now here’s where some counterintuitive thinking was required on Maccagnan’s part. Hackenberg was recruited to Penn State by former head coach Bill O’Brien, the former Patriots’ offensive coordinator who spent time polishing the diamond that is Tom Brady, the ultimate drop-back passer. Hackenberg showed plenty of promise in that offense when he started as a freshman, and it looked as if he had created a solid foundation for his run with the Nittany Lions.
But after O’Brien was hired as the Texans’ head coach, in came James Franklin from Vanderbilt. Franklin preferred the spread offense, which cut against the grain with Hackenberg, who clearly preferred O’Brien’s approach. Hackenberg struggled with the more wide-open attack, and his numbers suffered as a result. He also absorbed a lot of sacks, which was the result of poor protection, but also his inability to make quicker decisions.
So if you’re Maccagnan, how do you solve the three-pronged evaluation when scouting Hackenberg? Do you go off the promise he showed with O’Brien’s more NFL-oriented system? Or do you penalize him for not adapting enough to Franklin’s more wide-open college approach? And do you hold against him what happened at the Combine, where Hackenberg was often inaccurate with his passes, even though he didn’t throw against defenses.
Maccagnan went with door No. 1.
“We understand the system he played in college was a little different from the first season, and we took that into consideration,” he said. “At the end of the day, you look at what you could see in him and what you could potentially develop out of him in terms of the upside and potential, and that’s what we were excited about.”
Hackenberg isn’t keen on looking back at his days at Penn State, other than to say he “had a great college experience, learned a lot of things, faced a lot of adversity and had success.” He didn’t want to get into details about what happened the last two seasons, but it was certainly telling that upon his departure from Penn State, he publicly thanked O’Brien and made no mention of Franklin.
It’s not hard to connect the dots on that one.
“I’m just really looking forward to getting better here with this opportunity . . . just really diving into it and taking it by the reins and going full-bore with it is ultimately what I’ve got to do,” Hackenberg said.
The Jets will count heavily on offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who has become one of the most reliable quarterback tutors in the game and whose influence helped Fitzpatrick produce a career year in 2015. Gailey clearly saw enough in Hackenberg to offer his blessing with such a high draft pick, but he’ll have to do yeoman’s work to recapture the quarterback’s excellence and restore his confidence after two down years.
It would be a far easier task to do that with Fitzpatrick serving as starter and mentor — at least for the time being — but it’s still uncertain whether Fitzpatrick will accede to the Jets’ contract offer. He’d be wise to re-up with the team, even if he can’t get the kind of deal he was looking for, because no other team is showing the least bit of interest in signing him. If he gets the heave-ho from the Jets, then Smith likely serves as the bridge quarterback — even if the Jets ultimately see that as a bridge to nowhere.
That’s plenty of uncertainty at the most important position on the team, but Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles are willing to let things play out. Patience proved to be an ally last season, when Maccagnan brought Fitzpatrick in as insurance and wound up seeing him replace Smith after IK Enemkpali belted him in the locker room last August. The Jets got to within a game of the playoffs at 10-6.
But that one game where they fell short proved Fitzpatrick’s undoing, because his meltdown against the Bills in a win-and-in scenario convinced them he wasn’t the long-term answer.
That designation now belongs to Hackenberg.
The Jets are willing to go against conventional wisdom because of what they think he can do in a conventional offense. But this one will take a while, because Hackenberg will provide no easy — or quick — answers to whether he’ll be what the Jets are looking for in their decades-long search to find the next Joe Namath.