By Chris Emma–
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — Every NFL executive at Lucas Oil Stadium has some sort of opinion on Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. After all, when a player’s stock starts so high and plummets, a festival of intrigue commences.
Hackenberg came to Penn State as the rocket-armed quarterback prototype. He flourished as a freshman under the tutelage of coach Bill O’Brien, former quarterbacks coach for Tom Brady in New England.
In the two seasons that followed, Hackenberg was beat up and appeared flustered with James Franklin’s regime. He never seemed to be the same quarterback. As a result, that stock as the first-overall pick dropped him out of the first round. Hackenberg has heard all the criticism.
“The most important thing is that I’m trustworthy,” Hackenberg said. “I’ve been through adversity, I’ve been battle tested, and I’ve handled that. I haven’t flinched, and I’m still willing to work.”
Hackenberg finished his junior season with 2,525 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, but he was pounded along the way — physically, due to a porous offensive line, and mentally, as expectations crashed down on him. That confidence was temporarily crushed.
With how high Hackenberg was projected to ascend after his freshman season, he could really only go down. Perhaps he was nothing more than the unfair byproduct of unrealistic expectations — projecting a raw freshman to be a top draft pick years later — but maybe the fall from grace was deserved. NFL Network expert Mike Mayock said Hackenberg’s future “scares” him.
“I just want to be the best player I can be,” Hackenberg said. “Whatever I have to do, the step I have to take, the sacrifices I have to make, I’m willing to do it.
“My biggest fear is not being able to reach my full potential.”
Thursday in Indianapolis saw Hackenberg stand before the media the same way he sat in front of NFL teams — as a humbled figure.
Hackenberg’s upside comes in that rocket arm and football IQ, but the negatives were seen on the football field these past two falls.
“Christian’s a very talented guy. … Christian can throw the football,” said O’Brien, his former coach at Penn State. “He’s got a strong arm, he’s smart.”
Count the Bears among teams that will have a tough decision to make on Hackenberg. His stock has fallen to a second- or third-round value. Jared Goff (California) will be a top-five pick, while Paxton Lynch (Memphis) and Carson Wentz (North Dakota State) will likely be selected in the first round. Character concerns about Connor Cook (Michigan State) may make Hackenberg that next quarterback available.
Bears brass met with Hackenberg this week at the NFL Combine, looking for a potential first-round value in the middle rounds. General manager Ryan Pace has stated his desire to draft a quarterback each year. At the least, the Bears want to have a backup in place behind Jay Cutler, but perhaps there will also be potential for that player to be the next quarterback in Chicago.
Of course, the odd quirk is that Hackenberg’s most similar comparison is Cutler — both quarterbacks have strong arms but are prone to mistakes. Pace could make the middle-round move for Hackenberg or wait until the later rounds and bolster the roster with more immediate needs that quarterback.
Decisions will follow in the coming weeks to months, with Hackenberg looking to sway the perception of his game.
Hackenberg displayed maturity and grace in handling tough questions from reporters Thursday. Surely, NFL executives have even more difficult inquiries for a quarterback far from his best form.
“I can get better,” Hackenberg said. “I know my potential, and I’m on the right path to reach it.”