Why PFF doesn’t have a draftable grade on Christian Hackenberg

Penn State QB's accuracy and ability to handle pressure are two red flags that emerged in three years of PFF college grades.

| 6 months ago
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Why PFF doesn’t have a draftable grade on Christian Hackenberg


Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2016 NFL draft. There are evaluators who have stated that they believe Hackenberg should go in the second round of the draft. Still others have said that his performance on tape is worrying enough that he should drop further than the second tier of passers, but the tools are still clearly there for him to potentially be an NFL-caliber quarterback.

I hold a different opinion: I don’t believe Christian Hackenberg should even be drafted.

That seems like hyperbole, and it is not intended to come across as a slam against a player who is working hard for his shot to play in the NFL. But the truth is that instead of hyperbole it is actually an honest assessment backed up by three years of play-by-play grading, tape study and data.

Here is why my analysis and that of the PFF team has led me to believe that Hackenberg is not a draftable prospect in this class:

Inaccuracy

There isn’t a more inaccurate quarterback prospect in this draft with a reasonable chance at being drafted. Hackenberg is inaccurate at every level of the field, on all throws and against all coverages.

This season his completion percentage when adjusted for drops, spikes, etc. was 64.0 percent, which was 120th in the nation. In 2014, he was 105th. Every accuracy number you look at sees Hackenberg struggle, and the tape shows the same thing.

Even when under no pressure at all this past season, he completed just 61.9 percent of his passes. That’s the same completion percentage Cardale Jones managed on all plays, not just pressure plays, and Jones is a player whose accuracy is seen as a negative.

Hackenberg’s completion percentage under no pressure at all of 61.9 percent would only have ranked 44th in the nation, if it was his real completion percentage.

Completion percentage can be affected by many things, but if you dive a little deeper and look specifically at his ball placement, things get even worse. Hackenberg completed 192 passes this past season, but when we charted ball location for quarterbacks in this draft class, 55 of those catches were badly located passes. He was only accurate on 48.1 percent of attempts when throwing to open receivers. By comparison, Cody Kessler was accurate on 73.2 percent of his attempts to open receivers, Carson Wentz was at 61.2 percent. Even Cardale Jones, our inaccuracy comp in this exercise, was 5 percent better when throwing to open guys.

Hack WR Screen Miss

I have never seen a quarterback consistently miss as many wide receiver screens as Hackenberg. Receiver screens are supposed to be high-percentage plays. In college, the average receiver screen pass is only off-target on 4.75 percent of attempts. In the NFL that figure becomes 3.45 percent, and the worst mark any QB has posted over the past three seasons is Chad Henne, at 8.47 percent. Last season, Hackenberg was off-target on 15.8 percent of his receiver screen passes — around five times more inaccurate than the average NFL QB.

The story only gets worse on passes 11 to 20 yards down the field. He is accurate in ball-location terms on just 27.5 percent of them (the best QBs in this class are up around 50 percent). From 21 to 30, yards he is down at 12.0 percent (with the best marks around 40 percent).

Hackenberg is capable of occasionally brilliant passes, and every now and then, exceptional accuracy. But when looking at his entire body of work, our assessment is that he is far too inaccurate to play in the NFL.

Decision-making

All quarterbacks can be caught out, or baited, or somehow convinced to attempt a pass they shouldn’t, but at least an evaluator can usually work out where the play broke down and what tempted him into taking the shot. Hackenberg regularly has plays where the pass has little to no chance of succeeding, but he puts the ball in the air anyway.

That is a fatal flaw for an NFL quarterback, as QBs need to be able to read what happens before and after the snap to put the ball in the right place. Sometimes Hackenberg can do exactly that, but far too often he appears to simply decide not to, and those plays lead to simple turnovers.

PFF’s play-by-play grading scale works from minus-2 to plus-2 in 0.5 increments. Minus-1.5 and minus-2 throws are catastrophic plays that usually result in a turnover. Hackenberg has 37 of them over his college career, equivalent to a catastrophically bad pass on 3.1 percent of his attempts. Jared Goff, by contrast, threw one on 1.1 percent in 2015. Even Michigan State QB Connor Cook, whom we have noted throughout his draft evaluation for his bad habit of reckless throws, threw one on 1.5 percent — or less than half the rate of Hackenberg.

Hackenberg regularly does not see defenders breaking on the ball or cutting underneath his intended receiver. Against Temple in the first game of this season, he missed a defensive end dropping straight under a quick slant and almost tossed him a pick-six. Last year against Indiana he tossed the ball straight to a defender who was cutting in front of his bubble screen and did throw a pick-six:

Hack Pick Six

Turning the ball over at the NFL level is the cardinal sin of quarterback play. Most top passers now have historically low interception and turnover rates. Hackenberg puts the ball in that kind of danger far too often, at a far lower level of competition.

Controlling pressure

Quarterbacks play a role in the rate at which they face pressure — it isn’t simply a function of the offensive line. This is important to keep in mind when evaluating Hackenberg.

Many have cited Penn State’s poor pass protection as a reason for Hackenberg’s struggles, and to be clear, it’s not as though I thought he had the benefit of a great offensive line. But let’s look at the 2015 season opener against Temple as an example of how Hackenberg deserved some blame for the amount of pressure he was under.

Hackenberg was under pressure on 17 of his 36 dropbacks in that game, but only seven of those pressures were charged to the offensive line. That means nearly 60 percent of the pressure he was under in that game was not surrendered by his O-line, and much of it was clear from before the snap.

Free-Rusher-Middle

Temple regularly showed six rushers before the snap, came with all of them, and Hackenberg was surprised by the free rusher despite only having five men in the protection. Some might want to cut him a break for the free rusher the offense couldn’t pick up, but it’s his job to understand that it is coming from the pre-snap read and be prepared to get rid of the ball quickly.

Don’t get me wrong: Hackenberg’s line was not good at Penn State, but it wasn’t the prohibitive collection of uniformed turnstyles that they’ve been made out to be, either. As a unit they surrendered 135 total pressures in 2015, which is bad, but 15 other teams managed worse, including Goff’s California Bears (154). 45 other offensive lines surrendered pressure at a greater rate than Hackenberg’s line last season. And in 2014, we charged Hackenberg with eight of the sacks he took, which is five more than any single lineman gave up.

In fact, since he has been the quarterback, Hackenberg has been directly to blame for more sacks than any single lineman blocking for him, and that doesn’t even touch the ones he was indirectly at fault for by being unable to effectively diagnose the pressure looks he was presented with.

Lack of upside

Much of the positive buzz around Hackenberg as a prospect has to do with the fact that he looks the part of an NFL QB. But while Hackenberg can make every throw you can think of, and does have some beautiful passes in his tape, the frequency with which he is able to produce them is concerning.

In 2015, Hackenberg produced a pass graded at plus-1 or higher (a stat we have taken to calling “Big-Time Throws,” much to my distress) on 2.68 percent of his attempts. 151 QBs were better than that, and only nine were worse.

But what about 2013?

One of the narratives around Hackenberg is that his play dropped off after an impressive true freshman campaign in 2013 — when Bill O’Brien was his head coach, prior to taking over the Houston Texans’ job, and his top target was Allen Robinson, now one of the league’s best young wide receivers for the Jaguars — due to a subpar supporting cast and poor fit with new Penn State head coach James Franklin. It’s certainly true that his raw numbers were more encouraging that season.

Unfortunately for Hackenberg, when we went back and graded his 2013 campaign, the results were not good. His 2013 season grade was a minus-24.7, which would have ranked third from the bottom in this draft class for the 2015 season.

2016-04-08_08-02-21

Take a look at this table with a group of this year’s quarterbacks and their grades from the 2015 season. I have included each year of Hackenberg at the bottom. Goff leads the way in grading terms by some distance. Carson Wentz graded well, especially considering the time he missed through injury, but the bigger point is that nowhere on this list is there a prospect other than Hackenberg who graded negatively overall.

Lest you think I’m just cherry-picking prospects to ensure that result, the only quarterback prospect in this draft class (other than Hackenberg) with any kind of pro prospects whatsoever to have a negative overall grade is Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, and he at least has the asterisk of only attempting 270 passes in his entire college career.

When you factor in that Hackenberg was only a true freshman, then it probably is fair to say that the 2013 season was his best — but he still earned a lower grade in that season than any QB in this current draft class, and was greatly affected by the benefit of Robinson’s ability to either take routine catches to the house or go up and haul in questionable passes that were thrown as much to the defensive back as they were him.

Hack Robinson

This pass is a good example, as it was thrown straight to a corner who had position over the top and leverage on the receiver, but simply misplayed the ball in the air. Robinson, on the other hand, went up and high-pointed the ball, bringing it in for a big gain. This was a pass that ended up looking very nice based on the result, but probably shouldn’t have been thrown in the first place — even to a receiver as talented as Robinson.

Conclusion

One of the few things left supporting Hackenberg’s draft stock is that he looks like an NFL quarterback. His arm is pretty good, and he ticks most of the measurable boxes, but that’s like a newly created Madden player before you have assigned all the performance attributes like accuracy and decision-making. At that point all you have is a player shell.

While there is good to his game in small flashes, you have to overlook so much bad to see it that it simply isn’t enough. Tim Tebow made some nice throws, too, but it didn’t make him a starting NFL quarterback.

Even the best of Hackenberg is an average, inaccurate passer with a few worrying qualities. In my opinion, his NFL ceiling is as a backup a team hopes it never has to play.

There was a time when Hackenberg was largely seen as a first-round talent, and it’s taken three seasons of poor play for him to be moved down most draft boards to the Day 2 or Day 3 range. But after evaluating him on tape to go along with three seasons of play-by-play data, I can’t see the case for drafting him at all.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • SeattleSteve

    (In a Scott Steiner voice), “Cause He Sucks!”

  • Don Elretseo

    Imagine how good Penn State will be now.

    • https://twitter.com/WayneDorniels Wayne Dorniels

      Sackenberg managed only one field goal before he was hurt in the bowl game. His inexperienced backup McSorley came in and threw two beautiful TD passes and looked much better overall than Sackenberg did.

      It makes you wonder what would have happened if McSorley had been the starter last season.

      • safeplanet

        I thought Hack was terrible. Franklin’s devotion to him reminded me of Joe’s devotion to Morelli.

  • J.Murph

    worst accumulation of horseshit ive rwad in awhile..Better talk to Jordan Palmer and get his view..

  • J.Murph

    2nd round or early third. WATCH GURUS

    • TrueSteel

      Indeed, he will be drafted way too early.

  • shaunhan murray

    What is his average time to throw( seconds per pass)

  • mark jacobs

    Some good points, but disagree with the analysis of the pass to Alan Robinson. While the pass may not have been perfect, down 7 with 35 seconds to go you have to take a chance throwing to your best receiver even if he is covered.

    • PFFSamMonson

      Fair point, it was more to illustrate the kind of throw he would regularly make. Often I’m trying to get a play with the best view on tape as much as anything when that happens. He makes that same throw several other times where the D&D isn;t a factor.

  • Don Weber

    He can’t throw the deep ball. His arm strength is mediocre at best, and I agree accuracy is questionable. His best asset was physical strength and poise but that’s been battered by PSU’s offensive line woes. He was productive as a freshman with a good QB coach, so a later round pick is worth a gamble.

    • Poop & Pee

      Really? One of his strengths is how great his arm is. Maybe you shouldn’t be analyzing QBs if you couldn’t figure that out

      • Don Weber

        Maybe the Jets are stupid. I’ve seen every one of his PSU games and he was one of the worst deep ball passers I’ve seen, both in accuracy and strength.
        Hey, I hope I’m wrong. He’s a good kid who was very admirable with how he dealt with tons of adversity. And the Franklin coaching staff did him no favors. We’ll see.

  • JudoPrince

    Watching this kid play a few times the last two years, I was simply perplexed as to why he was ever considered a top rated talent, particularly by Mel Kiper Jr.

  • NFLFAN

    I’d love to see the author compare Matt McGloin’s college ratings to Hackenberg’s ratings. He makes some valid points, but most of his points ingnore Hack’s upside. McGloin is an undrafted free agent NFL pro who started many games his freshman year and outed Terell Pryor and a 4th-round QB draft pick to own the backup job seemingly for the long-run.

    Hack goes 3rd round IMHO

  • LIONES 1

    Why so much hate for PSU players .He so much a second round player.

    • Lawrance Beasley

      Well, Sam Monson feels differently, and makes some very good points. Do you have any support for your statement? Because an opinion backed by a detailed explanation, video evidence, and facts is more convincing than a random person saying “Nu-uh.”

  • Alex K

    I think the mixed opinions on Hackenburg stem from his productivity under his first coach (I forget his name) before his decline under Franklin. It looked like the guy could play well with decent QB coaching and he has the physical tools.

  • http://www.amazon.com/The-Sibyl-Reborn-ebook/dp/B009KNQHSM James P. Kelly

    Agree 100%. As a PSU fan, I’ve watched him for years and often wondered, “Surely they MUST have a better QB on the bench!” Everything this writer says is spot on…poor decisions, bad accuracy, can’t handle game pressure or pressure [play-by-play] from rushers, low floor and questionable ceiling. He was a bad college QB, period.

  • Allan

    I have repeated said ARob made 2013 catching 60% of Hack’s completions. Yup 60%!!!
    Peak at the 2013 catch by ARob against Michagen. It’s missed his back shoulder by 2 yds. All on ARob!

    I agree with you!!!

  • David Weintraub

    I was taken by his freshman year season and figured he’d improve. He didn’t.

    After watching the Temple game I pretty much knew it was over for him. Just makes bad decisions all day long. Worse than his bad decisions, are when he makes no decisions, which in and of itself is a really bad decision.

    As for the McGloin comments, what he lacked in arm and size, he made up for in brains. He was a good college QB.

    Watch for Phillip Ely to be an even better version of McGloin. Kid lacks all the measurables. I take him ALL DAY over Hackenberg

  • Dean Thomas

    You realize that there are six blockers (not five) and six rushers in the picture where you’re trashing Hackenberg for being shocked by a free rusher?

    • Lawrance Beasley

      Actually if you look at the far right, you will see that the TE screwed up. The TE wasn’t suppose to block, but came over the LT. That caused him to get caught in the block that was suppose to be LT’s block.

  • SkolBro

    Brian Brohm 2.0
    Can’t Wait til the doofus Slackers draft him early!
    SKOL!

  • JOEL ARNOLD

    I absolutely agree with everything said–he is a LOSER! I’ve watched him in a number of Big Ten games, and he just isn’t very good. He would be a wasted pick by anybody, but as a 2nd rounder? That should get somebody fired!

    • glagiak

      amen. unfortunately for Jets fans, Woody Johnson will still be hiring the next GM.

  • Ben

    I’m betting this guy had Todd Marinovich as the next Dan Marino.

  • Bangoor

    I don’t think it’s all because of the O-Line

    https://twitter.com/WillBrinson/status/703611516130426881

  • Simple Truth

    If Hackenberg sucks and any player selected below him exceeds expectations, then it would confirm to me that there is a curse on the Jets!

    • glagiak

      The curse is idiot owners, taking advice on GMs from morons (an executive search firm?!! And then Charlie Caserly – even worse!) Mac should be fired for this; that and all his other reaches. He blew the cap quickly on ageing stars; when they are gone, welcome the new milquetoast fool GM.

      What makes it worse is Woody is 15 years younger than he looks!

      • Simple Truth

        The jury is out on Mac. I’m not happy about the Hackenberg pick especially given that they have Petty. Also I dislike having Fitzpatrick. I think this year he will show NYJ fans how overrated he is. To me with the tough schedule they have this year, the right approach would have been to go young and develop their talent. Also I’m already sick and tired of Bowles’s noncommittal answers to every question. As a season ticket holder with a PSL, I have a sizable investment in this team and I’m not trying to hear anymore excuses from this franchise. I don’t expect to win a Super Bowl this year but I expect to see a direction that leads to a win within five years.

  • BeansNRice

    I can think of a ton of quarterbacks that sucked in college that went on to dominate the nfl…actually I can’t think of one.

    • glagiak

      as a Jets fan, this kills me. First Rex wins two worthless games to keep us from getting Mariota (my favorite QB coming out, possibly ever. Joe Montana cool with crazy athleticism) then we get a new idiot GM, who makes the worst draft pick in the history of football. This guy is no Browning Nagle! I hope there is another Luck/Wilson/Mariota available in 2018, when the Jets best players are all retired and they are going for the top pick again.

  • Poop & Pee

    Although he may not be the best QB in the world the guy’s progression was stunted by awful, not mediocre or bad, but AWFUL OL play, horrible Coaching, terrible play calling, a system he had no business in, and sub par weapons around him. Many times QBs get shaken when they get hit so much, even when there is no pressure they begin to expect it and rush the pass out, which messes with mechanics and destroys whatever accuracy they may have had. Then, if they do not rush it out they tend to force things trying to make a big play because they FINALLY have time to throw.
    I agree he should not be a 1st round pick, I’d personally take him in Round 3. Maybe he isn’t 1 of the best 120 players but QBs always get over-drafted so, whatever. Seeing as teams are so desperate for a Franchise QB I wouldn’t fault a team for taking him in Round 2, especially if your QBs are Geno Smith and Bryce Petty and you are armed with big WRs who can out muscle defenders for a poorly thrown ball (all QBs have poorly thrown balls). Chan Gailey is a freakin’ genius so maybe he can fix the mistakes James Franklin built up in this kid over the last 2 years.

  • Matt Mauro

    The flaw of that chart is that you are comparing him as a Freshman when he was comfortable and growing, to QB’s that have already matured in their comfort zone. Hack was torn out of his comfort zone, after 2013. His coaches changed his footwork, and his technique. He then had to grow into something he wasn’t comfortable being. Even though he graded poorly as a freshman, he had a comfortable framework for him to grow into.

  • Johnny U.

    geno will start and flourish under chan gailey.. he never got his chance

  • Rancid

    This is by far the most unbiased review of Hackenberg’s work I have ever read. As a PSU Alum I am certainly rooting for him to succeed at the Pro level, but his inaccuracy and poor decision making had me wandering why anyone would draft him before round 5. I just assumed his agent sent out a highlight tape and that was all the Jets watched, and a clear indication that whoever is making personnel decisions needs to be replaced in a hurry or start doing some homework. The O-line excuses were just flat out wrong, since he was terrible in all situations as you pointed out, and as any PSU fan is aware of. And you are the first person to point out how Robinson turned what should have been poor games for Hack into pretty decent games.

  • Steve Bobiak

    What do you think now all you non jocks. His first drive as a pro was perfect with not a lot of reps. Bill O’Brien said he was the second best QB next to Brady that he coached. I was a head coach and I know in college you can’t throw well on your ass. Franklin, at Penn State, was given the keys to a Mercedes but couldn’t drive a Chevy .Christian is going to make rookie mistakes but he did better than Goef or Wentz on their debut.

    • bob

      Well what do YOU think now? 11/31 for 54 yards and an INT against second and third stringers, with all but 18 yards coming in the last minute of the game.