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Christian Hackenberg Probably Has a Guaranteed Roster Spot, But Should He?

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NFL: New York Jets at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Around this time each summer, you frequently will hear NFL team executives say they will keep the best 53 players on their roster. This isn’t always true. To be honest, it would be foolish for that to always be the criteria.

Salaries matter. Imagine a team had two players at the same position. Imagine Player B was 90% as good as Player A, but his salary was half as large as Player A’s salary. It would probably make sense to keep Player B even though he wouldn’t be the best player. The money saved could be used to make another position better and more than offset the 10% difference in talent.

Age also matters. Now imagine Player A and Player B had the same salary and are both third stringers. Player B still is 90% as good as Player A. Player B is 22 years old, and Player A is 32 years old. Again, it would make sense to keep Player B. No, he wouldn’t be the best player, but neither would be likely to see much playing time as third stringers. The question would be how the team could maximize the value of its practice reps. Player B could use those practice reps during the season to improve and maybe become a starter next year. Player A probably won’t get much better.

Talent is very important. Most decisions on cutdown day do come down to talent, but other factors pop up. Some of these are valid like the instances mentioned above.

It isn’t always about the most talented player today. All teams in the NFL are striking a balance between trying to win now and develop talent for the future at the same time. Some players might be deemed worth keeping around because they have potential for the future even if they aren’t ready to contribute right now.

There are other reasons teams do not base their decisions on pure talent, however. Some of them are less inspired. There are instances where teams keep players around out of pride and fear of criticism.

When we discuss Christian Hackenberg, I think about all of the reasons teams keep players that go beyond talent. A year ago it was difficult to argue that Hackenberg was one of the 53 best players the Jets had breaking training camp. There was never any doubt they would keep him around, though. It was about potential. Mike Maccagnan and the coaching staff admitted from the outset they did not envision Hackenberg setting foot on an NFL field in 2016. They did believe enough in his future potential to use a second round pick on him, though.

The selection of Hackenberg was controversial at the time. A second round pick generally does not draw the skepticism and criticism Hackenberg draw in the immediate aftermath of the pick. But it isn’t often a player with as large a track record of struggles in college and as short a track record of success in college goes in the second round.

A year later, little has happened to change that initial skepticism. The Jets claimed at the start of training camp Hackenberg had a legitimate chance to win the starting quarterback job. There was debate as to how serious the Jets were, but it seems moot at this point. Hackenberg’s performance in the preseason has put to end almost all hopes he could competently run an NFL offense by Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season.

Sometimes statistics do not tell the whole story, particularly when it comes to quarterback play. That is partially true with Hackenberg. His 61.5% completion percentage in preseason oversells how accurate he has been. Other numbers are more accurate. His unfathomable 5.1 average yardage per pass, 15.8% sack rate, and 1-3 TD-Turnover ratio do accurately portray how poor he has been at making plays, navigating the pocket, and protecting the football.

Despite all of this, Hackenberg’s spot on the roster is almost definitely secure. He was a second round pick from a year ago. It would be an enormous embarrassment for the front office to admit defeat on a second round pick after his second preseason and lead to heavy criticism. The Jets also likely still believe Hackenberg has potential. I am sure that factor plays into it, but the monumental criticism the team would face likely by itself takes waiving Hackenberg off the table.

The question I have is whether it should.

Yes, the Jets did use a second round pick on Hackenberg a year ago. A second round pick is a fairly sizable investment. No matter what happens going forward, the Jets will not get that pick back. There needs to be a better reason to keep a player than simply the Draft pick the team used on him.

And I think there are real issues with any other rationale.

It is popular now to say that Hackenberg is like a rookie. We have even heard some people with the Jets organization say it themselves. It is a useful way to explain Hackenberg’s struggles. The problem is that it isn’t true.

Hackenberg isn’t a rookie. He is in his second season. No, he doesn’t have playing experience. He does have things under his belt that no rookie has, though. They include two full training camps, a year full of meetings, a year full of practices, a year to digest an NFL playbook (albeit a different playbook from year one to year two), and a year of film sessions to look at how NFL defenses try to beat quarterbacks.

Hackenberg might not have the experience somebody like Carson Wentz has as a second year player, but it feels like a dubious proposition to me to pretend he doesn’t have a year under his belt.

One of the big problems here is that he is now over a year removed from leaving Penn State. The hope has always been that some distance from his college experience would leave to him breaking some of those bad habit. Yet in this preseason we’ve seen a lot of the same problems that plagued him in college from inaccuracy to ball protection to blindness to the pass rush.

This is problematic in a couple of senses. First, you always want to see a young player making clear and appreciable progress. We aren’t seeing that. Maybe you can argue there has been some progress, but it isn’t encouraging if we even have to debate it. In this case I think at best we have to debate it.

Second, is simply Hackenberg’s starting point. When I watch him in preseason, I can’t get over how much he looks like the overwhelmed Penn State quarterback I watched during his college career. Say what you will about Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith. When those two guys struggled it made me say, “Mark/Geno looks nothing like the guy I saw at USC/West Virginia.” It happens. The NFL is a tough league for quarterbacks. You can be good enough to have success in college but not good enough to be a quality NFL quarterback. At least Mark and Geno were starting their NFL careers from points where they had shown the talent to be good college quarterbacks. Hackenberg is starting from a lower point not having a successful college career. As much as Mark and Geno needed to grow to become successful NFL quarterbacks, Hackenberg needs to grow even more.

And even this doesn’t properly state the current situation. Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith might be bad by the standards of NFL quarterbacks, but there are different levels of bad. They bring skills to the table.

If you use Sanchez on play action and bootlegs, he can use his ball handling and mobility to make plays.

If Geno’s first read is open, he can deliver the ball decisively and with authority.

We can add a third bad quarterback friend to the mix. Ryan Fitzpatrick might be a bad NFL quarterback, but can help camouflage a shaky offensive line with his ability to make presnap reads and get the ball out quickly.

None of these skills are enough to make these guys quality NFL quarterbacks. If you are asking them to cook the meal, you are not in for a satisfying dining experience. If you ask them to make an appetizer, however, things could work out provided you have a great defense to cook an entree, an offensive line to pick out a fine wine, and skill players to make dessert.

Hackenberg has looked so overwhelmed in every aspect of his game that Sanchez, Smith, and Fitzpatrick aren’t apt comparisons. The lack of accuracy, pocket presence, decision making, and ability to make reads reminds me of the likes of Ryan Lindley and Curtis Painter.

In our analogy, Hackenberg is tripping coming out of the kitchen and dropping the bowl of potato chips and dip.

I hope you appreciate that it brings me no pleasure to write any of this, but it is relevant. Once again I think it is difficult to argue that Hackenberg is one of the 53 best players the Jets have in camp, which is saying something given the low talent level of the roster. Keeping him depends almost entirely on projecting success for his future.

The two things to consider in this projection are how good the player is now and how likely massive improvement is. Well, the current performance is quite poor, and his trendlines have remained flat for around two years. This is a troubling combination.

I know a popular response will be that a team can’t give up on a second round pick after two years and how young players require patience, but I would argue this sentiment risks missing the forest from the trees. The fact of the matter is the Jets are going to give up on dozen of young players over the next week. They are required to do so. Teams have to cut from 90 players down to 53 after their last preseason game. A lot of young players will be gone without any chance of developing further.

You can say that it’s bad to give up on a player you drafted too soon, but keeping a player around solely due to his Draft position means there will be one less roster spot for another young player. It might be somebody with more upside who just was not drafted as highly.

Let me make this clear. I am not saying definitively the Jets should cut Christian Hackenberg. (I hereby award 50 points to the first comment I get who doesn’t read the article in context and suggests I am saying the Jets need to cut Hackenberg.)

Hackenberg still has one more preseason game. An excellent outing Thursday night against the Eagles can put some of these concerns to bed and make it clear he is worthy of a roster spot the same way Bryce Petty did Saturday night.

My point is that the Jets need to think long and hard about future potential. There has to be a better reason to keep a player than, “We picked him in the second round.”

This is true when comparing Hackenberg to the other 89 players competing for roster spots. It is true when comparing Hackenberg to options who hit the waiver wire next weekend. If the combination of Hackenberg’s short-term value and long-term potential make him one of the 53 most worthy players of a roster spot, the Jets should keep him.

But that is the only scenario where he should be kept. You might receive short-term criticism from fans and media for cutting ties with a player early. If the player is not successful, holding onto him only delays that criticism.

If the Jets want to turn this franchise around, they need to keep the players who most deserve to be on the team, regardless of pedigree.