Christian Hackenberg knows exactly why he is considered a curiosity among professional quarterbacks. He was rated highly enough to be a second-round pick in the 2016 draft, but now, as he attempts to find a job in his third professional season, Hackenberg has yet to take a snap in a regular-season game.
"Everyone's path is different. Things happen to people and certain things get presented to you," Hackenberg said. "There are challenges and situations and you see how you react. I know I'm mentally tough enough to handle everything."
Thursday night, in the NFL's annual dress rehearsal for the understudies, Hackenberg will get playing time with the Eagles. It's hard to say how much, but he will be taking snaps in a game for the first time since Aug. 31, 2017, exactly 365 days before.
There is irony in the fact that the previous game was also Jets vs. Eagles in the exhibition season finale, but with Hackenberg making a last-ditch attempt to fit into the plans of the team that drafted him. In this game on Thursday, he has virtually no chance to survive Saturday's roster cut to the 53-man limit. He does have practice squad eligibility, although that would be a long comedown for Hackenberg. Still, he doesn't have many other options, except, of course, opening eyes elsewhere with a strong performance against the Jets.
"I'm optimistic," Hackenberg said. "I take this as an opportunity to go out and play and that's just how I focus on it. I'll be able to get some reps under my belt."
To put Hackenberg's situation in perspective, you have to tell the story of quarterback Gene Bradley, who was taken in the second round of the 1980 draft, 37th overall, by the Buffalo Bills. It was kind of a reach. Bradley was really a converted running back and his senior year at Arkansas State had been good, but not that good. Buffalo took him, however, and he stayed with the Bills two seasons as the third-string quarterback behind Joe Ferguson. Never took a snap.
In the drafts since 1980, there have been 118 quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds. Hackenberg is the only one since Bradley who didn't get on the field at any point of his first two seasons in the league. Mike Elkins did, Timm Rosenbach did, Dan McGwire did, Oliver Luck did, Matt Kofler did. It's quite a list. But Christian Hackenberg didn't.
"I'm confident enough in myself to know that I can play," Hackenberg said. "When I get the opportunity, I am going to take it and run with it. I just have to continue to put the time in. I'm still young, and I've got that on my side."
Hackenberg was a no-doubt five-star recruit coming out of high school, a prototype pocket passer who fielded a slew of big-time scholarship offers before selecting Penn State. He stayed with that commitment as the school went through the sanctions that followed the Jerry Sandusky scandal and had an excellent freshman season in the pro-style attack of Bill O'Brien, the former offensive coordinator with the Patriots.
His production declined in his sophomore and junior years when James Franklin arrived and instituted more of a spread offense. After declaring for the 2016 draft, Hackenberg reportedly told several teams in interviews that Franklin was the cause of his struggles. Some of the NFL coaches and scouts saw his point, but liked to hear prospective quarterbacks accept more accountability.
Hackenberg, at 6-foot-4, 228 pounds and possessing a big arm, good pocket presence and a reputation for toughness and durability, slipped into the second round to the Jets at the 51st pick. His drawbacks were as well-scouted as his gifts, and they included some fundamental inconsistencies with his footwork and release that led to inaccurate passes.
In two years with the Jets, initially behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty, and last season behind Josh McCown and Petty, Hackenberg remained an afterthought. He was traded to the Raiders in May, then cut by Oakland less than a month later. He worked out on his own before being brought into camp by the Eagles on Aug. 12.
Since coming to the Eagles, Hackenberg has drilled down into into his mechanics and says the Eagles coaching staff has him feeling more fluid and comfortable than he can remember.
"The people here have done a great job of providing me with the resources to get better," Hackenberg said. "You tend to hit your stride at some point. Each day's gotten easier."