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Christian Hackenberg is the 2016 NFL Draft's love-him-or-hate-him QB

This year, it's the Penn State quarterback who finds himself caught in the crosshairs.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, the NFL Draft media turns at least one quarterback into a controversial, love-him-or-hate-him figure.

Last year, it was No. 1 pick Jameis Winston, who was investigated for sexual assault during his time at Florida State but never charged. Winston also had been cited for shoplifting crab legs from a grocery store. The year before, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater polarized scouts and fans, one for his pattern of self-destructive behavior and the other for concerns as mundane as thin knees. Though some signal callers — like Manziel — ultimately validate the fears, the dissection of prospects at football's most important position generally serves as fodder during the NFL offseason.

This offseason, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg has assumed their place on that unfortunate pedestal.

An up-and-down college career

Hackenberg first found himself on the NFL's radar before his first season in State College began. As one of the top quarterback recruits coming out of high school, Hackenberg could have gone anywhere for his college ball. He chose Penn State, and held firm to his commitment after sanctions arising from the Jerry Sandusky scandal leveled the program and ended the run of legendary coach Joe Paterno.

Hackenberg started immediately, teaming with Paterno's replacement, Bill O'Brien, to breathe some hope and life back into the program. His numbers as a true freshman — 58.9 percent completion, 2,955 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions — suggested that Hackenberg might become the next great college quarterback and an eventual No. 1 overall pick.

But fate intervened. After Hackenberg's first year on campus, O'Brien bolted to become head coach of the Houston Texans. His successor, Vanderbilt's James Franklin, installed a different offense that catered less to Hackenberg's strengths. As a result, the quarterback struggled over the next two years, playing less efficiently and making silly mistakes too frequently.

While Hackenberg's decline stemmed from some of his own shortcomings, the lion's share of the blame fell on the ill-fitting marriage with Franklin's offense and a porous offensive line. However, when Hackenberg reportedly put the blame on Franklin during the draft process, he found himself at the center of considerable criticism. In professional football, the truth cannot shield one from blame, especially when it involves pointing the finger at a coach.

Underappreciated prospect or overrated burnout?

To some, Hackenberg remains a superbly gifted passer who, when placed in better circumstances, can develop into an elite quarterback at the NFL level. He possesses the size (6'4, 223 pounds), mobility (4.78 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 7.04 seconds in the 3-cone drill) and arm to challenge defenses in a number of ways. Given a clean pocket, Hackenberg can pick apart coverages and throw open receivers when necessary.

When the pass rush collapses upon him, he can keep plays alive with his legs, an all-too-often occurrence his last two years at Penn State. In a draft that where the early first-round expects to yield a cavalcade of great playmakers and quality linemen, multiple general managers could decide to forgo quarterback with their top selection and pursue Hackenberg later on.

However, Hackenberg's critics point to his struggles with accuracy as a chief cause for concern, with some some labelling him as "an average, inaccurate passer." Hackenberg's completion percentage dipped in each successive year, a troubling trend given most top-tier prospects manage to improve or hold steady in that area.

Furthermore, Hackenberg's decision to shift blame onto his coach may serve as a sign of immaturity and pettiness to some teams. How quarterbacks comport themselves matters a great deal — otherwise, Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin III might have stuck around with their original teams.

Hackenberg's tape reveals some on-field concerns as well. While the quarterback had to run for his life behind subpar pass protection, he regularly abandoned the pocket prematurely, stymying the passing game and derailing the offense.

An uncertain future

As with most quarterbacks, where Hackenberg lands could make or break his career. He has the mental acuity to run complex offenses, making adjustments at the line to counteract the defense throughout his career at Penn State. Teams with coaches who can take advantage of those traits and further develop Hackenberg in the pre-snap phase of the game could find themselves with an above-average starter or more.

On the other hand, a team without the capacity to foster such growth could accelerate the downward trajectory that began after O'Brien left the Nittany Lions. And, of course, if Hackenberg lands somewhere without any discernible pass protection, his chances of thriving look grim.

In a best-case scenario, Hackenberg winds up with a team that doesn't expect him to start immediately and allow him to re-acclimate to playing alongside capable football players, an experience he hasn't enjoyed since his freshman year at Penn State. If given enough time, Hackenberg can unlearn the bad habits he developed behind a bad offensive line and without enough playmakers at the skill positions.

Front offices don't generally spend first-round picks on those types of prospects, but the lack of elite quarterbacks in this year's class could push him into the back end of Day 1. If that happens, the pressure to start Hackenberg early could grow too overwhelming, forcing him onto the field prematurely and potentially ruining his future.

Regardless, until Hackenberg proves himself to be a starting quarterback or a former "can't miss" prospect gone astray, the debate around him will continue to rage.

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NFL Draft: Breaking down the top quarterbacks

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