Jets GM stakes his reputation to polarizing QB Christian Hackenberg

New York Jets GM Mike Maccagnan saw something he liked in Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

The New York Jets' controversial decision to draft Christian Hackenberg really comes down to this: Do you trust Mike Maccagnan's eyes and instincts?

Every analyst in the football industry, from Jon Gruden to Johnny Blogger, has an opinion about Hackenberg, the polarizing Penn State quarterback. None of them matter; it's all white noise. Only one viewpoint counts, and Maccagnan already has shared it with the world. He's a lifelong talent evaluator who has staked his reputation to Hackenberg. It's probably an overstatement to say it will define his tenure as general manager -- after all, it's only a second-round pick we're talking about -- but it's an investment that could elevate the Jets or set them back two or three years.

The analytic geeks say Hackenberg is a bum, that he had no business being drafted at all. According to Pro Football Focus, he completed only 35 percent of his passes when under duress and, my God, look at those hands -- only nine inches. How is he supposed to grip the ball in cold weather?

Maccagnan is getting paid a lot of money to look past the statistics and the metrics. His job is to study the player, to determine why and how, and to figure out if the kid has the stomach to thrive in the crucible of New York.

Hackenberg threw 1,235 passes at Penn State, and Maccagnan dissected every one of them -- the good, the bad and the ugly. The player's body of work wasn't impressive, certainly not worthy of the 51st selection, but good scouts take a deep dive.

"I think with a lot of players in general, you look at the parts and the pieces of the player," Maccagnan said.

He looked at Hackenberg's parts and pieces, determining there's enough good stuff to build a winning NFL quarterback. Of all the draft-eligible quarterbacks -- 15 were selected over three days -- Maccagnan opted to attend only one private workout.

It wasn't Jared Goff. It wasn't Carson Wentz. It was Hackenberg.

The Jets' top football man has been eyeing the Penn State passer for months, according to one scouting source. It probably goes back even further. Maccagnan and Hackenberg's first college coach, Bill O'Brien, overlapped for a year with the Houston Texans. You have to be naive to think that Hackenberg's name didn't come up in conversation around the water cooler. Hackenberg played his best ball for O'Brien, in 2013, so you have to assume he praised him in discussions with Maccagnan.

Maccagnan carried those thoughts to his job with the Jets, known for quarterback instability. With Geno Smith still unproven and entering the final year of his contract, with Bryce Petty still a project and with lean quarterback classes on the horizon, the GM decided to make his bold play in this draft.

"We feel we got a good player, and we're going to work with him to become a better player," said coach Todd Bowles, whose coaching future will be determined, in part, by the Hackenberg experiment.

Picking a quarterback in the second round wasn't a bad idea. After all, Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick (if he returns) probably will be gone next year, leaving what exactly? A second-round pick for a potential starter is sound risk management, but did they pick the right quarterback? It seems like a reach. Denver Broncos GM John Elway could've drafted Hackenberg at the bottom of the first round, but he preferred Paxton Lynch. Do the Jets know more about quarterbacks than Elway, who mastered the position as a player and has excelled as an executive?

Maybe. Maybe not.

If the Jets are smart, they'll be patient with Hackenberg and sit him for a year, allowing their resident quarterback whisperer -- Chan Gailey -- to rebuild the kid from the neck up. The knock on him in college was that he frustrated easily, lacked pocket presence and didn't feel the rush. Of course, getting sacked 103 times can do that to a quarterback. He never hit the 60-percent mark in a season, and that's troubling because the passing windows will only get tighter in the NFL. All but one starting quarterback reached the 60-percent plateau at least once in college; the lone exception is the Buffalo Bills' Tyrod Taylor, who got as high as 59.7

Clearly, Maccagnan isn't buying into the numbers. He's relying on his eyes and instincts. If he's right, it's genius. If he's wrong ... well, look what happened to his predecessors.