FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There were no fireworks in the New York Jets' war room that night. It was routine and businesslike in the moments leading up to their most controversial draft pick in recent memory.
General manager Mike Maccagnan, standing by the draft board, consulted with director of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger. After a couple of minutes of quiet conversation, Maccagnan walked over to owner Woody Johnson and apprised him of their choice. He did the same with coach Todd Bowles, who nodded. With that, they turned in the card.
With their second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the Jets selected Christian Hackenberg, quarterback, Penn State.
The aftermath was anything but routine.
Some people in the organization were surprised; some fumed. Hackenberg was regarded as a developmental quarterback -- a reclamation project, some believed -- which made it a stunner with the 51st overall pick. He never played a single down for the Jets, or any other team -- a rarity for such a high pick. All but 11 of the 1,303 players drafted in the first and second rounds from 2000 to 2020 have appeared in at least one game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Three of the 11 are still active. Of the other eight, Hackenberg was the only healthy scratch.
"I was shocked when they took him, and I had a pretty good source with the Jets at the time, and he was livid when they made that pick," ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said. "He was just absolutely pissed off, like, 'This is the guy? This is who we're tying ourselves to?' When you draft a quarterback that early, you're tied to him. It was kind of the beginning of the end for them."
Five years later, the Jets are searching for a quarterback again. There's a new coaching staff and new optimism, a belief that the player they choose with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, on ESPN and the ESPN App) -- presumably, BYU's Zach Wilson -- will become a star. He will follow Sam Darnold, who followed Hackenberg, who followed Geno Smith, who followed Mark Sanchez -- all first- and second-round picks since 2009.
The Hackenberg pick stings the most.
Quite frankly, the subject is radioactive. Even though the top decision-makers and coaches no longer are employed by the Jets, seemingly eliminating any fear of reprisal, it was hard to find anyone willing to speak on the record. Maccagnan, who hasn't done any interviews since being fired two years ago, declined comment. Bowles didn't return a message. Chan Gailey, the offensive coordinator in Hackenberg's rookie year, said in a text message: "Sorry, but I don't care to give any opinion on this subject."
'Eyebrows were raised'
In theory, what Maccagnan did wasn't outrageous. He drafted a player with intriguing physical traits who showed promise as a freshman in a pro-style offense under coach Bill O'Brien. Hackenberg was a strong-armed, 6-foot-4 pocket passer. As scouts like to say, "He looked the part." The problem was when Maccagnan picked him.
The second round was too high to take a flyer on a quarterback, immediately sparking a firestorm in the New York media. At the time, the plan was to re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had a career year in 2015, but the sides were in the midst of a contract dispute. The Jets also had Smith and Bryce Petty on the roster.
It became a four-quarterback circus. (Yep, the Jets kept all four on the roster, another rarity.) After the pick, a frustrated assistant coach expressed his displeasure to Bowles, a source said. Some in the building blamed Maccagnan, calling him the driving force behind the decision.
After Day 2 of the draft, Maccagnan and Bowles did their customary joint news conference, in which they faced a barrage of questions. In fact, 28 of the 30 questions were related to Hackenberg and the quarterback situation. Maccagnan used the word "potential" 19 times with regard to Hackenberg. Bowles said he was "fine with the pick," but he was being a good soldier, sources said. He wasn't a fan of the pick, and quite obviously, he never trusted Hackenberg enough to put him on the field, not even in garbage time in the meaningless 2017 season finale.
The Jets did a lot of homework on Hackenberg, with Maccagnan, Bowles, Gailey and others driving to State College, Pennsylvania, for a clandestine pre-draft workout. After the workout, which got mixed reviews, the group lunched at a local brew pub. The Masters was being shown on the TV, so Hackenberg and Gailey -- an avid golfer -- chatted about that.
Forget the green jacket. A couple of weeks later, Hackenberg had a green helmet.
"He needed to be completely retooled because the size was there, the arm was there, but I've never seen a player struggle more mentally," said Miller, recalling his pre-draft scouting report. "There would be games where he would one-hop a bubble screen at Penn State and he would fall apart. He had no confidence anymore. If the Jets had drafted him in the third or fourth round, it would've been like, 'We're going to try to rebuild this guy.' I think it's a different story when they drafted him in the second round."
On draft night, the Jets thought they had lost Hackenberg when the Houston Texans -- coached by O'Brien -- traded up one spot ahead of them. Surely, O'Brien would make the move to reunite with the former five-star recruit who impressed everybody in Happy Valley. This was before Penn State changed coaches and schemes, going to James Franklin and a spread offense.
As it turned out, O'Brien drafted a guard.
"That's your coach who was with you at Penn State, and he's not jumping at the opportunity to draft you? That's a red flag," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.
"When they made that pick," one AFC scout said of the Jets, "eyebrows were raised and you shook your head."
By all accounts, Hackenberg was earnest and well-liked by teammates and coaches during his two years in New York. Early on, wide receiver Brandon Marshall was blown away by his potential. Anticipating a career in the media, he kept notes on players, figuring he could refer to them years later. He pulled up his Hackenberg notes and shared them with ESPN, as he did with Hackenberg in '16. A sampling:
Wow!! Best ball I have ever caught in my 10 years in the league. This kid has it. He'll play 15 years. ... I fell in love with him when he pulled me to the side and asked to sit in on my film session, so he could pick my brain. He gets it. WRs will run through a brick wall for him. ... 100 steps ahead of Jay Cutler when we started in 2006. The kid is a star!! Now let's wait and see."
Marshall admitted he was wrong about him. What happened?
"[It] had to be mental, because he literally went to the other end of the spectrum. Couldn't complete a ball," Marshall said, adding that Hackenberg was a "good teammate" and wishes him well.
Some believe Hackenberg developed a case of the yips, as he struggled with his accuracy. The worst case happened in the 2017 season opener, when he was designated the No. 2 quarterback because of an injury to Petty. During the pregame warm-ups, he repeatedly missed receivers. Mind you, it was against air -- no defenders. This was akin to a basketball player missing layups in the layup line.
The alarming display, never reported by the media, stunned teammates and coaches. Standing on the field, one assistant coach said to another, "This is embarrassing." He was so wild, the coaches considered it a distraction. The following week, Petty was rushed back as the QB2 and Hackenberg was relegated to clipboard duty. The demotion, coaches believe, shattered his confidence.
Hackenberg had a hitch in his delivery, which he later tried to correct by hiring an outside quarterbacks coach. He also has small hands; he measured only nine inches at the 2016 NFL scouting combine, which ranked in the ninth percentile among quarterbacks, according to nflcombineresults.com. One school of thought was that he couldn't grip the ball optimally, causing anxiety and leading to erratic throwing.
In his first preseason action in 2016, Hackenberg threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to cap a 75-yard drive on his first series. After that, it was downhill. His big chance came the following preseason, when he started against the Detroit Lions. On the third play, he failed to recognize a front-side blitz and was clobbered, leaving a welt on his chin.
The most discouraging part was that he practiced against that exact blitz during the run-up to the game. He had three reps in practice; he messed up the first but nailed the last two, reading the blitz and finding his "hot" receiver. Everybody felt confident that he'd execute it properly if that particular blitz came up in the game. When he blew it, it was a strong message to the coaching staff that he didn't have the instincts to perform under the bright lights.
At that moment, Hackenberg was finished with the Jets. Bowles mentioned the possibility of playing him in the final game of the 2017 season, a blowout loss to the New England Patriots, but he opted against it even though Hackenberg was dressed that day as the QB2. Later, Bowles told friends he didn't want to put him in harm's way, fearing he wouldn't be able to protect himself. No doubt, he did it to save all parties from potential embarrassment.
Shortly after drafting Darnold in 2018, the Jets traded Hackenberg to the Las Vegas Raiders for a 2019 conditional seventh-round pick, but he lasted only three weeks under coach Jon Gruden, who as an ESPN analyst once raved about Hackenberg's upside. Hackenberg spent time on the Philadelphia Eagles' training-camp roster and the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad before an ill-fated run in the Alliance of American Football.
Now his playing days are over. In March, he landed a coaching gig at Winslow Township High School in New Jersey. He coaches the quarterbacks. As for the Jets, they haven't had a winning season since the 2016 draft.