To the dismay of many of the Jets’ faithful a year ago, the organization seemed to put off the long-awaited debut of controversial second-round pick, QB Christian Hackenberg, time and time again. Trapped in the illusion of a “win-now” season, the Jets stashed their touted rookie down in the depths of the depth chart, giving him neither game action nor a chance to compete with incumbent QB Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting job.

Becoming somewhat of an afterthought, Hackenberg failed to even see the field in the Jets’ first two preseason games. Even when he did get in, Hackenberg was woefully unimpressive. Though he opened his career with an efficient touchdown drive, it was blemished by clunky, inconsistent footwork, bad decisions, and disastrous reaction to pressure. Then, to make matters worse, Hackenberg did not take a single snap in the regular season, and was active for just one game. Hackenberg truly was the Jets’ “53rd man”  in 2016, as one ESPN article dubbed him. This combination of poor preseason performance and lack of playing time only seemed to confirm that Hackenberg had been an irresponsible, overzealous draft pick that was now poised to bust.

This past offseason was not kind to Hackenberg, either. The Jets signed journeyman spot-starter Josh McCown early in free agency, only confirming the rhetoric that Hackenberg still wasn’t ready to play. Then, Hackenberg became the subject of ridicule when reports began to come out that his passing was so wild that he was hitting reporters with errant throws. However, the narrative seemed to change slightly in camp. Although the pecking order–McCown first, Petty next, Hackenberg last–largely fit the initial expectations, performance-wise, it seemed much closer. Despite showing obvious signs of inexperience, including allegedly being removed from a drill after failing to correctly break a huddle multiple times, Hackenberg seemed to flash the most talent of the three. This made the Jets’ first preseason game against the Titans so intriguing, as nobody truly knew what to expect.

McCown’s Performance

Last year on the Browns, McCown’s most controversial moment came when he was brought in midway through a Week 10 game against the Baltimore Ravens in relief of Cody Kessler. Although Kessler had been underwhelming thus far, the entire offense was sputtering. WR Corey Coleman, who was coming off a broken hand, was still struggling to both get open and secure catches, and RB Isaiah Crowell managed just 23 total yards against a stifling defensive front. Furthermore, the Browns were actually ahead at the time, 7-6, making the quarterback switch seem gratuitous. However, even despite a horrid performance during which McCown accounted for half as many turnovers (3) as he did completions, Browns’ Hue Jackson defended the move, saying that he wanted to spark the offense with a quarterback that wasn’t quite as conservative as Kessler. This version of McCown–the kind that you throw in to test the waters in a desperation attempt to ignite a stagnant offense–is exactly what the Jets saw against Tennessee. On just four passes, the fewest of any quarterback on the night, McCown managed to provide both the team’s only touchdown and the offense’s top play. On 2nd and 11, McCown dropped a dime to WR Robby Anderson, perfectly placing the ball between CB Logan Ryan and S Kevin Byard. McCown’s night was not without its blemishes, however. On the next play, at the Titans’ 2-yard line, McCown threw behind fullback Julian Howsare in the flat, causing a drop. On an earlier pass, McCown stared down WR Jalin Marshall on a comeback route, minimizing his separation with Logan Ryan. Although it was still a completion, Ryan managed to read the play, and could have easily had an interception with a better jump.

Hackenberg’s Performance

Hackenberg’s night was almost the polar opposite of McCown’s. While McCown was given the “superstar treatment” (one series of action and the rest of the night off), the Jets seemed to learn from last year’s mistake of neglecting their rookie quarterback and promptly put Hackenberg to work. With by far the greatest load of the night–25 pass attempts–Hackenberg played the role of a “game manager” in a strange, almost mechanical sequence. The Jets’ coaching staff seemed to understand that Hackenberg still has a steep learning curve in terms of reading defenses post-snap, and essentially eliminated that facet of the game entirely. Allowing Hackenberg to lean on his pre-snap smarts, one of his strengths coming out of Penn State, and providing frequent motion to help in diagnosing man and zone coverages, this offense only required 1-2 post-snap reads on any given play.

However, even in such a simple offense that was so rife in curl/flat and smash combinations, Hackenberg was still surprisingly impressive. He threw just seven incompletions, and only two came on inaccurate passes; the rest were either drops, throwaways, passes batted at the line, or accurate passes defended by a cornerback. Furthermore, while Hackenberg was clunky in his movement in the pocket, his footwork when throwing the ball was consistently sound, and his throwing motion was much tighter and quicker than a year ago. With both of his misses coming on deep balls, this could be a sign that Hackenberg’s egregious short passing issues could be a thing of the past.

Of course, there were still rough patches to Hackenberg’s play. Though he had no egregiously poor decisions, his one batted ball was largely due to him staring down his target immediately upon getting the snap. Hackenberg’s reaction to pressure was also still noticeably poor. All game, Hackenberg failed to move subtly in the pocket; instead, he invited pressure by standing firm until the rush became imminent, and then moved reactively and inefficiently. He also tended to rush through reads under pressure. Late in the third quarter, Hackenberg prematurely broke the pocket with nobody open, and then promptly threw the ball away without letting a scramble drill develop. Overall, Hackenberg wasn’t asked to do much, but he still looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback. He was accurate short and made a number of pretty throws outside the numbers, including one with some touch to WR Marquess Wilson. With a wild deep ball and a questionable post-snap process, Hackenberg may not be a long-term starting option, but he could be in line for a career as a future backup.

Petty

Petty’s Performance

Bryce Petty actually started the preseason ahead of Hackenberg on the Jets’ “unofficial” depth chart, which made it all the more surprising when Petty not only came in after Hackenberg, but also threw just a measly six passes. However, once he stepped on the field, it became apparent why the Jets were treating him as the odd man out. Although Petty did have one pretty deep pass that was dropped by WR Myles White, Petty also badly missed three different short routes in three different ways.

The most flagrant of these came late in the fourth quarter, when he threw wide to WR Chad Hansen’s wrong shoulder on a comeback route. It may be unfair to judge a quarterback on just six passes, but with such a sharp contrast in consistency between Petty and Hackenberg, along with the clear, evident strides that Hackenberg seems to have made in the short passing game, the decision to play Hackenberg over Petty is completely understandable.

Other Observations

  1. Rookie running back Elijah McGuire looked impressive getting the start with Bilal Powell and Matt Forté both out. Though he was brought down by some arm tackles, he ran with balance and decisiveness, and managed to get to the edge a few times.
  2. The Jets’ defense may not be the most talented, but, against Tennessee, it looked explosive and tenacious. On one particular play early in the game, nickel back Buster Skrine blanketed TE Delanie Walker in the slot, and made a break on QB Marcus Mariota’s pass for a near interception.
  3. WR Chris Harper was not a huge factor, but he showed solid breakaway ability after the catch. On one particular slant from Hackenberg, Harper caught the ball in stride and promptly turned upfield for a big gain.
  4. P Lachlan Edwards shanked a punt for just 14 yards midway through the fourth quarter. Although it was just one play, after an inconsistent rookie season, the Jets could decide to bring in competition if Edwards continues to struggle.
  5. Hackenberg may be able to read a defense pre-snap, but he still needs to master the football basics. He had a botched exchange with a running back early on, and then lost a fumble on a bobbled snap later in the game. This can’t keep happening if he wants to beat out McCown.
  6. Robby Anderson could be a future star. McCown may have placed the 53-yard bomb to Anderson almost perfectly, but Anderson’s instincts in tracking the ball from one shoulder to another should also get some credit. If he bulks up, Anderson has the size, speed, and hands to be a 1000-yard receiver, and maybe more.

Quarterback Battle Prediction

Although Hackenberg played well in the role that was given to him, it is still apparent that the team still views him as a project. With the way that McCown was lackadaisically thrown out there and allowed to freelance before being removed after just one series, it is obvious that the Jets’ staff trust him more than anybody else to be the team’s Week 1 starter. However, if Hackenberg can keep his mechanics consistent and add touch to his deep ball, he should be in line to start later on in the year. Bryce Petty, on the other hand, may actually be on his way out of New York. After a poor performance and a low snap count, Petty is now reportedly being jumped by Hackenberg for first team reps in practice. It seems like a foregone conclusion at this point that he will not win the starting job, and may not even make the team if his play does not improve.

About The Author Dimitriy Leksanov

Dimitriy Leksanov is a New York City high school student and a long-time Jay Cutler defender. Alongside Breaking Football, he is also a writer for the Stuyvesant Spectator and SevenTwentySports. His goal is to one day have a platform to debate and compare opinions and analysis. An aspiring statistician, Dimitriy hopes to take his writing work into college with him and gain experience through Breaking Football.