He has heard your Fargo jokes, and your Brainerd jokes. He knows it’s amusing that he left Brainerd, Minnesota to go to Fargo, much like police chief Marge Gunderson did when she tried to nab a couple of incompetent criminals in the Coen brothers’ 1996 cinematic classic. And, if he were to don a garnet plaid shirt, a matching knit cap and cock his right arm with a waving hand, he knows he’d (somewhat) resemble the 12-foot Paul Bunyan statue that welcomes you to his hometown.
Meet Joe Haeg, North Dakota State’s other top draft prospect this year. Unless you’ve muted all NFL draft coverage until today, you know Carson Wentz, the rocket-armed quarterback widely thought to be the top overall selection in the NFL draft on April 28. Haeg is the other guy, the dry-humored, big-bearded northern Minnesotan who, at 6’ 6” and 305 pounds, crams into a Chevy Malibu with a hole in its fender and over 250,000 miles on the odometer. Off the field, he can explain how to stem Fargo’s persistent flooding problems with proper water treatment, beat you in a game of chess and solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute. On the field, he’s the ferocious left tackle who protected Wentz’s blind side for the past two seasons after holding down the right side for the first two.
Unlike Wentz, Haeg will probably enjoy anonymity once his name is called on the second or third day of the draft. While Wentz will inherit the heavy expectations of Los Angeles, Cleveland, San Francisco or Philadelphia, Haeg will receive the congratulatory phone call from his agent, celebrate with family, and then quietly slot into the offensive line rotation for whichever team drafts him.
While only a rare breed of linemen are ready to thrive as rookies (think La’el Collins or Jonathan Ogden), most need more than a year for their technique to match their physical gifts.
Haeg is the opposite. His body is still catching up to him; it’s the technical side that comes naturally. In fact, the technical side of everything—math, environmental engineering, pad level, hand leverage—comes naturally to Haeg. He’s scrupulous in his preparation, whether it’s studying the tendencies of a three-technique defensive lineman or the best way to improve a local water treatment facility.
While Haeg isn’t exactly a “can’t-miss” prospect, his attention to detail has several draft insiders projecting him to be selected within the first 100 picks, a rarity for a lineman out of the Football Championship Subdivision.
NFL teams typically dress about eight or nine offensive linemen per week, so any player suited up must be ready to limit speedy edge rushers, brawny power rushers or oxen-like interior linemen and acknowledge their tendencies. The line prospects that tend to headline draft day—those with 36-inch arms and sub-five-second 40-yard dashes—won’t be containing DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt or Von Miller without an ability to recognize their patterns and where to find leverage. At least proper technique and film study can (maybe) slow them.
“I think that you can be a good football player and have all the strength, all the speed, all the movements, but if you don’t know how to use those skills in the right way, then the talent can be pretty useless,” Haeg says. “The difference between a practice squad player and a Pro Bowler is their technique.”
This is why Haeg believes wherever he is drafted, he could become an immediate asset. His power and core strength are considered his biggest drawbacks, but talk to his former coaches and teammates and they’ll assure you that Haeg can build the muscle just like he has every year over the past five years. Those same coaches, as well as his academic advisers and former employers, will also assure you that, regardless of circumstance, he always arrives prepared. Always.
When Haeg, then around 250 pounds, first arrived on North Dakota State’s campus as a walk-on, strength coach Jim Kramer often confused him for fellow freshman tight end Lucas Albers. Haeg was expected to be a contributor for the Bison after his redshirt season, but offensive line coach Scott Fuchs (now the OL coach at Wyoming) considered him a project that needed serious weight training. He was just so skinny. Fuchs had seen him at North Dakota State’s camp the year before and took notice of his 6' 6" frame, unusually quick feet and remarkable balance. With a regimented weight-training program, Haeg had the natural athletic skill to assume a starting spot on perhaps the most respected team in the FCS.
To gain favor with the coaches, Haeg spent his redshirt season eating five or six meals a day, lifting a lot and studying every game preparation even though he wouldn’t be playing.
He also wanted to be a student. When Haeg arrived at the office of academic advisor Dr. Wei Lin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, he informed Lin that he was intent on not only completing a civil engineering degree, but sought to work summer internships before he was due back on campus for fall camp.
“I had never had a football player in my program before, and I stressed that civil engineering had a very busy course load,” Dr. Lin says. “But Joe immediately showed not only a strong background in science and math to be a good civil engineer, but he had good common sense and people skills.”
The obsession with technique and visualization started early, at least according to his parents, Janet and Richard. In a drawer in the Haeg’s Brainerd home, Janet still keeps a floor plan that Joe sketched of his local YMCA preschool room when he was just four years old. Most kids may like playing with Legos, but Joe’s constructions were visualized and elaborate. Richard, a carpenter by trade who now serves as the maintenance director for local Catholic schools in Brainerd, would take Joe to job sites and notice he not only liked the big equipment, but the building materials.
“I’d say he was about 12 or 13 when he kept asking me for duct tape,” Richard says. “Then I see he’s taken some pool noodles and the duct tape and built a raft. And wouldn’t you know it, the darn thing floated.”
Haeg would challenge himself to keep track of miles in between cities and how much longer he and his parents would be in the car on interminable drives home from hockey tournaments across Minnesota and Wisconsin. A child of the woods, he’d escape outdoors for hours and design forts outside the family’s home that sits across the street from Gull Lake. For two summers during his time at North Dakota State, he interned at AE2S, an environmental and civil engineering firm in Fargo where his primary task was to assist with research on a regional water treatment agreement for the city.
“I’m pretty sure Joe passed me in math by the time he was in the third grade,” Richard says.
The builder’s mentality helped him understand angles as a high school hockey defenseman, whether it was deflecting cross-ice passes, where to lower himself to the ground to block a shot or when to nudge forwards away from the face-off circle and into the boards. Hockey also taught him to skate backward, no easy feat for a lumbering teenager who grew eight inches between his freshman and sophomore years of high school. After mastering such a skill, the first step back to protect the pass rush and the first dive forward to set up a halfback counter wasn’t such a challenge.
Haeg eschewed hockey in the tenth grade to focus on football but only received one scholarship offer outside of Division II, an offer from the University of North Dakota that was rescinded after a coaching change.
After a local all-star game during his senior season in high school, former Minnesota Vikings lineman Joe Senser told Brainerd head coach Ron Stolski, “I don’t understand why Joe Haeg was not a Division I recruit.”
Haeg won the Bison’s starting right tackle job as a redshirt freshman and wouldn’t surrender his spot on the line for four seasons—all of which concluded with national championships.
By the beginning of his redshirt freshman season, he weighed in at about 265 pounds; by his sophomore year he was pushing 280. At the NFL combine in March, he weighed in at 305. The gradual weight and muscle gain was working, and he wasn’t losing any of the athleticism that coaches noticed when he was 225 pounds as a high school junior. His technique and savvy were always his strong suits; now he had the body to become a dominant player.
“Each year he was able to put on a little bit more weight and he didn’t have that drastic climb,” North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman says. “Not only did he get stronger, he kept his athleticism.
“Sometimes you put on 30 or 40 pounds over a couple of years and you lose some of that ability to bend, ability to have flexibility. He takes great care of his body and the fact that he didn’t put on that 50 pounds in one shot really helped him.”
After the departure of left tackle Billy Turner, whom the Dolphins selected in the third round of the 2014 draft, Haeg was asked to switch to the left side to protect Wentz. His education on how to play the position came not just from the coaching staff, but from defensive end Kyle Emmanuel, who was recognized as the top defensive player in the FCS that year and eventually picked in the fifth round by the Chargers.
“He could do anything,” Haeg says. “He was really strong but he was a little smaller, so not only were you dealing with his speed, I had to stop the power rush, the spin move, and learn to react to all of them.”
Emmanuel spent the first few practices blowing by him as Haeg adjusted to taking his first step back with his left foot and not his right, but as fall camp wore on, Haeg determined proper hand placement and how to manage that step. His boss at AE2S, Eric Dodds, noticed how quickly his young intern latched onto complex engineering concepts even with limited instruction after Haeg delivered a thoroughly researched project on midwest regional treatment facilities. Cross-applying his research skills and determination to football was little trouble, even if it meant trying to block the best defensive player at the FCS level. The battles with Emmanuel intensified, and Haeg figured if he was practicing against the best defensive player at the FCS level, he could be the best offensive lineman at the FCS level.
By the time last season began, NFL scouts were already arriving to watch Wentz. But they also noticed the left tackle who kept the edge sealed in pass protection and blew up multiple players on an average run play. By the end of the year, Haeg was named the best offensive linemen in the FCS, and scouts were showing up to take notes on both players. Playing in a pro-style offense that rigidly demands an even distribution of runs and passes, Haeg is equally comfortable driving forward to open up running lanes as he is backpedaling to fend off pass rushers.
“You see Joe and he just glides across the ground,” North Dakota State offensive line coach Connor Riley says. “He has the ability to change direction, to drop his hips and play with the perfect pad level. There just aren’t that many guys who are 6' 6" who can do that.”
All draft picks are investments, but most coaches will tell you they’d trade a receiver with great potential or an extra running back if it meant securing the line. In a draft with three potential franchise quarterbacks (Wentz, Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch), the difference between boom (say, Aaron Rodgers) and bust (David Carr, Tim Couch) can come down to protection.
Talent evaluators often bristle at offensive linemen from ranks below FBS because of the perceived talent gap, but the sustained success of the Cardinals’ Jared Veldheer (Hillsdale College) and the rise of Ali Marpet (Hobart) with the Buccaneers calls that philosophy into question. Haeg’s ability to boast technical savvy, durability and 30 starts at both right and left tackle could vault him past some of the more physically gifted players who played in less traditional offenses.
“Here’s a guy who started 60 games in college, and heck, I can’t think of a practice the kid has missed,” Klieman says. “He doesn’t just get into a two-point stance and set to protect the pass, he understands movements, he understands fronts.”
As the draft approaches, the focus remains on where Wentz will land and whether he can salvage a struggling team’s future. Haeg’s job will be to provide security for teams that either already made the quarterback investment, or plan on making it this season.
And if, for some reason, a long NFL career doesn’t pan out? Fargo could use another water engineer.