The Rookie QB Waiting Game

While other first-year quarterbacks flourish, the pass-poor Jets—like the Rams with Jared Goff—are letting second-rounder Christian Hackenberg watch and learn. But how long can a needy team afford to sit a valuable young investment?
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Christian Hackenberg was one of the first players dressed and ready to leave the Jets’ locker room after Sunday’s win against Baltimore. On game days, at least for now, the rookie quarterback’s workday is over quickly. He’s just supposed to watch and learn and absorb as much as he can.

The Jets’ quarterback carousel took another turn on Monday with the surprising news that Geno Smith tore his ACL on Sunday. In a week they’ve gone from benching Ryan Fitzpatrick, to seeing Smith suffer a season-ending injury, to hearing Fitzpatrick publicly venting that the coaches, GM and owner stopped believing in him after his 11 interceptions in the first six games. The string of events virtually ensured that neither Fitzpatrick nor Smith will be back with the team next season, which raises the question that’s become a perennial one for the Jets: What’s the plan at quarterback?

Since the previous regime gave up on Mark Sanchez as their franchise guy, the Jets haven’t had an answer to that question, at least not the right one. Will this season help them get any closer?

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It’s not that sitting a rookie quarterback is a bad idea. That was the Eagles’ plan with Carson Wentz, until Teddy Bridgewater’s injury in Minnesota spurred the Vikings to offer a first-round pick for Sam Bradford; the Broncos, too, are doing it with Paxton Lynch (though he saw some action when starter Trevor Siemian went down in early October). But the Jets, and the Rams, fall into a different category: teams that need a quarterback change, and are choosing not to play their high draft pick.

It doesn’t help that around the league seven rookie quarterbacks have played this season, all of them selected after Jared Goff and five of them taken after Hackenberg (including Seattle’s Trevone Boykin, an undrafted free agent). On the whole, these rookies have fared well, whether starting or in relief, with all but one of the seven QBs posting passer ratings above 80. Dallas’s Dak Prescott, who may very well have unseated Tony Romo, leads the way with a 103.9 rating through six starts.

In both Los Angeles and New York, however, the coaches are prioritizing the long-term potential of their high draft pick, deeming playing him in the short-term either detrimental or not viable. The Rams will stick with Case Keenum, coach Jeff Fisher stated without reservation after Keenum’s four-interception performance in the overseas loss to the Giants. The Jets will turn back to Fitzpatrick, with Bryce Petty, a 2015 fourth-round pick, the expected backup (or next QB in) once his preseason shoulder injury is fully healed.

The Jets liked Hackenberg enough to draft him in the second round, 51st overall, but he was a polarizing prospect coming out of Penn State. Different teams had wildly different evaluations of his uneven college career. If the Jets continue the current trajectory of their season, which is off to a disappointing 2-5 start, it seems likely they’ll try playing Petty to see what they’ve got there. But what about Hackenberg—is a redshirt season the best course toward a ROI on that second-round draft pick?

The Jets seem to think so. Coach Todd Bowles said last week that with three quarterbacks in front of Hackenberg, the rookie was not going to get enough practice reps to be in a position to play in a game this season. For the past two weeks, since Petty has returned to practice, Hackenberg’s only reps are a split of the scout-team work. “We’ll somehow create a competition or something, play our own games, within those scout-team reps,” Hackenberg said, speaking of how he and Petty share duties. Smith's injury, of course, bumps both of them up the depth chart.

After Hackenberg was drafted, his coaches alluded to potential work to be done on his mechanics, but the regular-season isn’t the most opportune time to do so. That would be done during his first offseason with the team. If he has bad habits, it’s possible that playing him now would reinforce those. Hackenberg says his focus has been on learning from how Fitzpatrick and Smith prepare for starts, and mastering not just the Jets’ offense but also the wrinkles of NFL defenses, particularly those in the Jets’ division and conference.

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“There’s obviously that competitive nature inside you that wants to do things,” Hackenberg said on Sunday, a day before the team learned that Smith had torn his ACL. “But I think you can sit there and sulk about it, or take positives from it and grow. That’s the road I’m trying to take, growing from every opportunity. Mental reps, and physical reps when I get them. So it can kind of go two ways. I am trying to lean toward making the most, the best out of the situation, and getting every possible resource and learning experience that I can.”

Asked about watching other rookies around the league play and have success, he gave a polite side-step. "Just staying in my lane,” he said.

Of course, there are nine games left in the season, which means there’s plenty of time for more benchings, or other injuries, that further spin the carousel. Fitzpatrick’s poor play through two months has muddied the Jets’ short-term plans. Now they also have to be considering, how can this season help them clarify their long-term plans at a position that has been thwarting their postseason hopes for five seasons and counting?

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* * *

The Fine 15

1. New England (6-1). LW: 2. Not entirely convinced about this Patriots defense, but the bend-don’t-break persona held up for another week.

2. Minnesota (5-1). LW: 1. Their injury situation finally caught up to them with the loss of both offensive tackles. Andy Benoit did an excellent job explaining how the Vikings could adjust in his Extra Point column.

3. Seattle (4-1-1). LW: 3. The kicking epidemic reaches Seattle. Pete Carroll is bewildered.

The Pats D did enough to clamp down on Le’Veon Bell and the Roethlisberger-less Steelers.

The Pats D did enough to clamp down on Le’Veon Bell and the Roethlisberger-less Steelers.

4. Dallas (5-1). LW: 4. Dak Prescott vs. Carson Wentz for first place in the NFC East, just like we all expected in July.

5. Denver (5-2). LW: 6. Brock, it’s a far, far better thing to be playing with the Broncos defense than against it.

6. Pittsburgh (4-3). LW: 7. Landry Jones held up his end of the bargain, but the Steelers’ defense didn’t. Strong words from the team’s defensive leaders criticizing the unit’s toughness.

7. Philadelphia (4-2). LW: 12. The Eagles looked like the better defense on the field Sunday, and against the Vikings that’s a big compliment.

8. Kansas City (4-2). LW: 9. AFC West, best division in football?

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9. Green Bay (4-2). LW: 10. Fifty-six passes per game might not be sustainable, but Mike McCarthy never fully committed to the run game anyway, even when Eddie Lacy was healthy.

10. Atlanta (4-3). LW: 5. Last year’s slide after the hot start is no doubt in the back of their minds. This year’s team is better, though, on both sides of the ball.

11. Oakland (5-2). LW: 13. Strange little quirk. Raiders are 4-0 on the road. They’re 1-2 at home.

12. Detroit (4-3). LW: 19. The offseason narrative that Matthew Stafford might actually be better without Calvin Johnson seemed a bit too cute. But Stafford is better this season. It helped that the Lions made sure he still had a good corps of receivers to target after Johnson retired.

13. Buffalo (4-3). LW: 8. The Bills never had LeSean McCoy at full strength last season because of a nagging hamstring injury. They can’t afford for that to happen again this year.

14. Washington (4-3). LW: 11. Kirk Cousins did everything he could to beat the Lions, leading what could have been a game-winning TD drive. He’s gotten better as the season has gone on.

15. New York Giants (4-3). LW: 14. With vision like that, can Landon Collins play offense?

Also receiving consideration:

16. Arizona (3-3-1). LW: 16.

17. San Diego (3-4). LW: UR.

18. Cincinnati (3-4). LW: 18.

19. Miami (3-4). LW: UR.

20. Indianapolis (3-4). LW: UR.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.