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Christian Hackenberg could be Texans' quarterback of the future

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Will Hackenberg get drafted in the first round? (5:37)

Todd McShay joins Scott Van Pelt from the NFL combine to discuss the off-the-field concerns surrounding Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche, Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg's NFL future and North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz's potential. (5:37)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill O'Brien is known as a coach who can get the most out of his quarterbacks.

The big question ahead is whether O'Brien will draft Christian Hackenberg, who once looked like a future first-round pick while playing for O'Brien at Penn State, and make him the Houston Texans' quarterback of the future.

Hackenberg had his best season as a freshman with the Nittany Lions. He completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, promising numbers for a young quarterback. O'Brien left to become head coach of the Texans, and Hackenberg didn't produce the same numbers in his last two seasons in State College.

Without O'Brien, his completion percentage dropped from 55.8 in 2014 to 53.5 in 2015. His yards per attempt dropped. During those two years, Hackenberg threw 28 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.

That drop has most teams thinking that Hackenberg will be a second- or third-round pick this year. In an age in which college quarterbacks are expected to complete 65 to 70 percent of their passes, where do you put a strong arm quarterback who finished his college career completing just above 50 percent of his passes?

Because of the rise of the spread offense in college, the debate for NFL coaches and general managers is about the knowns and unknowns of college quarterbacks. Last year, quarterbacks coming out of pro-set offenses were favored over the unknown of spread quarterbacks.

Hackenberg comes from a pro-set offense. He has the physical and mental skills to be an intriguing prospect. As he discusses the quarterbacks of the 2016 draft, O'Brien has to weigh whether to push the knowns of Hackenberg to general manager Rick Smith versus the unknowns of other spread quarterbacks.

O'Brien, who spoke to reporters at the NFL scouting combine Thursday, is still weighing the Texans' needs in Round 1.

"Look, I think again I'm not up here to really talk about rounds," O'Brien said when asked if he thought Hackenberg could be evaluated as a first-round pick. "I think it's more about what is the type of player at any position that fits your team. What is your team looking for at quarterback, at defensive end, at nose guard, at running back, whatever the position is and then based on that, then you determine along with Rick Smith where we're going to draft guys."

O'Brien's insights on Hackenberg have to be taken into the equation, but it doesn't mean the Texans have to jump at the chance of taking him in the first round where they pick at No. 22. It's clear the Texans have to find a quarterback, though. They drafted Tom Savage in the fourth round in 2014, but he has thrown just 19 regular-season passes.

"We are in a predictive business, so we are trying to predict," Smith said. "A lot of times you look -- maybe the best predictor for future performance is the pass, so obviously if you have a quarterback who comes from a pro-style system, who has taken a snap, who has taken a drop, who has read a defense, who has handed the ball off and done all those things and executed all of those mechanics on a regular basis, I think you can better predict how he will perform in a pro-style offense because you have some history in terms of what he has done before.

"You have to project that a little bit more when you deal with the spread offense quarterbacks. That's not to say that they are not capable of doing it. Obviously, you have tons of examples that they can. I just think that it gives you more of an opportunity to predict how the guy is going to perform if he has done it before."

Here is what to expect. O'Brien and Smith will spend a lot of time discussing quarterbacks. On one side, they will compare the pro-set quarterbacks such as Hackenberg, North Dakota State's Carson Wentz and Michigan State's Connor Cook. Then they will discuss Cal's Jared Goff, who is a spread quarterback. They will discuss Paxton Lynch of Memphis being a player who might need an extra year to convert into being a successful NFL quarterback. Wentz and Goff almost certainly will be drafted before the Texans' turn to pick in the first round.

Hand size might also come into play. Goff and Hackenberg came in Thursday with nine-inch hands, considered small. Lynch has massive hands at 10 ¼ inches, the same as Russell Wilson. Cook has 9 ¾ hands. Wentz has big hands at 10. Smaller hand size is a factor because of potential fumbling problems and tougher times gripping the ball in cold-weather games.

Face it. There are questions on all of these quarterbacks, but the Texans need to find the right one because they are in a division in which they could fall behind because of the developments of Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles. The window of success could be closing quicker than they think in the AFC South.

O'Brien, like most offensive coaches, wants a good communicator at quarterback. He wants someone who can talk to teammates from all kinds of backgrounds. He wants a quarterback who can gain the respect of his players. He wants a good worker.

"It's hard to find somebody that has all the qualities," O'Brien said. "You're trying to find the guy that best fits most of those qualities. Look, when you're talking about quarterbacks, obviously I mentioned a lot of the things that goes into it. You've got to be a great teammate, you've got to be a hard worker. You've got to be smart. So there's a lot of things that goes into playing that position and I just mentioned a few right there."

The easiest approach is going for the known qualities in Hackenberg.

"Christian can throw the football," O'Brien said. "He's got a strong arm. He's a big guy. He has the ability to learn quickly when we had him at Penn State, and I'll be honest with you, I've talked to a few others guys at that position, not to get into the lists of guys that I've spoken to that are smart, that have good arms, that seem to be quick learners, and things like that. It's a long process and it's going to take a long time to figure out at every position what's the best for your team."

My read is it's hard to sell taking Hackenberg in the first round. The small hands and two poor seasons may work against him, and the Texans must get this quarterback choice right.