Vikings Draft Spotlight | Hendon Hooker
The quarterback class is always the hot topic leading up to the draft. Many believe there’s a top four in this year’s group, including C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis, ranked in different orders. However, one more QB deserves some buzz in the upcoming draft.
The Vikings could be in the market for a passer in the draft on April 27. Kirk Cousins will turn 35 years old later in the offseason and is in the final year of his deal for the first time since joining the Vikings in 2018.
Vikings Draft Spotlight | Hendon Hooker
Hendon Hooker is a controversial player in this year’s draft class. He has elite production, top-notch traits, and two potential red flags.
The North Carolina native was a highly decorated athlete in high school. He scored over 100 combined rushing and passing touchdowns and ran and passed for more than 10,000 yards while leading James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, to a couple of state championships.
Despite receiving many offers from Power 5 schools, Hooker committed to Virginia Tech. His first season in 2018 was a redshirt year before he took over the starting job a few games into the 2019 season. The Hokies won the first six games with him as the starter, which qualified them for the Belk Bowl.
Throughout his three-year tenure, Hooker started 15 games for Virginia Tech, recording 22 passing touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and 2,894 passing yards in addition to over 1,000 rushing yards and 15 scores before he decided to pursue a change of scenery and transferred to Tennessee, where his production took off under head coach Josh Heupel.
At first, Hooker was the backup for Joe Milton, a transfer from Michigan, but after the starter suffered an injury, Hooker took over and never gave the job back. He was a perfect fit in Tennessee’s offense.
In Hooker’s second season there, Tennessee reached the second spot in the AP Poll, their highest since 2001. The 2022 campaign included an upset against their rival Alabama in a dramatic 51-48 win. Hooker passed for five touchdowns and 385 yards and had some impressive clutch throws.
In November, Hooker’s college career prematurely ended when he suffered a non-contact ACL tear, but he still finished fifth in the Heisman voting and was named first-team All-SEC and SEC Offensive Player of the Year. The 11 wins of the program were the second most in its history. Hooker started nine of them.
In his two seasons in Tennessee, Hooker threw for 6,080 yards, 58 touchdowns, and only 5 interceptions while adding 1,046 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Games watched: Alabama 2022, LSU 2022, Kentucky 2022, Pittsburgh 2022, Florida 2022, Georgia 2021.
Weaknesses / Red Flags
There are two drawbacks when evaluating the signal caller. Hooker turned 25 in January and is one of the oldest QB prospects to come out of college in the last few years. He had a fifth year of eligibility because of the shortened 2020 COVID season. That could limit his upside, but the list of NFL QBs that improve in their mid-20s is endless.
His age will only matter if he becomes a franchise quarterback, and the team only has that franchise quarterback for a decade instead of 12 or 13 years.
The other potential red flag is the torn ACL. Those injuries can weaken the knee in future years, and sometimes a second ACL tear can follow. However, during the NFL Combine, where the teams do medical checks on the players, Hooker received positive injury updates. Ian Rapoport reported that the passer is on track to be available to play in Week 1 of his rookie season if needed. Nothing suggests that his knee will be a problem in the future.
Like all prospects, Hooker has some on-the-field flaws as well. His pocket presence is questionable at times. Too often, the 25-year-old runs into trouble or doesn’t escape the pocket when he should. That leads to an unnecessary sack in every game and can be a true drive-killer. He has the athleticism to extend plays, which is required in today’s NFL, but he doesn’t do a good enough job at it.
Whenever he escapes the pocket and is on the run, one of his problems is that he is only trying to run the football instead of what Patrick Mahomes does — keeping the eyes downfield and trying to throw on the run from outside of the pocket. It’s a potential coaching point. He has the arm and the processing skills to learn that.
Another item he has to clean up? Running style. He doesn’t have the 250-pound frame of men like Josh Allen and Cam Newton to run over people, yet he still tries. He should learn from the Lamar Jackson playbook. The electric dual-threat performer perfected limiting hits to a minimum when becoming a runner. Sliding and protecting himself will be necessary for Hooker, especially after already suffering a significant injury.
One more issue is that he doesn’t show top-level arm strength — at times. It always feels like he has something left in the tank and doesn’t throw fastballs by design. One reason could be that he wants to make the job for receivers easier, but it hurts him on tight-window throws. Another motive could be that he lacks accuracy on said fastballs. Either way, adjusting some mechanics and giving him the confidence to sling the ball can take care of that.
Hooker sailed many throws targeting an inside receiver, especially on seam routes. He threw some passes away to avoid tight window throws, but he missed too frequently when he tried to hit inside throws.
The final criticism — perhaps the biggest — is the offense he played in. Tennessee ran a one-read type of offense with a lot of playaction and quick passes. His job on most plays was to read one or two players on one side of the field and throw to the open receiver based on the defender’s position, so he had very few plays every game where he had to go through his progressions.
It is hard to tell if the team plays that style of offense because of his limitations, the receivers’ limitations, or simply because it was effective. Tennessee ran one of the best offenses in the nation, and Hooker executed it perfectly, but it is necessary to play a pro-style offense in the NFL. It requires some projection to see him in such an offense.
Hooker’s biggest advantage is his decision-making and processing. He does both at a really high degree, arguably decent NFL level. While many reads in the offense were easy, he generally made the correct decision quickly in the play. That’s why he only threw 11 interceptions in 866 passing attempts.
The offense was functioning at an efficient level, and he still threw the ball into tight windows and didn’t shy away from risky throws to keep stats clean. He’s flat-out smart. The quick game doesn’t work if the passer is making bad reads or the reads are taking too long. Tennessee’s offense was really efficient despite playing in the strong SEC, and Hooker was a big reason.
The Volunteer showed excellent timing and instinctive throwing ability as one of the best rhythmic passers in the country. He has the skill to anticipate throws and can make passes before the receiver is open. His high-end ball placement allows receivers to gain yards after the catch.
Hooker also showed solid accuracy. While he misses a couple of throws per game, still at an excellent rate, he is a much more refined passer than some other QBs in the draft class who have the raw talent but are too inconsistent. He has good mechanics and throwing motion. Both footwork and release are sound, and he stays calm under pressure and delivers perfect strikes with a defender in his face, at times even during the hit. That’s something he has in common with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The only slight critique of his mechanics is that he occasionally stands flat-footed in the pocket, waiting for his read instead of continuing to move his feet. That will be a point of emphasis early in his career and shouldn’t take long to fix. Despite that, he still mostly hits his receiver, which shows his arm talent and natural throwing ability.
Another strength is his athleticism. Hooker is a pocket passer and likes to play inside of the pocket but has the mobility to be a threat with his legs. His acceleration is off the charts.
That running ability will open up offenses even more in the NFL because defenses have to account for him as a real dual-threat QB. The fact that he is a passer first should help him in the NFL.
One of his weaknesses is that he doesn’t scan the field often. However, when he has to run a pro-style play in which he must read the whole field with five potential receivers, he is comfortable going through his progressions and spots his best option. He doesn’t panic and stays patient in his pocket while reading the field.
Hooker is one of the better deep-ball throwers to come out of college in the last few years. Post and fade routes are mostly hits, and he doesn’t hesitate to give his receivers a chance to make a big play. When he sees a one-on-one, he’s pulling the trigger, often hitting his star wideout, Jalin Hyatt.
The reads in Tennesse’s offense were relatively easy, but the level of throws was not. Hooker had to make a plethora of high-level throws. The offense had everything from short to deep and inside and outside. Some college offenses are built on two or three different throws. Hooker had to be able to make every throw, which should help his transition to the NFL.
The quarterback possesses good NFL size and passes every threshold at 6’3″ and 217 pounds.
Hooker has some high-level traits that NFL teams seek. His two red flags, age and injury, aren’t as much of a concern as it seems. If the Vikings, especially former NFL QB and now head coach Kevin O’Connell, identify him as someone he can work with, the organization should pull the trigger. That’s one reason why O’Connell is in the building, to make that decision. It should be his call.
The QB could be available on day two of the draft, but if the coach likes Hooker, that shouldn’t prevent the Vikings from spending their first-round pick on him. The prospect could end up as a bargain if other teams are scared because of his age, as he still could become a franchise quarterback for a decade-plus.
Hooker can sit behind Cousins for a year and clean up some of his weaknesses and get back to full health without having any pressure to play in 2023. His few on-the-field flaws are fixable, and he offers a high floor while simultaneously having the skills, especially the combination of throwing talent, mobility, and football IQ to become one of the better QBs in the NFL.
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Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt
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