WESTFIELD, Ind. – Depending upon your viewpoint, either Jacob Eason is losing his grip on the starting quarterback position – until Carson Wentz returns, of course – or Sam Ehlinger has done enough to deserve at least a fairer shot at overtaking him.
Again, just depends.
One thing’s for certain, though. The Indianapolis Colts seem no closer to determining who’ll be under center for the Sept. 12 season opener against the Seattle Seahawks than they were July 29 when Wentz felt a “twinge’’ in his left foot that would require surgery four days later.
The timeline for Wentz’s return was wide-ranging: 5-to-12 weeks. He was back at training camp Tuesday, looking on and frequently chatting up a teammate or discussing this play or that play with Frank Reich.
It’s eight days after Wentz’s surgery, and the opener would be just short of six weeks into his rehab process. The Colts haven’t ruled him out for the Seahawks, but they’re preparing for Plan B.
And that’s Eason.
Or Ehlinger, who took his first reps with the starting offense Tuesday.
Or, perhaps, a veteran quarterback who isn’t currently roaming the grounds at Grand Park Sports Campus.
“We’re still in that phase,’’ Reich said, “and as we get closer we’ll make that determination.’’
The plan is for Eason and Ehlinger to continue sharing first-team reps this week, especially when the Carolina Panthers arrive for joint practices Thursday and Friday that should test each’s readiness for something bigger. Eason probably starts in Sunday’s preseason opener against the Panthers with Ehlinger taking over at some point in the second quarter.
Reich insisted Tuesday’s “shared work’’ was a positive step forward.
“It was a real competitive day, and both guys out there made some NFL-type plays that you need to make in games against good defenses,’’ he said. “I think we’re headed in the right direction.’’
But keep in mind, the elevation of Ehlinger – or semi-demotion of Eason – came after Eason was named the presumptive fill-in for Wentz last week.
“The job is Jacob’s right now,’’ Reich said following Wentz’s injury. “He’s gotta prove it. He knows that. He’s in the driver’s seat.’’
That still was the case last weekend.
“Right now we’re comfortable with the plan that we have and have Jacob in the driver’s seat right now, knowing that Sam is getting plenty of reps,’’ Reich said. “We’re taking notes on how (Ehlinger) looks, and he looks good, but Jacob is making good progress as well.’’
Tuesday, the Colts switched to a two-seater at the quarterback position.
“It wasn’t anything with Jacob doing anything wrong,’’ Reich said. “This is a meritocracy, and Sam has looked good. So we decided to split it up.’’
Here’s a look at Eason and Ehlinger.
Eason: We’re always competing
If losing some reps to Ehlinger bothered Eason, he did a good job of hiding it.
“I mean, competition is great,’’ he said. “I mean, every position has competition, especially during training camp. In that QB room we have a great relationship, but we’re always competing. I think we feed off each other’s energy. That competition breeds a better result, so I’m all about it.’’
But let’s be clear. If Eason, the 2020 fourth-round draft pick, was in the midst of a standout camp, he would’ve placed a hammerlock on the spot behind Wentz on the depth chart. He would be getting the vast majority of the reps with the 1s, not suddenly sharing them with a sixth-round pick from the April draft.
Reich liked the way both quarterbacks responded to Tuesday’s split workload.
“Particularly Jacob because he gets the news that all of a sudden you’re going to split the reps, and then he comes out and has a good day,’’ he said. “That’s a good sign for Jacob.’’
Eason was 9-of-10 during 11-on-11 work. He completed a deep pass to Dezmon Patmon, but slightly underthrew it which forced the 6’4″ Patmon to adjust his route, come back for the football and go up over a smaller DB for the reception.
Later, Eason’s superior arm strength was on display with two outside-the-hash mark completions to T.Y. Hilton. There have been a few occasions when Eason has missed Hilton, either on deep shots or underneath routes.
“I’ve talked to T.Y.,’’ Eason said. “Missed a couple of throws to him last week. I said, ‘Just keep running, man.’
“He’s a vet. He knows how to get to those spots. It’s on me to learn the timing with him, how to get the ball to those spots at the right time.’’
Eason possesses every physical trait a team looks for at the position. He’s 6’6″, 230 pounds and, as Reich has mentioned on several occasions, packs an elite right arm. His passes get from Point A to Point B PDQ.
Eason’s issues at camp have included consistency (the lack of it), accuracy (ditto) and indecisiveness. Too often, he hesitates before pulling the trigger.
“It’s a challenge,’’ he said. “We’ve got a great defense, a great defensive core. This is the NFL. That’s why we’re out here. It’s great for me to get a look at that and go against that every day.’’
Ehlinger: Felt good with the 1s
Whether it was with the 1s Tuesday or running the No. 2 unit previously, Ehlinger has proven the game isn’t too big for him. In his rookie camp, he’s been poised despite facing steady pressure from the defensive front and able to make plays out of the pocket. He’s also seemed a tad quicker – and more decisive – with his progressions.
The persistent knock? Arm strength. Ehlinger has delivered a couple of nice deep shots and been on time with throws over the middle and out of the backfield, but throws to either sideline haven’t had the zip that probably will be required on game day.
His approach to running the offense is “really just understanding defenses and understanding offenses because when I come to the line of scrimmage, I really try to eliminate as much information as possible, make it really simple,’’ he said.
Ehlinger’s arm strength – or lack of it – always seems to come up during interviews.
“I think the position of quarterback takes a lot of different things, and having a good arm is certainly one of them,’’ he said. “But it’s one of many variables that go into the equation of good quarterback play. I’m certainly not selling my arm short by any means, but I do know that there are a lot of variables that go into it, and I try to improve every single one every single day.
“I know there is a lot of really successful quarterbacks in this league that don’t necessarily have the five-star-talent arm, but they have a great mind and know where to go with the ball with anticipation, and they’ve played a long time with that.’’
What star-level arm does Ehlinger possess?
“I don’t know. I’m not going to put a label on it,’’ he said.
Reich suggested there might be three categories of arm strength, led by “guys who have elite arms and Jacob’s arm is way up there.
“Then guys like Sam, who have a pretty good enough arm to play in this league and make all the throws, but you have to be fast on your feet with your mind. You have to get the ball to the right spot and at the right time and you have to be accurate. You have to be really accurate.’’
In 32 games at Washington and Georgia, Eason completed 59.8% of his passes with 39 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He completed 64.2% of his passes as a redshirt junior at Washington in 2019.
Ehlinger completed 62.5% of his passes with 94 touchdowns and 27 interceptions in 46 games at Texas.
Ehlinger was an unofficial 5-of-11 in his first work with the 1s, but it began on a noticeable uptick.
“My first snap I came up there and saw they were in press-man across the board, and I had a little stop-route to T.Y.,’’ Ehlinger said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not turning that down. I’m throwing it to him.’ It was cool.’’
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