Sam Ehlinger feels a little bit like J.T. Barrett, not in regards to the style or merits of their individual play, but in how long it feels both have worn a college football uniform. On top of that, how little we all thought about their NFL draft prospects until their time at their schools was up. After all, Ehlinger returned for a reason, right? We’ve all heard and told the jokes about him playing fullback or tight end at the next level, so imagine my surprise when he appeared at the number five spot in Dane Brugler’s preseason quarterback rankings. So I decided to take a deeper dive and see what Ehlinger’s NFL Draft prospects are.
Sam Ehlinger’s NFL Draft outlook
Ehlinger’s arm talent displays promise
This was easily the most surprising aspect of his game that I watched. Many analysts have mocked Ehlinger as a type of “watered down Tim Tebow” who didn’t really have the arm to make it at the next level. At one time, I may or may not have felt similarly, but that is no longer the case.
Ehlinger seems a bit stiff as a passer at times, but his release appears lightning quick to the short and intermediate areas of the field. His stock release is more upright than what you’ll see with most quarterbacks, but he’s shown that he can manipulate his arm slot when necessary. His consistency from a general accuracy perspective has also improved year after year. He’s flashed some throws that are of NFL quality, but they were more few and far between than an actual bright spot.
Now, however, his work on far hash throws and deeper intermediate routes won’t force you to hold your breath. But it’s the “gimme” throws, his pace and placement on deeper passes that provide the most hope for his potential future in the NFL. He’s become much more adept at allowing his receivers to make plays post-catch on short hot routes and screen passes.
What type of improvements does Ehlinger need to make?
We still need to continue seeing growth in his abilities as a rhythm passer. Ehlinger’s competitive nature and propensity to hold onto the ball until he sees openings make things more difficult for him. He needs to continue fine-tuning his consistency from a ball placement perspective. His rigidity actually makes his abilities as a mobile passer on the move, particularly to the left side of the field, more difficult. He needs to work harder to bring his left shoulder through as best he can to improve his target accuracy.
Can Ehlinger get over some of the evident mental hurdles?
This element of his game is both why he’s as relevant as he is, and what is also holding him back as a prospect. The Tebow parallels from grit, attitude, and determination are undeniable, but that is not all there is to being an NFL quarterback, as Tebow also proved. Now, his issues were almost entirely of a physical nature, where Tebow’s arm just was not capable, but that’s not the case with Ehlinger.
Ehlinger’s a bit reminiscent of Jalen Hurts as a passer. He’s continuously grown throughout his collegiate career to the point where he finally became an NFL prospect. But even with Hurts, commanding an offense with timing and rhythm hasn’t been necessary for them in college. Texas runs a lot from a 2×2 set, giving Ehlinger quick and easy horizontal and vertical stretch looks that are both clean and easy. There isn’t a whole lot of nuance necessary, and that will be part of his learning curve in the NFL.
I was surprised, however, to see how well he kept his eyes up and downfield when facing pressure or scrambling around. His actual physical ability to manipulate the pocket and find throwing windows with subtle movement is pretty nonexistent at the moment, but in scramble mode, he’s made some incredible plays. For example, the sack he shook off in his own end zone before chucking a pass toward the sideline to a freestyling receiver for a first down against Baylor demonstrates this.
Ehlinger has also shown a decent understanding of defender leverage. Smash concepts against quarters coverages, understanding what windows he can fit passes in isn’t ideal, but is shown in flashes. Against man or match concepts, he’s shown that he can leverage passes away from defenders where only his receiver can catch it, and his ability to trust his very large receivers in the air is admirable.
Where might Ehlinger land in the NFL Draft?
After seeing Jalen Hurts go in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, nothing should be counted out regarding Ehlinger. With that said, it’s tough to envision a world where Ehlinger isn’t anything outside of an upside selection on day three. However, there is a path towards playing early on a team that is currently experiencing poor quarterback play.
He’s not as athletic as Taysom Hill, but if your football coach is as psychotic as Sean Payton, Ehlinger could be used in a similar fashion as a quarterback. He won’t be one to line up in the different alignments, but he can come in and be a more prolific passing option that any defense will have to account for.