FOXBORO — If you thought Danny Etling was a ‘project’ last season, wait until you hear the Patriots plan for him during training camp. A 7th round pick last year, Etling spent the season on the Patriots practice squad after struggling for most of training camp. Considered on the bubble after the team used a 4th round pick on QB Jarrett Stidham this spring, it appears the LSU product’s new path to a roster spot goes through a new position.
Something was clearly amiss when Etling took the field on Thursday in a white practice jersey, which is worn by all offensive players except for the quarterbacks. (As with the rest of the NFL, the Patriots QBs wear red non-contact jerseys). Questions as to why he didn’t have a red jersey were quickly answered as Etling spent the beginning of practice working with the wide receivers, and stayed with the group for the majority of the session. The 6’3, 220 pound Etling doesn’t look out of place as a wideout in stature, but outside of that this positional change raises a number of questions.
First off, there’s the experience. Etling has never played wide receiver before at any level, although he told reporters after practice that he doesn’t feel like a stranger at the position. “I’ve not really played it [WR] per se, but I’ve also coached it a lot, I guess, being a quarterback. I understand offensive football”. With a reputation as a scout team guru, it’s not surprising to hear Etling say something like this. However, understanding is one thing, playing the position at an NFL level is another.
There’s also the issue of his speed. While he has decent feet for a QB, as a WR his wheels are marginal at best. He ran a 4.76 40-yard dash at last years combine, which ranked 4th among quarterbacks but would have been 37th (and second to last) among wide receivers. While he did show an ability at LSU to move in the pocket and scramble, he was never exactly what you’d call a ‘mobile’ quarterback, averaging just 0.3 yards per carry in his college career. His lone career running highlight, an 86 yard bootleg touchdown in last year’s preseason finale against the Giants, is nearly half of his total rushing yards from two years at LSU (174).
Perhaps it’s a fresh outlook, perhaps it’s knowing this is what he needs to do to salvage his NFL career, but Etling is keeping a positive tone through the transition. When asked after practice if he is ‘disappointed’ with the team changing his position, he replied “I wouldn’t think so, no. I love football. I love playing football. I’m out here in an NFL training camp getting to play for the Patriots, getting to find a new role for myself.”
Perhaps for Etling there is some consolation in the fact that, while it is usually not quarterbacks put in this spot, the Patriots often ask players of all experience levels and talents to do things outside of their usual positional responsibilities. “Everyone has a lot of different roles on this team and I’m no exception, so I’m excited to continue to keep trying to find a different role for myself and doing whatever the coaches ask me to do.”
More good news for Etling; there is a successful NFL blueprint for guys trying to make the roster the way he is this camp. Taysom Hill has become a noted success story in New Orleans. The former BYU quarterback plays on special teams both as a returner and gunner (Etling has been seen working as a punt protector as far back as OTAs), as a tight end, and occasionally as a passer on gadget, wildcat type plays. Despite Hill’s success, Etling played down the comparison. “I wouldn’t compare myself really to anybody. I’m just myself. I’m Danny Etling, and I’m trying to figure out what my role is going to be on this team”
It is worth noting Hill is considerably faster than Etling (he ran a 4.44 40 at BYU’s pro day in 2017) and has more experience as a ball carrier (2,815 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry in college). Hill may not need to be the bar Etling needs to reach to earn an NFL spot though, other college quarterbacks have carved out niche spots on NFL rosters with less. Oklahoma’s Blake Bell (he ran a 4.80 40 at the combine) is entering his 5th year as an NFL tight end, while former Virginia Tech signal caller Logan Thomas is entering his 6th. There is also some speculation that the role the Patriots are trying to fit Etling into now is the job they had in mind for Tim Tebow when they signed him in 2013.
Of course, there is always the possibility that this is a temporary change and the Patriots will move Etling back under center at some point in the future. When asked after practice if he believes his quarterbacking days are over, he replied “I would say I’m gonna do whatever it takes for myself to help the team out. Whatever role the coaches ask me to do, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability, 110%, every single day.”
For more on Etling and his probability of making the roster, check out CLNS Media’s analysis from training camp below, and follow us on Twitter @PatriotsCLNS