The 2021 NFL Draft class has shaped up to be especially top-heavy draft class at quarterback, with four field generals potentially slated to be selected with the first four picks and as many as five drafted in the top 10.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is, of course, the standard of this class, with BYU’s Zach Wilson, Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields joining Lawrence in this year’s upper-echelon of quarterback prospects.
Every quarterback beyond that point, by default, is a bit of an afterthought, including Sam Ehlinger.
Essentially a four-year starter in Austin, Ehlinger enters the draft as the most productive quarterback in his class, ranking No. 20 all-time in total yards. Furthermore, throughout his four years on the Forty Acres, Ehlinger cemented his status as one of the most productive quarterbacks — arguably the second-most — to ever play for the Texas Longhorns, stamping his name behind only Colt McCoy on nearly every meaningful quarterbacking record in school history.
- 13,358 total career yards — 2nd
- 11,436 career passing yards — 2nd
- 127 total career touchdowns — 2nd
- 94 career passing touchdowns — 2nd
- 4,326 total yards in single season (2019) — 2nd
- 41 total touchdowns in single season (2018) — 2nd
- 32 passing touchdowns in single season (2019) — 2nd
Yet, despite entering the upper-echelon of college quarterbacks in 2018, largely remaining there and ultimately surfacing as a legitimate Heisman candidate entering the 2020 campaign, Ehlinger isn’t among the more coveted quarterback prospects in a deep class at the position.
The reason for the parity in the Ehlinger’s production and draft projections?
Well, in line with his 5.88 draft prospect grade, Ehlinger’s pre-draft outlook is that of a backup quarterback. Ehlinger doesn’t boast the arm strength and accuracy of Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, or the raw upside that comes with prospects like Zach Wilson, Mac Jones or Trey Lance. Ehlinger displayed gradual and notable development throughout his time in Austin, but he capped his college career as the most seasoned quarterback prospect in the class so he’s at an intriguing place where he proven plenty capable of producing, but his upside may be limited compared to other options.
As is, Ehlinger could be best described as “capable” entering the NFL, especially in a reserve role. He isn’t going to wow you with a remarkable arm or pinpoint accuracy, and his tight mechanics and elongated delivery will require some rework, but he does have enough power, touch, and rhythm on his throws to hit his target, especially on intermediate throws. When he’s at his best as a pure passer, Ehlinger enjoyed passing to targets with a wide catch radius like Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson, so he might stand to benefit when he’s surrounded by NFL receivers.
In fact, in those ideal circumstances when Ehlinger has rangy, NFL-caliber receivers around him, as he did with Humphrey and Johnson in 2018, Ehlinger set the Big 12 record with 308 consecutive passes without an interception, so although sheer accuracy isn’t his strongest quality, there’s certainly proof that he can play quite efficiently and avoid costly errors, and he may need to do should he enter the league as a backup.
“Just everything. There’s a ton of tape showing I can make all the throws,” Ehlinger told SI.com of what he’s shown to NFL teams. “Been in lot of big games, played in a lot of games. Really just being all-around, from having leadership to football IQ to also being a guy that can do it all.”
Though he still carries the reputation of a bullish, tough, and gritty dual-threat quarterback who can chip away at defenses with his legs — certainly a strength of his as as he rushed for 1,903 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns — Ehlinger placed increased emphasis on becoming more of a pocket passer as a senior, and it paid off. He displayed improved footwork, maneuverability and patience in the pocket, even when navigating pressure, and he keeps his eyes downfield works through his progressions — the same can be said for when Ehlinger turns the field into the sandlot and improvises, which is what made him such a weapon at Texas.
On the other hand, though, that’s a two-sided coin for Ehlinger, who resorted to hero ball a bit too often, resulting in critical sacks that didn’t align with his experience at the position.
Ehlinger’s greatest quality may be his intangibles, but that may also be his greatest detriment as he prepares for the NFL. Ehlinger’s a natural leader who became the heart of the team even as a freshman, and he played accordingly until his final appearance. He owns a reputation as a fierce competitor who thrives in the moment and through adversity, oftentimes almost singlehandedly willing Texas to wins. Ehlinger’s charisma helped him become one of the most beloved Longhorns in recent memory, so it’s no surprise that he was mentioned among those excelling throughout the interview portion of the draft process.
But in a vacuum, that’s largely what Ehlinger is most known for — that and his bullish ability to beat teams with his legs — which explains the seemingly unending national comparisons to former Florida Gators star Tim Tebow.
The other side of the comparison? The murmurs of an inconsistent, inaccurate passer with flawed mechanics. The similarities between the two allowed each to blossom into college stars — of course, Tebow more so than Ehlinger — before Tebow’s underwhelming NFL career ended after only 35 appearances, so the challenge at hand for Ehlinger is to overcome the criticisms about his arm strength and accuracy, though adequate, as well as his mechanics.
With the NFL Draft set to start on Thursday, Ehlinger projects as a backup whose skill set and frame could see him serve as a specialist, as well. Depending on his development as he transitions into the league, it’s quite possible — even likely — that Ehlinger can become a mainstay on an NFL roster as a serviceable game manager and enjoy a career similar to that of Colt McCoy, who has completed 60.7 percent of his career attempts and tallied 6,455 yards and 30 touchdowns.
As far as where he’ll potentially get his start, Ehlinger has been mentioned as a possible Day 3 option for the Chicago Bears, where former Texas head coach Tom Herman is now an offensive analyst. Elsewhere, NFL.com’s Chat Reuter projects Ehlinger to go 176th overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he could join a loaded offense and develop behind the greatest quarterback ever, Tom Brady, for a season or two.