With Colts' Carson Wentz on mend, Jacob Eason vs. Sam Ehlinger among NFL's best camp battles

WESTFIELD, Ind. -- Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday in a virtual deadlock to be the Colts' starting quarterback in Week 1 if Carson Wentz (foot) is not ready to go. Both had strong performances in the Indianapolis Colts' victory over the Carolina Panthers.

As the Colts sit here after more than three weeks of training camp, there’s currently no bigger battle than the one between Eason and Ehlinger.

“Jacob and I have a great relationship, and it’s one of those things where competition just makes you better,” Ehlinger said. “We want what’s best for each other. We’re helping each other out with coverages, defenses and we know that iron sharpens iron, and that’s kind of been our mentality.”

Eason and Ehlinger made their case to be the interim starter with a half each against the Panthers. Eason, who was the front-runner after Wentz got injured, went 15-of-21 for 183 yards. Ehlinger threw an interception on his first series but responded by leading the Colts to 11 points on their final two drives while finishing with 155 yards passing.

But remember, that was Sunday.

Eason started against the Panthers, and now Ehlinger will get the start in Saturday’s game at Minnesota. Flipping roles will allow the coaching staff a better assessment of the competition.

“It’s not equal,” coach Frank Reich said of the difference between having starters alongside the quarterback compared to predominately backups. “It’s a great question because, as a former backup, I faced a lot of those scenarios. There’s no way to make it apples to apples. So we just have to use our best judgment, understand all the dynamics that are in place and make the best with what you have at that time. That’s part of the evaluation.”

Ehlinger is in this position because, as many in the organization have said, he’s a competitor. He’s never been known for his strong arm, but he has made up for it with his intelligence at the line of scrimmage. Ehlinger is decisive in knowing where he wants to go, and he has the ability to improvise by using his feet.

Go back to less than a month ago, and Ehlinger, a sixth-round pick this year, wasn’t supposed to be a daily conversation topic. At best, he was looked at as a player the Colts tucked away on the practice squad so that he could use his rookie season as a developmental year. But he’ll be starting against the Vikings Saturday with an opportunity to have one of his final pushes to start in the regular season.

“It's something anybody can run into in any profession when faced with the opportunity they're waiting for," Ehlinger said. "If that goes negatively that's where a lot of people face adversity and face holes in their life. For me, just the perspective that I've been able to gain through adversity, things in my life. It's really put into perspective what we're put on this earth to do, and so that keeps football in check for me, and realizing this is just a game, and as much as everybody here loves it, and as much money that flows into the business, at the end of the day, it's just a sport."

The competition to be the potential starter doesn’t just change by the game -- it could be changing by the practice.

An argument could be made about that this week, as Eason appears to have regained a slight edge over Ehlinger.

Playing in his first game in nearly two years seems to have given Eason extra confidence that had been missing during the early part of training camp, when he took over after Wentz’s injury on July 29.

Eason is making quicker reads, getting rid of the ball more swiftly and simply looking like he has command of the offense.

“That was one thing that [quarterback] coach Scott Milanovich and I were talking about,” Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “He’s just playing with a little more confidence. That’s the growth of a young quarterback, just continue getting reps. They get that live action, now they’re going to feel more comfortable as they move forward.”

What the Colts have rightfully done is not say who has the edge because it could put too much pressure on Eason and Ehlinger -- and the reality is, the top spot can change. What Reich would like, though, is to know who will start Week 1 against Seattle -- if Wentz isn't ready -- heading into their preseason finale at Detroit on Aug. 27.

“In a perfect world, that would be the situation, but I don’t know if it will be that," Reich said. "I can’t promise that that’s going to be the case. It may take the third preseason game to figure that out. Chris [Ballard] and I and the staff will continue to evaluate it day by day.”