FOXBOROUGH — When Danny Etling walked onto the practice field Thursday, something was different. He still had his No. 5 jersey, same as last year, but instead of the red, no-contact jersey worn by quarterbacks, Etling wore the white jersey the rest of the offense uses in practice.
The Patriots drafted Etling in the seventh round last year as a quarterback. He played quarterback in college, first at Purdue and then at LSU. He played quarterback during last year’s training camp and preseason, and he spent the regular season doing so on the practice squad. He is still listed as a quarterback on the roster. On Thursday, however, in the first practice of training camp, Etling went with the wide receivers, a new role the Patriots are testing him in.
“It seems that way,” Etling said. “Everyone has a lot of different roles on this team and I’m no exception.”
Etling would not say exactly when he found out he’d be practicing as a receiver, instead explaining that he’s always known his path to sticking with the Patriots would be through filling multiple roles, including on special teams. Practice squad members often fill myriad roles on the scout team each week, he reminded, and quarterbacks have a strong understanding of the offense as a whole. Still, his experience as a receiver is next to nil.
“I’ve not really played it, per se,” Etling said.
The reason he’s doing so now is that New England drafted former Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round this year and still has veteran backup Brian Hoyer and (of course) Tom Brady on the roster. It would be unheard of for the Patriots to carry four quarterbacks on the roster, even when factoring in 10 practice squad spots, and Stidham looks clearly ahead of Etling at the moment.
Etling did stay late at practice to throw. He said he’ll try his best to keep both skill sets sharp, and didn’t want to say his quarterbacking days are behind him. The Patriots could just be looking to see what they have, especially with Julian Edelman out with a thumb injury for the first three weeks of camp. It’s also reasonable to think that the 25-year-old Etling could find a spot on another 90-man roster for a more quarterback-needy team if the Patriots don’t have a place for him as a passer.
The quarterback-to-receiver transition has been done before (see: Edelman), but Etling would have a tough path. The Patriots currently have Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, Braxton Berrios, Demaryius Thomas, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Damoun Patterson, and Ryan Davis on their roster at receiver.
Etling said he expects to rely on several teammates, including Edelman, for extra coaching at receiver. His roommate is Berrios, who said Etling has asked him good questions and has been a quick study. Berrios said he knows firsthand that Etling has a great grasp on the offense, which he thinks will help.
“He helped me a ton last year and throughout the year,” Berrios said. “He still does, but I think now it’s my turn a little bit, and I’m at his disposal.”
Etling, who can help on special teams, could vie for a roster spot through some kind of hybrid role. Last year, the Saints used the ultra-athletic Taysom Hill as a do-it-all quarterback/receiver/ball carrier/kick returner. Hill’s name came up in the Etling conversation Thursday, though it should be noted that Hill ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, whereas Etling ran a 4.76 40 at the 2018 NFL Combine. Most of Etling’s measurables are below average for an NFL wide receiver. He does have good size at 6 feet 3 inches, 215 pounds.
Etling didn’t want to compare himself with any other player. He was relentlessly positive talking about the change, insisting that it wasn’t a disappointment but rather something he’s always known comes with the territory he’s in. He’s smart and known to be a hard worker, two things he’ll have going for him regardless of position.
“I love football,” Etling said. “I love playing football and I’m out here in an NFL training camp getting to play for the Patriots and getting to find a new role for myself, getting to get coached by some of the greatest coaches and getting to be a teammate with some of the greatest teammates of all time. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this team and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to continue to do that.”