Colts Camp: Chandler Harnish Looks Better Than Matt Hasselbeck

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The fourteen-year veteran quarterback Hasselbeck, signed as a free agent this offseason, has struggled at training camp so far. Meanwhile, Harnish has looked sharp.

Matt Hasselbeck has started 152 games, passed for 34,517 yards and 201 touchdowns and won 80 games over his 14-year career.

And yet, second-year Colts quarterback Chandler Harnish, Mr. Irrelevant in the 2012 NFL Draft, hasn't looked very irrelevant at all during training camp. He's looked like a better quarterback than Hasselbeck.

This isn't a light observation when I say that. I've monitored all three quarterbacks on the team - Hasselbeck, Harnish and Andrew Luck - as closely as I could throughout the last 10 days. While Luck has easily been the best signal-caller on the field each day (and thank God for that), Harnish is showing skills that make me want to say, "Shouldn't this guy be the backup?"

Admittedly, if you saw yesterday's evening practice, you're probably wondering what I've been smoking. Harnish didn't look good and was slightly outplayed by Hasselbeck. He threw some pretty bad passes, appeared uncomfortable and became familiar with Caesar Rayford "sacking" him.

While I don't want to completely dismiss Harnish's struggles in one practice to make my overall point in this article, I also don't want to overlook his successes. He had two throws in yesterday's practice that stuck out as real NFL quality plays.

One pass went to a diving Jabin Sambrano, who beat Sheldon Price over the top. Harnish put enough touch on the ball to keep it out of reach from Price and drop into Sambrano's hands. It was one of several impressive big plays throughout the night.

The other play came within 10 yards of the endzone, where Harnish squeezed a pass through double coverage near the right sideline and somehow made it catchable for Dominique Jones. Harnish wasn't at fault for Jones dropping it, even if it was a tough catch.

Other than that, Harnish had a bad night passing. That didn't take away from good running from him, though. He scored two touchdowns on the ground, bursting out of the pocket on each play and showing off some impressive speed to beat the defense to the end zone.

Despite his overall bad performance last night, we've have eight other practices to judge Harnish. That's where's he's looked his best.

Let's start with Harnish's deep ball, because it's been his most impressive trait. I noticed it at the start of last week when Harnish started playing pitch-and-catch on long passes with wide receivers like Rodrick Rumble and Jeremy Kelley in 1-on-1 drills. Maybe it wouldn't have meant much if Luck and Hasselbeck were connecting just as much on the same types of passes in the same drill. But they weren't.

Luck's deep ball has gradually improved as camp has progressed, but Harnish still has him beat there on overall grades. He's just been more consistent.

Harnish's mobility and pocket presence has also caught my attention. The defensive lines have been winning most their battles with the offensive lines in each practice, and that's made the quarterbacks move around more than you would like. You know, if you're rooting for the offense in some given situations.

That's been a good exercise for all three of the quarterbacks, though. Luck's pocket presence is nearing an elite level, if it isn't there already, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he's been the best of the trio in that area.

But then we come back to Harnish. He has a good knack for quickly escaping the pocket and making smart decisions with the ball, whether that's to find a checkdown option or tuck it and run.

Here's a decent example of that. During one of the final practices of last week, backup center Rick Schmeig botched a shotgun snap and it sent it flying 10 yards back behind Harnish. The young quarterback reacted perfectly, charging backwards and scooping it up before turning to the right to take the ball up along the right sideline and somehow gain positive yardage.

It was one hell of an athletic play by Harnish with multiple defensive linemen bearing down on him. He obviously trusts his mobility, but it was still good to see him make a smart decision and run instead of make a desperate pass once he had the ball in his hands and was moving up field. It's fortunate that Harnish has good instincts in the pocket to go along with that athleticism, at least in practice.

Part of being a successful NFL quarterback in the pocket is having good footwork and mechanics, which Harnish seems to possess. Former Colts quarterback Jack Trudeau commented on it to some other media members while he was at training camp last week, saying Luck's footwork looked elite while Harnish's looked good.

He didn't have as many glowing remarks about Hasselbeck.

And that's where you're probably wondering how any of these raw skills make Harnish a better quarterback than someone who has been a starting NFL quarterback for over a decade.

My response to that I can't be sure of that because it's been 10 freaking days of training camp. I try my best not to lapse into hyperbole with my observations, and this is one of the most dangerous opportunities.

I'm not here to say Hasselbeck has necessarily looked bad in comp, because Harnish has thrown poor passes just as much as much as his veteran mentor has. Hell, even last night, Hasselbeck looked like the better QB, notably making a few great plays such as stepping up in the pocket and passing to a streaking Griff Whalen in the back of the end zone for a TD. He also didn't get hit in the backfield near as much as Harnish.

But through these first nine practices, Harnish has shown more consistent capability of running the offense than has Hasselbeck, who has looked slow-footed, more inaccurate and undynamic. It's a similar situation to the battle he had with Jake Locker for the Titans starting job last offseason. Locker offered much more upside, so he eventually won.

But that won't happen with the Colts backup job, depending on how both Harnish and Hasselbeck play throughout the preseason. Hasselbeck and his two-year, $8 million ($5 million guaranteed) contract makes him one of the highest paid backup quarterbacks in the NFL. The Colts are essentially married to him as the backup for the next two years, making this likely the last stop in the 37-year-old quarterback's career.

Instead, the point I want to make is that Harnish looking like a better quarterback than Hasselbeck is a good sign for the future of this team, even as he plays with the third-stringers. If Harnish keeps up his overall play and showcases himself well in the preseason, the Colts may be able to use him as a trade-chip with other teams, similar to the Chargers trading Charlie Whitehurst in 2010 or the Eagles trading Kevin Kolb in 2011.

Those trades are both about as good as it gets when it comes to dealing quarterbacks, but its just another way to gauge what the Colts could have on their hands if Harnish keeps developing. The NFL is always going to be a quarterback-needy league, so teams will most certainly come calling.

Meanwhile, I expect Hasselbeck to gradually improve on some weak practices so far and show that the sky won't completely fall if Luck is ever injured. I don't think he's over the hump yet.

For now, just appreciate that the Colts appear to have three skilled quarterbacks on the team, and all three should make the final roster. The days of Quinn Gray and Jared Lorenzen (LOL) are long over. These Colts quarterbacks, Mr. Irrellevant included, are a talented group.

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