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July 05, 2023

Eagles 2023 training camp preview: Quarterback

Rounding out the Eagles' quarterbacks a few weeks from training camp.

Eagles NFL
060123EaglesClaggett-Jalen-Hurts-5 Colleen Claggett/For PhillyVoice

Jalen Hurts

Over the next three or so weeks (basically whenever there isn't other news to cover), we'll take a look at every player on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster, and how they fit with the team heading into training camp. As always, we'll start with the quarterback factory.

QB1 QB2 QB3 QB4 
Jalen Hurts Marcus Mariota Tanner McKee Ian Book 

Jalen Hurts

This time last year, Hurts was viewed as an intelligent, hard-working quarterback with leadership qualities who could make plays with his legs, but had serious flaws as a passer, most notably inaccuracy as well as a lack of refinement within the pocket. His status as the Eagles' starting quarterback in 2022 wasn't a given until after the Eagles struck out on trades for Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson.

To say that Hurts made drastic improvements in his third NFL season would be a wild understatement, as he was the MVP runner-up to Patrick Mahomes, with the Eagles going 14-1 (plus 2-1 in the playoffs) in games he started. Including the playoffs, he threw 25 TDs vs. 6 INTs, and he rushed for 903 yards and 18 TDs, cementing his status as a star player and the face of the franchise.

Hurts was rewarded this offseason with a monster five-year extension worth $255 million ($51 million per season), including $179.3 million guaranteed.

The scary thing for other teams in the NFC East is that the 24-year-old Hurts has probably not yet reached his ceiling as he continues to get better as a mental processor and  decision maker. He is also proof that passers can make major accuracy improvements at the pro level, and there's reason to believe that he'll only grow in that area as well.

Marcus Mariota

The Eagles finally "did the deal" this offseason when they signed Mariota to a one-year deal to back up Hurts. Like the Eagles, the Falcons whiffed on attempts to trade for Watson last offseason and settled on Mariota as their starter. Atlanta got out to a 5-8 start and benched Mariota, who then said, cool, k bye I'm out. Rookie Desmond Ridder finished out the final four games as Atlanta's starter, and Mariota was predictably released.

With Eagles 2022 backup Gardner Minshew having moved on to Indianapolis to play for the Colts, the Eagles' pairing with Mariota makes sense, in that he is a running quarterback who can do some of the same things that Hurts can do with his legs. Should Hurts go down, the Eagles wouldn't have to throw out huge chunks of their playbook, particularly in their RPO attack, like they did with Minshew.

The Falcons were the second-most run-heavy team in the NFL in 2022, with Mariota carrying 85 times for 438 yards (5.2 YPC) and 4 TDs. His signature win of the season came against the San Francisco 49ers in a game in which he completed 13 of 14 passes for 129 yards and 2 TDs, while rushing six times for 50 yards and a TD. You can watch full highlights of that game here, but as you can see below, Mariota still has wheels.

On the downside — and this is kind of a big one — Mariota's downfield accuracy in 2022 was atrocious. The below chart is a little tough to read, but it shows that Mariota was the least accurate downfield passer in the NFL, completing 8 of 44 pass attempts for 265 yards, 2 TDs, and 4 INTs on passes of 20+ yards downfield. That would be a passer rating of 29.5.

As a point of comparison, Hurts was 26 of 65 for 993 yards, 12 TDs, and 1 INT, for a passer rating of 120.7.

The eye test matched with Mariota's deep ball stats, as Falcons fans were often frustrated with his inability to connect with open receivers down the field, like here, for example:

And here: 

The Eagles are a shot play passing offense, and for good reason when they employ A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert. It's worth noting that Brown played with Mariota in Tennessee when he was a rookie in 2019, and he played his best ball that season after the Titans made the switch from Mariota to Ryan Tannehill. 

Still, there's reason to believe that the Eagles can help Mariota become a more accurate downfield passer, given the success they had with Hurts' accuracy progression in 2022. The following is a highlight reel from Mariota's days at Oregon. You won't see any bad passes within, because, you know, it's a highlight reel.

In three years at Oregon almost a decade ago, Mariota completed just under 67 percent of his passes on 9.3 yards per attempt, with an incredible 105 TDs vs. just 14 INTs. However, he never progressed as a passer in the NFL. The ability is there, or at least is was. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles can coax more accuracy out of Mariota like they successfully have with Hurts.

Tanner McKee

The Eagles drafted McKee in the sixth round of the draft a few months ago. He is a big quarterback at 6'6, 231 pounds with a strong arm, but he has very limited mobility. In two seasons as Stanford's starting quarterback, McKee completed 63.2 percent of his passes on 7.1 yards per attempt. He threw for 28 TDs and 15 INTs in those two seasons.

In the leadup to the draft, there was some speculation that the Eagles could pick a quarterback, but most assumed it would be one with a similar skill set to that of Hurts and Mariota. Instead, they basically went with the complete opposite type of quarterback. A look: 

A scouting report, via Lance Zierlein of NFL Network

Long, tall pocket passer with better arm strength than arm talent as a passer. McKee throws with an unorthodox delivery that becomes even more irregular when he feels rushed. He can make all the NFL throws and delivers a tight spiral with good velocity on intermediate and deep throws to the field side. However, his heavy feet and a lack of agility limit his effectiveness outside of the pocket and make him a magnet for pass rushers when protection becomes spotty. McKee clearly improved his throwing process in 2022, but he might lack the decision-making and functional mobility to make it in today’s NFL.

If you watch McKee's highlight reel above, you can see what Zierlein is talking about with his "unorthodox delivery." You might also notice that Stanford ran a foofy offensive that required McKee to run a lot of slow mesh in the backfield that did not accentuate his skill set.

In recent years, the Eagles whiffed on a Day 3 quarterback in Clayton Thorson, and they paid decent money to an undrafted but well regarded quarterback in Carson Strong. Both stunk in camp, and never made the 53-man roster. That's the low bar for McKee to clear. The higher bar would be if he showed legitimate promise for the future as a long-term No. 2 quarterback. If McKee can develop into a worthy No. 2, he could save the Eagles a nice chunk of money on the salary cap at that position in 2024 and beyond.

The Eagles entered 2022 training camp with four quarterbacks — Hurts, Minshew, Reid Sinnett, and Strong. They have exhibited that they prefer employing three quarterbacks on the active roster during the regular season, and the new "emergency quarterback" rule will only further incentivize them to continue to keep three.

McKee will be competing with Ian Book for that No. 3 job. 

Ian Book

Book was a New Orleans Saints fourth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2021. He appeared in one game in 2021 as a rookie, a 20-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins in which he completed 12 of 20 pass attempts for 135 yards, with 2 INTs. He was waived at final cutdowns in 2022, and claimed by the Eagles.

Because media is not allowed to watch practice in full after training camp has concluded, I have not seen Book play in person, but he has some mobility and could theoretically run the Eagles' RPO concepts. If it's close between McKee and Book, the Eagles will likely keep McKee, meaning that Book probably has to shoulder the burden of being obviously better than McKee to make the team.

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