August 26, 2021
Training camp is now officially over for the Eagles, who have just one preseason game and two-plus weeks worth of practice and off days standing between them and a Week 1 matchup against the Falcons in Atlanta.
While the team has reportedly dominated in each of their four joint practices this summer, that success hasn't translated into game-day performance, as they're still searching for their first preseason win — and will get their last chance when they visit the Jets at the Meadowlands on Friday night.
It's still undetermined whether or not Jalen Hurts, who missed last week's game against the Patriots with a stomach bug, or the rest of the starters will play in this one, but it's beginning to feel more and more like first-year coach Nick Sirianni saw enough out of Hurts in the joint practices and won't risk injury by trotting him out there against the Jets. That's certainly interesting considering the head coach won't even name Hurts the starter — despite him taking pretty much every first-team rep this summer.
Don't forget, kids, actions speak louder than words.
It's not going to be any surprise when Hurts lines up under center in Atlanta, but it's what happens after that which remains the biggest unknown for Philly fans. How many games will the team win? Will Hurts prove he's the long-term solution at QB? And will Sirianni prove his doubters wrong? As we wrote on Wednesday, finding some of those answers are much more important than others — and fans would be wise to judge the team based on process over results, even if that's a tough ask in this city.
Given that my column yesterday was — I'd say honest but you might say negative — we're going to try to stick to the positives as much as possible in this edition of What They're Saying, meaning we'll ignore things like Bleacher Report ranking Hurts 31st out of 32 starting NFL quarterback. Whoops, sorry. Old habits.
Let's dive right in...
Over at ESPN, Bill Barnwell took a look at the five teams who are most likely to be better in 2021 than they were in 2020. And, perhaps unsurprisingly given that they only won four games last season, the Eagles found themselves on Barnwell's list for the first time since the 2017 offseason following Carson Wentz's rookie season.
Anyone remember what happened that year?
That's not to suggest the Eagles are going to win the Super Bowl — or make the playoffs or even finish above .500 — because this team, with a new coach and a guy taking over as the full-time starter at QB for the first time, is in a very different place than it was in 2017. Still, there is reason to believe the team will be better than they were last season (which hasn't been the case since they won the Super Bowl).
After all, it would be hard to be much worse.
The best argument for Hurts and the rest of the Eagles' offense improving in 2021 is one I laid out a couple of weeks ago. Roseman has built his teams around the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense, but the Philly offensive line was shredded by injuries in 2020. The Eagles' top six projected linemen ended up playing a total of 29 complete games combined. The line can't possibly be as injured this season, although it doesn't appear that 2019 first-rounder Andre Dillard is on a path toward panning out, as he was losing a battle to Jordan Mailata before suffering a knee injury.
On the whole, the Eagles were the league's second-most injured team, trailing only the 49ers. The only projected starter on their offense who played a full season was Jason Kelce. Some injury-prone players remain, but DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Jason Peters and Wentz are all gone. They couldn't be counted on to stay healthy for all 17 games at this point of their respective careers, and Philly might be better off without them.
Like the Niners, in addition to getting healthy, the Eagles will count on turning the ball over less frequently. With Wentz and Hurts both struggling to protect the football, the Eagles turned the ball over 29 times despite recovering more than 70% of their offensive fumbles a year ago. (The league average was 53.7%.) They finished with a turnover margin of minus-10, which was just behind the 49ers for the fourth-worst mark. Philly's defense intercepted just eight passes all season, which ranked 29th. New defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon will have to hope that a secondary anchored by Darius Slay and Anthony Harris will pick off more passes in 2021.
And to make one final comparison to the Niners, the Eagles should be hoping to ride an easier schedule to a better record. Despite playing in the national disaster that was the NFC East last season, FPI estimates that they faced the NFL's 11th-toughest schedule. Heading into 2021, FPI has them down for the eighth-easiest set of opponents. [espn.com]
Win total aside, this year is almost certainly going to be more enjoyable than last season, which basically couldn't have gone any worse. Whereas 2020 was a season in which things were trending down, the Birds scraped the nadir and are now hopefully on the other side, trending in the right direction with a new head coach, a new QB and an influx of youth at the skill positions.
Speaking of young talent, CBS Sports ranked the top 10 young offensive cores in the NFL — and the Eagles did pretty well for themselves, checking in at third on this list. Here's more from Chris Trapasso...
3. Philadelphia Eagles
QB Jalen Hurts, RB Miles Sanders, RB Kenneth Gainwell, WR Jalen Reagor, WR Quez Watkins, WR Travis Fulgham, WR Devonta Smith, TE Dallas Goedert
Man, there's a lot of young talent in Philadelphia. I'm not particularly high on Hurts, but the rationale behind that statement is for another article. Sanders feels like he's been the Eagles lead back for, like, five seasons. He's only 24. We saw what Watkins can do with the ball in his hands in Philly's first preseason outing -- the 4.35 he ran at the combine legitimately translates to the field -- and Fulgham was a glimmer of hope in the Eagles receiving unit last season. Oh yeah, then there's the two first-rounders, Reagor and Smith. If healthy, they can be complete wideouts who win with separation ability, YAC juice, and ball-tracking mastery downfield. This is a young, fun core. [cbssports.com]
Given that Smith and Sanders haven't played much at all and Reagor got off to a slow start, I wonder how much of an impact Quez Watkins' monster camp had on this list.
Heading back to ESPN for a moment — and sticking with the Eagles young skill players — Jeremy Fowler took a look at a handful of young players who are going to be due new contracts at the end of this season and broke down the latest intel on each, from where contract negotiations currently stand to how likely they are to get a deal done before free agency — and in several cases before the season even starts.
For the Eagles, that player is Dallas Goedert, whose situation was complicated by Zach Ertz's surprising presence at training camp. Still, it's pretty safe to say that the team views the 26-year-old tight end as their future at the position, whether or not Ertz lasts the year or gets traded before the season opener. And with the team reportedly preparing to "make a push in the coming weeks" after previous contract talks stalled, it's definitely a situation worth monitoring — and not just because Fowler also mentions Deshaun Watson as a potential domino the team is waiting on before making a move. (Let's hope that's not the case.)
Anyway, here's a bit of what Fowler had to say about the possibility of a Goedert extension...
Current status: Both sides explored a potential contract early in the offseason, and there hasn't been much momentum since then, for reasons unknown. The team views Goedert as a cornerstone for the post-Zach Ertz era, and Goedert is widely regarded as one of the game's most complete young tight ends. But something is holding Philadelphia back, and it feels like the Eagles are waiting on another domino to drop. The whispers of the Eagles' interest in QB Deshaun Watson aren't going away, so perhaps the Eagles must figure that out before any major spending -- especially if they must ship key players to Houston to consummate a deal.
The other thing: Ertz, surprisingly, is still on Philly's roster...
Verdict: Surpassing San Francisco tight end George Kittle's per-year average of $15 million will be tough, but the days of tight ends taking steep discounts are over. They are too valuable. So Goedert will definitely strengthen the market, and Philadelphia will make a push in the coming weeks.
One league source that deals with the salary cap said Goedert's per-year average could land somewhere between Travis Kelce's $14.3 million per year and Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith's $12.5 million per year. Five years and $70 million, with $35 million to $40 million in guarantees, might be a feasible framework, though Goedert might prefer a four-year pact for flexibility purposes. [espn.com]
[Note: Yes, that's a Robert Randolph and the Family Band reference in the headline.]
Over at NBC Sports, Dave Zangaro provided a new round of stock up/stock down candidates following the team's joint practices against the Jets. And there was a familiar name on there, as well as a pair of veterans on the defensive side of the ball.
Dan Feeney is going to be seeing Hargrave in his nightmares for a long time. During these two days, Hargrave was simply a one-man wrecking crew. The entire Eagles’ defensive line looked good against a Jets’ O-line with a couple injuries, but Hargrave was the biggest standout and that’s not new for this summer. A healthy Hargrave has been a welcome sight for the Birds in training camp.
Watkins’ stock was already up before these two practices, but it just continues to soar. It’s wild to think that at the start of training camp, Watkins was fighting for a roster spot and now he’s pretty clearly one of the three starters at the receiver position. He made a few really good catches in these two practices and showed off his toughness on one, getting the wind knocked out of him and returning shortly after.
It might seem silly to put Slay on this list. After all, he’s already an obvious starter and considered by many to be one of the best corners in the league. But he really put the clamps on in Florham Park, especially on Day 2. He was noticeably the best cornerback on the field these two days. [nbcsports.com]
Since we're trying to keep things positive here, we'll stick with the guys whose stock is rising. If you want to see who is falling down the depth chart and possibly in danger of being cut, you'll have to click over to Dave's story...
On the surface, this might sound like it doesn't belong in a PVO* edition of What They're Saying, but hear me out for a minute, because I swear there's a silver lining here.
First, a look at the comment in question, courtesy of NJ.com's Chris Franklin...
When NJ Advance Media asked Orlovsky if he believed Hurts could become the Eagles’ franchise quarterback, the analyst said it took three elements to make a franchise quarterback: The ability to be cerebral and diagnose defenses, the ability to win a game by throwing the ball and the ability to be mobile enough to elude opposing pass rushers and make plays.
Orlovsky said Hurts possesses two of the three elements, with Hurts’ arm being the thing holding him back.
“I think he could beat you with his brain and his legs right now. I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m confident or believe that he’s going to be able to beat teams with his arm. He can be a good starter, but I’m not sold that he could be a franchise guy.” [nj.com]
The first thing to consider here is the source. You know, the guy who still thinks Carson Wentz is an MVP quarterback. Seriously, he said that after last season. To be fair, however, he kind of boxed himself into a corner with his support of Wentz over the years and then stuck with him throughout his downfall in Philly, so he didn't really have much of a choice because admitting you're wrong is the cardinal sin for a talking head.
Jokes aside, there's a bigger reason why this should be encouraging rather than an indictment. Of those three things listed above, two are almost impossible to teach: the brain and the legs — and I would add locker room leadership to that, which Hurts has in spades.
A player's throwing can be improved — it's not easy and it doesn't always work, but it can be done — but those other two can't be taught. You either have the mental makeup to be a quarterback or you don't. You're either mobile or you're not. But throwing mechanics can be tweaked and offensive schemes can be dialed back to fit a player's passing abilities. You can't suddenly make a flat-footed QB elusive. You can't make a meathead more cerebral. And you definitely can't make just anyone a leader — just ask the guy Hurts is replacing. Yet these are the qualities that Hurts already inherently possess.
If there's anything to be hopeful about with Hurts this season, that's it. His biggest flaw is one that can at least theoretically be improved, while he already possesses the intangibles and other skills you need to succeed at this position that can't be taught. That's not nothing.
The one things Hurts doesn't have, however, is a ton of playing time this preseason. As Eytan Shander wrote on this site just the other day, the Eagles would be wise to play Jalen Hurts (and the other starters) on Friday night, especially if they want to give Hurts the best chance to succeed in what is by all accounts a one-year tryout for the starting job moving forward.
Over at Inquirer.com, Marcus Hayes writes that it's actually Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie who are nudging Sirianni, a guy who constantly preaches competition at all times even when his players are resting, to take it easy on his starters. Oh, and that Sirianni should still play his starters against the Jets, especially Hurts after he missed Game 2 against the Pats...
First-time head coach Nick Sirianni, a coach’s kid for whom football always has been religion, seems blind to the fact that, in order to play competent football, you must play ... football. You must not only practice football. You must play it. The NFL preseason always existed, foremost, to prepare a team’s best players to play. Sirianni, 40 — encouraged by bosses Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie, according to league sources — is ignoring this truism, which was always embraced by the NFL’s Lombardis and Browns and Belichicks and Reids.
Jalen Hurts and the first-team offense should play at least four series Friday at the Jets in their preseason finale. Hurts didn’t play in Game 2 because of a bad belly. If he doesn’t get lots of playing time in Game 3, Eagles fans are going to be sick to their stomachs come Sept. 12.
If the players get hurt, so be it. They’d probably get hurt when the real games begin Sept. 12 anyway. If they can’t make it through 30 minutes against the worst team in football, only God can help them. [inquirer.com]
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