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April 10, 2022

John McMullen: Evolving Jalen Hurts still faces an uphill climb

Eagles NFL
012122JalenHurts Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Hurts

The 2022 season was always going to be the drop-dead, demarcation line for an Eagles’ decision on Jalen Hurts and his future as their starting quarterback.

The business of the NFL demands that outcome because as a 2020 second-round draft pick, Hurts will be eligible for a contract extension after the upcoming season.

While it's easy for anyone to call sports talk radio and say, "Just let him play out his final season under his rookie deal," it's also impractical, especially in the quickly evolving player empowerment era of the NFL.

On top of the added player leverage Hurts might have, most organizations, and the Eagles snugly fit into that group, typically would never want to build any season around a lame-duck quarterback anyway.

The lone exception to that would be a Kirk Cousins-like player mindset of betting on one's self, which, in theory, could tie Hurts to the Eagles through 2025 with the final year of his rookie contract followed by two franchise tags.

That unlikely scenario would also require Hurts not pushing for an extension while also playing well enough to be considered worthy of franchise money by some, but not by the organization itself, which is a lane the size of a phone booth.

It also guarantees astronomical money by 2024 anyway. The 2022 franchise tag for QBs, for example, was $29.7 million and that’s before the explosion of contracts with players like Aaron Rodgers Matthew Stafford, and Deshaun Watson. Any time spent mulling over that hypothetical should be equal to the workload of reading the prior paragraphs explaining it.

The obvious problem looming around the corner for the Eagles when it comes to Hurts is the going rate for an above-average NFL starting quarterback on a second contract now starts at a $30M average annual value and is only going up. Moving forward from there, it's a landscape that, at the bare minimum, will force an organization to declare its intentions with QBs.

The only real uncertainly around Hurts since the onset of the 2021 season was if he would get two full seasons to change enough minds about his ceiling as a player. It's an outcome only assured by the failure of both Russell Wilson and Watson to even consider the Eagles as a potential trade destination, along with the “lackluster” nature of the 2022 draft class at the QB position.

A source familiar with the Eagles' thinking when it comes to the draft later this month notes that Pitt's Kenny Pickett is the only signal-caller deemed worthy of what would be considered a mid-first round grade by those outside the NovaCare Complex (the Eagles' scale in their draft database is based on percentiles compared against previous years).

The kicker to that, though, is Philadelphia has four other QBs, a group that includes North Carolina's Sam Howell, that has been deemed worthy of bridge-pick status (think late first-round or early second).

The three others are presumably Liberty's Malik Willis, Matt Corral of Ole Miss, who will be in for a Top-30 visit this week, and Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati, although those final three names aren't confirmed.

Despite the knocks on the class in the public sphere, all five of the Eagles' top-ranked QB prospects in 2022 are ahead of where Hurts himself was in 2020 when the Eagles drafted him at No. 53 overall, according to the source.

Since then, however, Hurts has developed into a capable starter with a playoff berth and Pro Bowl-alternate status on his resume by the end of Year 2, enough to where the Eagles would only consider an obvious upgrade like Wilson or Watson.

That's why there has been no talk of Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo to date. A slight upgrade over Hurts or lateral move is not the goal, especially when you factor in the third-year player’s much-discussed intangibles which rub off on the entire organization in a positive fashion.

Too many outside observers assume you draft a good player or a bad one, but player development is very important.

"They’re not trying to be in the business of developing pocket passers with first-round picks," a former personnel executive told PhillyVoice. "Pickett was the one they [think] could be the most efficient the soonest."

As far as the 2022 draft class, starting in a better place doesn't take into account the evolution of Hurts over his two professional seasons and really back to college, which has been significant and consistently positive.

Rarely does a player keep getting better each and every year with no ebbs and flows, but that's been Hurts and some in the Eagles' front office believe that trajectory will continue.

Moving forward, it's obviously way too early to discuss the 2023 QB class, but the early thinking around the league is that Alabama's Bryce Young, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, and perhaps even Boston College's Phil Jurkovec will be considered top-10 selections worthy barring any kind of unforeseen derailment.

"Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud being head and shoulders above anyone in this class just makes more sense to chase," the exec noted.

Right now the Eagles aren't exactly "chasing," but the trade with New Orleans last week that punted one of the team's three first-round picks into next year is certainly viewed as a safety net for Hurts around the league.

And it’s one made of bright neon rope, so it’s easy to see, including for Hurts himself.

Some have advocated a college-like approach where you keep turning over the position in four- or five-year increments depending on the rookie contract until finding the obvious superstar.

The problem with that is assuming each player in that kind of cycle would attack things in the same way as Hurts and remain undeterred in the midst of the constant upgrade rumors. The percentages say you’re always more likely to find the next Carson Wentz than the next Hurts in that kind of constant churn.

The one tool Hurts has at his disposal right now that no one else does is playing time. No matter pedigrees or preconceived notions, if you play well in the NFL no one is taking you off the field.

Howie Roseman wouldn't identify tangible measuring sticks for Hurts before the 2021 season and surely will not do it again moving forward.

That said, common sense can be your guide here. With $30M and up entering the equation sooner rather than later, Hurts' impressive second season when graded on a curve would not cut it. The Eagles are fine paying under $2M for competency, but 15x that is simply not tenable.


John McMullen is a contributor to PhillyVoice.com, and covers the Eagles and the NFL for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Media. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com. Follow John on Twitter here.

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