The Eagles are headed into what might be the important year of their rebuild. Will they continue to be upwardly mobile? Do they have the answer at quarterback? Optimism is running high around the Eagles and their fans, especially after Jalen Hurts and A.J. Brown became an item. Here are questions to ponder as we move closer to the beginning of training camp.
1. Can Jalen Hurts evolve into a championship-quality quarterback?
This is the question of the day, month and year. If Jalen Hurts continues his upward trend, the Eagles will contend for a playoff spot. They made the playoffs last year with Hurts, but the public and the team remain mixed on whether Hurts is the answer.
The Eagles have a nice, tidy plan — they hope and pray Hurts is the guy — but one that could go boom in a bad way.
The Eagles say they are all-in on Hurts for 2022, which feels like a one-year audition for him to stay in Philadelphia. If Hurts proves himself in 2022, the Eagles can build around him. Acquiring A.J. Brown gives Hurts a big target and a bigger opportunity for success.
The whispers last year about Hurts were: He can’t see the entire field. He is missing open receivers.
What I know: I watched film that showed these very criticisms.
What I don’t know: How many other quarterbacks have the same deficiencies? I don’t think Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are missing many receivers. They are veterans, maybe among the best to ever play the game. A guy is open, they find him, and they deliver a catchable ball to him.
It isn’t fair to compare Hurts to these future Hall of Famers, not at this stage of his career. Hurts will start his second full season as a starter in September. That’s considered inexperienced for the complex quarterback position.
That doesn’t mean Hurts needs better stats in head-to-head meetings. It means Hurts’ stats must be good enough for the Eagles to win consistently. And to win the most important games of the season.
If Hurts isn’t the answer … whew. Then what?
The Eagles’ rebuild, a general manager Howie Roseman joint, blows up. Gardner Minshew is on the roster but he’s not a long-term answer. He’s probably a career back-up player.
So, it would be back to the computer for Howie, who will be watching college quarterback tape until his eyes bleed. He has two first-round picks in 2023 and he might have to use one (or two) to land a potential starting quarterback in a college draft expected to be rich and deep with quarterbacks.
2. Will the secondary become a force?
Statistics don’t bear this out, but the Eagles’ secondary felt and looked like a weakness last season. In a passing league, Philly looked exploitable.
The Birds had a middle-of-the-pack 12 interceptions and allowed 28 touchdown passes.
With so many balls in the air, teams must contain the opponent’s passing game, deflect a few balls, get some picks, stop them on third down. The Eagles tied the Jacksonville Jaguars by allowing a league-worst completion rate of 69.4 percent.
Cornerback Darius Slay helped steady the defensive backfield last year and he will be joined by Giants discard James Bradberry. Avonte Maddox should improve at the nickel position. Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps should start at safety, which still looks a tad weak compared with other teams’ safety combinations.
The Eagles’ stats are solid. They ranked 10th in total defense, ninth in rushing defense (107.8 yards per game) and 11th in passing defense (222.2 yards per game). There is room to grow and dominate.
Quickest way to improve the secondary? Put heat on the quarterback. The Eagles only had 29 sacks last year, second-worst in the NFL.
3. Will the Eagles’ running game continue to dominate?
Even in a passing league, running the ball is vital. The Eagles had a league-high 2,715 rushing yards last year, averaging 156.1 per game. They carried the ball 550 times, second in the league. They led the league with 25 rushing touchdowns.
Running the ball takes pressure off Hurts, maybe gets him into favorable second- and third-down situations, keeps the clock moving. Hurts is not yet an accomplished quarterback and maybe another year of embracing the run could be a win-win.
On the ground, Hurts has shown fancy feet and a nose for finding the first-down markers. He led the Eagles in rushing with 784 yards in 15 games. It’s neither ideal nor long-term prudent to put your quarterback in potential jeopardy more than necessary.
I’m sure the Eagles want Hurts to be a passer first and a runner second.
Miles Sanders gained 754 yards in 12 games, followed by Jordan Howard (406 yards in seven games), Boston Scott (373 in 16 games) and rookie Kenneth Gainwell (291 yards in 16 games). For now, Howard is gone and if Sanders can stay healthy, he could have a huge season.
Not to be overlooked is the Eagles’ offensive line opening holes so the backfield can pile up yards. A healthy, effective line could lead to a healthy running game and the inclination to keep the ball on the ground.
OK, let’s pick a fourth question
If we wanted to add a fourth question, that’s easy: Will the Eagles stay relatively healthy?
Staying healthy is more luck than anything in such a violent sport. Football has a bravado, next-man-up image. That’s fine, until it isn’t.
If you lose one or more offensive linemen to injury, the odds are your team is in trouble along with the quarterback and running game. You lose someone on the defensive line, there’s goes the pass rush and the ability to stop the run.
Teams can absorb injuries — but only certain ones. If your starting quarterback goes down — Nick Foles notwithstanding — it can be an enormous hurdle to overcome. Remember when Randall Cunningham went down in the 1991 opener at Green Bay? The Eagles went 10-6 and missed the playoffs. They were carried by one of the league’s great defenses.
The overwhelming feeling from that season was this: It was a great opportunity, lost forever.