After a teaser late last season, the Philadelphia Eagles officially begin a new chapter in franchise history. Embattled quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson came in together in 2016, but both were shown the exit door this offseason. Now second-year player Jalen Hurts is the starting quarterback, and 40-year-old Nick Sirianni is latest first-time head coach. The last time the Eagles had this setup, Chip Kelly watched Nick Foles, the only Eagles quarterback to win a playoff game since 2009, threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2013.
Foles has oddly been at the center of Philadelphia’s few successful moments in the last dozen years. Despite Wentz playing on three teams that made the playoffs in five years, he leaves with one pass completion in a postseason game. Between his injuries and fragile ego, Wentz’s play plummeted last year, leaving the Eagles with no choice but to go forward with Hurts and trade Wentz to Indianapolis where he is already recovering from foot surgery.
Now it is on Hurts and a new coach to get this team back on a consistent winning track in a division that still seems ripe for the taking. Many of the top sportsbooks have the Eagles with an over/under of 6.5 wins, which would put them in last place in the division. Can Hurts be the latest second-year success at the quarterback position and lead this team to the playoffs?
On the Last Season of EAGLES: The Gang Says Goodbye to Carson and Doug
Expectations were not super high for the Eagles in 2020 but battling with Dallas again for the NFC East seemed likely. Little did we know that Dak Prescott would break his ankle and Carson Wentz would regress to one of the worst quarterbacks in the league so that a Washington team with no name won the division with a 7-9 record.
Things were sour right from the start for the Eagles. They blew a 17-0 lead to Washington in Week 1, allowing the final 27 points of the game. A 37-19 loss to the Rams was closer than the final score suggests, but that was the story of the season for Philadelphia. The Eagles played a league-high 15 games where at least one team was in possession of the ball in a one-score game in the fourth quarter. The Eagles finished 4-10-1 in those games as the offense was mostly to blame. The defense only blew one fourth-quarter lead, but the offense was 2-10-1 at comeback opportunities.
The Eagles only managed a 23-23 overtime tie with a bad Cincinnati team. Most overtime ties in NFL history involve a missed field goal, but neither offense could even set a kick up in seven total possessions. A week later, Wentz cut down on the turnovers against an injury-ravaged San Francisco team and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to the unknown Travis Fulgham to get Philadelphia’s first win of the season. That launched Fulgham into a hot five-game streak where he averaged 87 yards per game and caught four touchdowns. Oddly enough, the Eagles looked better on offense in high-scoring losses to the Steelers (38-29) and Ravens (30-28) than they did against the Bengals and 49ers.
After another comeback win against the Giants, the Eagles caught a break when the Cowboys had to start Ben DiNucci at quarterback after Prescott (ankle) and Andy Dalton (COVID) were sidelined. Despite Wentz turning the ball over four times, the Eagles won 23-9 and were 3-4-1 heading into the bye week. In case anyone forgot, that record led the NFC East at the time as Washington (2-5), Dallas (2-6), and New York (1-7) were all struggling.
Alas, the Eagles finished 1-7 after the bye as the offense continued to sputter. The end of the line for Wentz proved to be Week 13 in Green Bay. He was benched for Jalen Hurts in the second half after the Eagles fell behind 20-3. Hurts did not light the scoreboard up, but his runs for first downs and a 32-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-18 kept the game interesting before the Eagles lost another one.
Wentz never played for the Eagles again. Even though 20 quarterbacks threw more passes last year, no one had more interceptions (15) or took more sacks (50) than Wentz. Hurts got his first start against the Saints, and he was able to rush for over 100 yards while not taking any sacks in a 24-21 upset win. It helped the defense that Taysom Hill was playing instead of Drew Brees. Not taking a sack was a big deal for an offense that allowed 65 of them last year. Hurts passed for over 330 yards in each of the next two games against the Cardinals and Cowboys, which is something Wentz never did in his career. Hurts also led the offense to over 400 yards in each of his first three starts after the offense had one such game with Wentz all year. However, the defense was less successful in losses to the Cardinals and Cowboys as playing complementary football was lost on this team last season.
In the final game of the regular season, the Eagles could have kept Washington from winning the division, but the passing game really struggled. Hurts rushed for two touchdowns but only passed for 72 yards on 20 attempts. With the Eagles down 17-14 in the fourth quarter and a national audience watching, Pederson made the bizarre move to bench a healthy Hurts in favor of backup Nate Sudfeld, a quarterback with no real future with the team. The Eagles failed to score and lost 20-14. The better draft position gained from the loss would be inconsequential to Pederson after the team fired him soon after.
If you remove Week 17 games for playoff rest and games that the quarterback did not finish due to injury, then Wentz was 7-19 (.269) against playoff teams during his Philadelphia run. In that same time, Foles (6-1) and Hurts (1-1) were a combined 7-2 (.778) as starters against playoff teams. Foles also led a game-winning drive against the 2017 Rams in the game that Wentz infamously tore his ACL. That game does not count as one of Foles’ six wins or Wentz’s seven wins.
Wentz essentially got Pederson fired in Philadelphia. Now the Eagles must move on with a new coaching staff responsible for developing Hurts.
The Notable Changes for 2021
While some still believe Indianapolis coach Frank Reich was the brains behind the Eagles’ 2017 success, the Eagles were not able to get him to be their head coach. Instead, they chose someone who has been close to him in San Diego and Indianapolis: Nick Sirianni, Reich’s offensive coordinator for the last three years.
Sirianni worked with a different starting quarterback each year in Indy, always having to adjust the offense to a different skillset. Hurts is certainly the most mobile player he has had yet. Joining the staff at offensive coordinator is Shane Steichen, who knows Sirianni from their time together with the Chargers. Steichen helped Justin Herbert win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award last season. The development of Hurts looks to be in solid hands here.
As for the players around Hurts, a lot of attention will be on an offensive line that had 14 different starting combinations in 2020, reportedly a record number. Left tackle Jason Peters is gone, but his age (39) made him unreliable to last a whole season anyway. The Eagles are just hoping for better health this year as the line features a first-round pick at left tackle and three players who have made multiple Pro Bowls. New left tackle Andre Dillard was a first-round pick in 2019, but he missed the whole 2020 season due to a torn biceps. Brandon Brooks made three straight Pro Bowls at right guard before he tore his Achilles last summer, ending his season before it started. Right tackle Lane Johnson missed nine games and left guard Isaac Seumalo missed seven games. Only center Jason Kelce was a rock and able to start every game.
The line will probably not be a strength like it was in 2017, but it should be much better than the liability it was in 2020. As for wide receivers, the Eagles said goodbye to aging veterans Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson. Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham may earn roster spots again, but the receivers the Eagles want to feature are the young draft picks who must live up to expectations. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is looking like a bust after catching only four balls in his second season. Jalen Reagor, last year’s first-round pick, had the misfortune of going one pick ahead of Justin Jefferson, who had 1,400 yards for the Vikings last year. Jefferson likely would not have done that in Philadelphia last year, but he certainly looks better than Reagor, who had a quiet 396 yards. He should use that as motivation as a chance to be the No. 1 wide receiver in Philadelphia is there for him.
However, the Eagles may have other plans after taking Heisman winner DeVonta Smith from Alabama with the 10th pick in this year’s draft. The “Slim Reaper” had incredible production in college. He followed up a season of 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns with 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns last year. There will be concerns about injury due to his small frame, but this is a potentially exciting pick to add to an offense that will still feature running back Miles Sanders and the tight ends, Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz. Take Ertz out of the equation and the speed for this offense should be incredible.
As for the defense, Jonathan Gannon takes over for Jim Schwartz as coordinator. Believe it or not, but this is another Reich-connected hire. Gannon coached the corners in Indy the last three seasons for Reich. This will be his first season as a coordinator, so the Eagles shipped a whole Reich coaching tree to Philly.
There is talent to work with on the defense. Malik Jackson is gone up front, but the Eagles return a familiar trio of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Derek Barnett. It would be nice if Barnett developed into a star, but after four seasons, he likely will not. Still, the defensive line has to lead this defense. The linebackers are nothing special. The Eagles grabbed a couple of cheap starters in free agency who disappointed for the Vikings a year ago in linebacker Eric Wilson and safety Anthony Harris. At least Harris has some past success before a down year in Minnesota.
There are other big changes in the secondary. Jalen Mills and Nickell Robey-Coleman are gone, but one of the replacement corners, Steven Nelson from Pittsburgh, may not be an improvement. This unit needs Darius Slay to get back on track. His first year with the Eagles was a bad one as he allowed 76.7% of his targets to be completed and his yards per target allowed went up two full yards for the second year in a row. He also had just one interception for the first time since his rookie year (2013) when he had none. The Eagles had to expect more from that trade last year.
Jalen Hurts: Second-Year Stud?
The expectations for young quarterbacks are high these days. While Jalen Hurts was only a second-round pick, he had college success and flashed some dual-threat potential at the NFL level last year when he started. In his four starts, Hurts rushed for 272 yards and three touchdowns, which would put him on a 16-game pace for 1,088 yards and 12 touchdowns. Oh yeah, we are in the 17-game era now, so he could even clear 1,100 yards on the ground.
If Hurts plays at a high level, then that should elevate the Eagles to the playoffs. Why not set some high expectations for Hurts? The position is getting younger as we transition away from a golden era of pocket passers. Dak Prescott (2016), Jared Goff (2017), Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Deshaun Watson (2018), Mitchell Trubisky (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), and Josh Allen (2019) have all led their teams to double-digit wins and the playoffs in their first or second season since 2016. Mahomes and Jackson have won two of the last three MVP awards.
The fact is most great quarterbacks in NFL history show us they are on that path in their first or second season as a starter. It is not normal to take three years as Josh Allen did in Buffalo as the data shows us.
A total of 48 quarterbacks who entered the league since 1998 have made at least one Pro Bowl. Only five of those 48 Pro Bowl quarterbacks failed to exhibit an above-average level of play or achieve something noteworthy in their first or second season as a starter. One was Josh Allen in his third season last year. Ryan Tannehill did not truly break out until his eighth season when he got a chance in Tennessee. Matthew Stafford broke out in his third season (2011) in Detroit, but he also missed 19 games to injury in those first two years, so it was more about that. Alex Smith did not figure things out until Year 7 (2011) when Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach of the 49ers. Finally, Drew Brees rode the bench as a rookie, had a mediocre 2002 season, lost his job at one point in a lousy 2003, then finally broke out in 2004 after the team acquired Philip Rivers to eventually replace him.
Not every Pro Bowl selection translates to a top-level quarterback, as Vince Young (2006), Derek Anderson (2007), Tyrod Taylor (2015), and Mitchell Trubisky (2017) will prove. But there is also no denying that those players peaked almost immediately in the NFL once they became starters. Even some of the best quarterbacks to never make a Pro Bowl showed their worth early, such as Chad Pennington (led NFL in passer rating in 2002 and won a playoff game with the Jets) and Colin Kaepernick (led 49ers to Super Bowl in his first season as a starter).
This 2021 season is by no means a do-or-die season for Hurts, but if he is a disaster, then the low draft investment and unattachment this staff has for him makes it rather easy for the Eagles to draft his replacement in 2022. But he would have to be bad – like 2020 Carson Wentz bad – for that to happen.
With only four starts, it is early to dig into the data on Hurts since we have so little. But here are a few things to watch for in 2021:
- Accuracy: He only threw 148 passes, but according to Pro Football Reference, Hurts had the highest rate of bad passes (26.7%) by anyone with at least 125 attempts. The next closest quarterback was his new backup, Joe Flacco (23.4%). Worse, only 60.7% of Hurts’ throws were charted as being on-target passes, easily the lowest rate in the league.
- Red zone play: Hurts had as many touchdown passes from outside of 30 yards (three) last year than he did inside of 30. Will he be a threat down there as a passer or only as a runner?
- Time to throw: While the offensive line should be better, will he still take a lot of sacks from holding the ball too long? According to Next Gen Stats, Hurts’ average time to throw was 3.11 seconds, trailing only 2016 Tyrod Taylor (3.13 seconds) and 2018 Josh Allen (3.22 seconds) for the highest season since 2016. He will have to bring that number down, though it is worth pointing out that Allen was still at 3.04 seconds in his MVP-caliber year.
The days of the Eagles having an athletic quarterback with a great highlight reel and spotty accuracy appear to be back. Now fans can only hope that Hurts is more durable and able to learn from this new staff as they look to succeed together.
After the Eagles showed some life on offense behind Hurts, the 6.5 wins feel a game or two too low. Then you look at the 2021 schedule and it starts to make sense. A poor start is very likely, which could lead to a bad record if the team does not keep their spirits up behind inexperienced leadership.
The easiest game in the first six looks like a trip to Carolina. The Eagles have to host the Chiefs and Buccaneers where they should be home underdogs. The 49ers, Saints, and Chargers could also be difficult home games. But after Thanksgiving, the Eagles have five division games and a trip to the Jets. That is where they could get the bulk of their wins this year, and if they have a good start heading into that stretch, then the over should be a piece of cake.
I am optimistic enough about Hurts and the Eagles to go with the over for your NFL picks, but it is too soon to buy into them for the playoffs.
*The line and/or odds on picks in this article might have moved since the content was commissioned. For updated line movements, visit BMR’s free betting odds product.