With the music fading on the speakers across MetLife Stadium and fans heading toward the exits, quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receiver DeVonta Smith were among the last players to leave the field following the Eagles’ tie with the Jets in the preseason finale on Aug. 27.
Sporting quarter-zip hoodies with the iconic silver Eagles emblem placed on the upper left chest and matching black shorts, Hurts and Smith slowly walked off as if they were attached by a string, under the same stride. Together, the former college teammates waved at the fans who lingered in the lower bowl near the visitors’ tunnel.
This image served as a poetic moment for two young players tabbed with helping turn around a franchise in Philadelphia.
The Eagles selected Smith — the reigning Heisman Trophy winner — with their top pick at No. 10 in April’s NFL draft. Meanwhile, Hurts, a 2020 second-round selection, enters his sophomore season with an apparent short leash.
Expectations across the city and region should be muted as the Eagles enter a new era under first-year coach Nick Sirianni. But this is still the same franchise that raised the Lombardi Trophy and paraded down Broad Street just three years ago. Fans and ownership alike want to see a winning product sooner rather than later.
A majority of the front office, led by general manager Howie Roseman, remains. But after Roseman and owner Jeffery Lurie relieved former coach Doug Pederson of his responsibilities, they tasked Sirianni as his successor in January. Nearly eight months later, Sirianni has infused a new wave of energy into the locker room.
It starts with Hurts, who since arriving at training camp has religiously preached his “rent is due every day” mindset to his teammates. Hurts’ rapid effect on the team is telling. It has gotten to the point where his offensive linemen have been spotted wearing “rent is due” hats that the 23-year-old quarterback gifted them.
Hurts serves as a messenger and extension of Sirianni’s core values and the coach’s “1% better every day” mantra.
“When you’re able to come together and do things together, you can’t really put a limit on it,” Hurts said last week. “The more people you have on the same page, the more powerful you are.
“I’m taking steps every day. Rent has been due every day.”
To his credit, Sirianni has received buy-in from a locker room that was left in shambles following last season’s 4-11-1 finish. Quarterback Carson Wentz is gone. So is defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Tight end Zach Ertz, one of the team’s most respected veterans, is still here after mending his relationship with the Eagles.
“This is the place I want to be,” said Ertz, a three-time Pro Bowler. “This is where I want to retire.”
As for everybody else?
Two-thirds of the initial 53-man roster returns from last year’s team that wildly underachieved. Approximately 20 returnees started in some capacity. The team emphasized defense in free agency, adding safety Anthony Harris, linebacker Eric Wilson, cornerback Steven Nelson, and veteran defensive end Ryan Kerrigan.
Smith headlines the 2021 draft class, which also includes:
Center Landon Dickerson (second round, No. 37)
Defensive lineman Milton Williams (third round, No. 73)
Cornerback Zech McPhearson (fourth round, No. 123)
Running back Kenneth Gainwell (fifth round, No. 150)
Defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu (sixth round, No. 189)
Defensive end Tarron Jackson (sixth round, No. 191)
Linebacker JaCoby Stevens (sixth round, No. 224)
Linebacker Patrick Johnson (seventh round, No. 234)
Of the Eagles’ nine draft picks, eight made the 53-man roster outright — Stevens was waived but added to the practice squad after cutdown day.
“With the draft class, really confident in the abilities of the guys,” Sirianni said. “I felt like everybody that we drafted, we were genuinely excited about these guys. Why? Because they had talent. And when you have talent, talent is the most important thing, but if you’re high character and if you love ball and you’re tough, you’re going to reach your ceiling, and you’re going to reach your ceiling quicker.”
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Smith is expected to make the biggest impact on a young receiver group. All of the team’s receivers are 25 or younger. The Eagles ranked 24th in the NFL in total offense last season with 334.6 yards per game. The passing game was worse at 28th with 207.9 yards per game. Not a single player recorded double-digit touchdowns.
Insert Smith, who has been immediately slotted into the No. 1 WR role.
The 6-foot, 170-pound receiver consistently torched defensive backs during his four seasons at Alabama, where he caught 235 passes for 3,965 yards and 46 touchdowns with an average of 16.9 yards per catch.
“Everybody has a hand in our leadership room,” Smith said. “Everybody.”
Besides Smith, the Eagles have a talented — but unproven — trio of receivers featuring 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor and speed demon Quez Watkins, who emerged during his strong performance in camp.
“Our chemistry is growing every day,” Watkins said. “I’ve got to keep stacking my days. We’ve got to keep pushing every play. Sometimes you’ve got to get your brother open. We’re a family. It don’t matter who gets the ball. As long as we’re winning games and moving the ball, that’s all that matters.”
The receivers are supplemented by a pair of dynamic tight ends in the three-time Pro Bowler Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and running backs Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, and Boston Scott.
Travis Fulgham, the Eagles’ leading receiver from last season, didn’t make the roster after a relatively quiet summer. He remains on the practice squad. Elsewhere across the offense, Joe Flacco and Gardner Minshew will back up Hurts, who will be protected by a stout offensive line, anchored by veterans Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson.
The entire offense will follow Sirianni’s lead. Philadelphia’s new coach is rooted in a receiver’s background and is expected to add his own touches to the passing game.
“Everything we do is really by committee,” Sirianni said. “We do things by committee, and I feel really comfortable and really confident in the guys that we have on this roster right now to be able to run the offense that we want to run.”
The Eagles didn’t do anything too exciting in the preseason, finishing with a record of 0-2-1.
Sirianni made it clear he has placed more value in practices than the actual games. The Eagles concluded training camp with back-to-back weeks of joint practices with the Patriots and Jets. Following his slow start to camp, Hurts elevated his game against live competition and the team’s intensity ramped up.
“His work doesn’t go unnoticed,” Ertz said of Hurts. “He puts in a tremendous amount of work every day, day by day. Just some of the stuff he’s been able to do in practices makes me go, ‘Hey, that’s pretty special.’ His demeanor hasn’t changed. He’s always been pretty quiet, but when he gets in the huddle, he commands respect. If the offense is ever slacking, he’s never scared to speak up or project his voice into somebody to make us improve and get better.
“He’s got a lot of confidence in [himself]. Everybody sees it.”
During four starts last season, Hurts completed 52% of his throws for 1,061 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. He rushed for 354 yards and three touchdowns. His performance created some buzz around the city, but it also posed questions about his accuracy and timeliness with decision making.
Hurts arrived at training camp with added senses of swagger and poise. In nearly every session with reporters, he has utilized his platform to promote the team’s daily deposits.
“The more reps I’ve gotten, the more time I’ve had to reflect on that, the more coaching I’ve been able to take, the more time I’ve been able to spend with my teammates — we’ve all gotten better.
“Rent is due.”