Joe Banner: Eagles’ DeVonta Smith is showing a rare combination as a rookie
Banner offers his thoughts on the Eagles’ win over the Broncos, DeVonta Smith’s steady progress, the long-term cost of a potential playoff push, and Teddy Bridgewater’s poor tackling “attempt.”
Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, the two discuss the Eagles’ win over the Denver Broncos, DeVonta Smith’s steady progress, the long-term cost of a potential playoff push, and Teddy Bridgewater’s poor tackling “attempt.”
EJ: What were your biggest takeaways from the Eagles-Broncos game?
JB: They played well. It’s about the same as we’ve seen the last few weeks. I thought the mixture of runs and passes was better and therefore gave them a chance to run an offense that has a chance even against good teams. In the first half, they were technically 20-and-20, but there were five quarterback runs that were actually called passes, so I think the play-calling was more conducive about what you need to do against good teams.
I’m still a little worried about the defense. I thought Denver stopped themselves a bunch of times with mistakes. They had a bunch of second-and-10 runs that left them with third-and-8s.
Overall, though, it was very encouraging, both from a coaching perspective and the young players that you want to see doing well. They all had good games, so it was a positive step.
EJ: How encouraged are you about Nick Sirianni as a play-caller given the offensive surge the last three games?
JB: I thought it was all very good. We need to be careful not to make generalizations over a game or a few games against not great opponents, but you can’t do any more than have the players and coaches do the best they can under the circumstances. Denver isn’t an easy place to travel and win, and frankly, they were pretty dominant. They didn’t just win the game, they were really clearly in charge of it from the beginning. They had a 10-point lead before you could even get comfortable in your seat.
I think that was a combination of things, I think the players played well, and I think the coaches did a better job. It does seem to be moving toward an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of both themselves and the opponent. They’ve used Jalen Hurts like the teams that have good running quarterbacks while also understanding the importance of throwing the ball downfield when possible. They had a good mix of that, much better than what they’ve had. They seemed to identify where Denver was weak and what could be exploited.
To project the future, we still need more information and to see more progress, but on a week-to-week basis, if we’re just evaluating that performance and not thinking in terms of projecting to the future, you’d have to say they’re doing a good job.
The most important thing to me is seeing the young players that they need to be part of the future, that need to be a part of a really good team a few years from now, they’re continuing to look like they’re getting better.
» READ MORE: Nick Sirianni swallowed his pride and ran the ball, and Jalen Hurts and the Eagles were reborn. Will it last?
EJ: Which players, specifically, are you referring to? Are there some players that have surprised you so far?
JB: Guys like Davion Taylor, Marcus Epps, and Milton Williams. I’m not sure I’d say they’ve surprised me, but they’re living up to what you hoped they be. Landon Dickerson’s another one, and even Jordan Mailata; it looks like his knee is feeling better and he’s playing more like he did at the beginning of the year or even last year.
And obviously, most importantly, Hurts. We’re definitely seeing progress. We’re seeing some things that I haven’t been negative about, but reserved judgment on, improve. I still think we need to see more improvement under more circumstances, but you have to give him credit for what we’re seeing. You can’t do more than what you’re asked to do and he seems to be executing what they’re asking him to do very well.
EJ: What are the traits that stand out to you about Hurts?
JB: For me, the keys are some things we already knew and some things we were wondering about. He’s an excellent runner, we knew that, but was he going to be a good runner or an excellent runner? He’s shown that he’s an excellent runner.
The mental processing that all young quarterbacks struggle with, and realizing that he’s really in his first year in terms of actually playing, I think we’re seeing good progress there. His decision-making has improved quite a bit. Although what we’ve seen is encouraging, we still need to see him play the quarterback position in a more traditional way, so they can mix that in with some of the other things that he brings to the table.
I do think the accuracy has improved a bit. It’s not something where I’d say he’s accurate, but we’re seeing more hopeful signs in that area. I don’t know if it’s improvement or he’s getting more chances to show it. He’s reinforced what we thought about his leadership and his drive, which is really important in the quarterback position because, whether they like it or not, they play a huge role in leadership and setting the tone. I think we’re gaining information every week and it’s all positive. If I had to make a decision today, I’d still be a little nervous but definitely feeling a lot more hopeful than I was a month ago.
EJ: DeVonta Smith has had back-to-back impressive games. What stands out when you watch him? Does he remind you of anyone you’ve had experience with?
JB: It’s hard to say that because we didn’t prioritize wide receivers, as everyone knows, when I was there. Maybe a young version of Irving Fryar? Maybe Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson, who were closer to the end of my tenure. He’s clearly the best of that era of wide receiver that we had.
There’s three things that difference-making wide receivers have. One is the ability to separate and get open. Two is to have great hands and consistently be able to snag the ball and make tough catches. Three is speed. There’s not many wide receivers that have all three of those things at an elite level. It’s too early to absolutely say he has all of those at an elite level — he definitely has them all at a very high level — but if I had to predict, I’d predict he has all three of those at an elite level and he’s a difference-making wide receiver.
The only nervousness at all that I still think is justified is that he’s a small-framed guy playing a position that takes a physical beating if they’re used a lot. We’re just going to have to see over time if that’s an issue or not.
» READ MORE: DeVonta Smith showed again, in the Eagles’ win over the Broncos, why he’s going to be so special
EJ: Smith’s character and his ability to influence the locker room in a positive way was also part of the reason the Eagles valued him in the draft. How important is that, especially for a wide-receiver room without any veterans.
JB: It’s very important. I think it’s a very underrated area that does translate into how well a team does and plays. I still talk to people in the building and they all are very confident that he’s already playing some role in that leadership area and that, in time, they think he’ll be a very strong leader, both verbally and leading by example.
EJ: What was your take on Teddy Bridgewater alligator-arming Darius Slay on the fumble return? Do front offices want their quarterback going for a tackle like that?
JB: That was a play that had a very good chance on whether that team will make the playoffs this year. There’s plenty of times where I’m yelling to the quarterback to get out of the way and not risk their health, but when you’re in a situation like that where you’re in a game that will have a major impact on your playoff chances, it’s different. I think it was obvious at the time he was the last line of defense, so if he does nothing, it’s seven points.
I don’t think there’s a rule here, I generally think quarterbacks should be very careful and avoid situations where they have to make tackles, and I don’t mind in certain situations them turning down a tackle. But if you’re in the latter part of a game and turning down the tackle could end up deciding whether you’re making the playoffs, I think you gotta make the tackle.
Some people want to make a rule that a quarterback should never try to make a tackle and some want to make a rule that they should always try to make a tackle. I’m in the middle. The situation informs that to some extent. In this case, it would be hard for Denver to have a more important play than that one ended up being. To just let a guy run right by you and into the end zone, I have a real problem with that, I really do. I don’t want to dismiss the toughness that he’s shown in his career, but if you’re not prepared to get on the field and do things that could make or break your season, then maybe you aren’t the right leader.
EJ: Now that the team is back in the playoff picture, I wanted to ask you how you’d let that influence you as a GM if you’ve turned over to younger players the way the team has. Do you think they’ll revert back to a win-now approach or stay the course?
JB: I think in this case, they can do both because the younger guys they’re switching to have played better than the veterans they’ve replaced. They can continue to play these guys that they’re playing and they’ll have as good a chance or better than if they favored the veterans.
I think they should continue doing what they’ve been doing, in terms of bringing more young guys into the fold and relying on them. A good number of them are rising to the occasion. I wouldn’t have predicted this, but the way it’s unfolded, they can do both.
EJ: What would you say to the fans who would rather see the team needs to avoid a playoff push to keep its draft stock in a favorable position?
JB: Two weeks ago, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that if you’re purely thinking about the long-term upside of the team that it may have been wise. You’d have to be asking a very narrow question to come up with that answer. I think it’s counterproductive to the development of the coaches and the players, but I understand the question is out there.
I think the way they’ve handled the last few games has given them a chance to do both.