Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, the two discuss Banner’s impression of Jalen Hurts in the season opener against the Falcons, the arduous process of evaluating a young quarterback, Jordan Mailata’s contract extension, and the Colts being the subject of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in-season series.
EJ: I wanted to start with Jordan Mailata. What was your take on the extension?
JB: Let’s put it in two parts, the fact that he’s emerged, the fact that they found him in the seventh round and they’ve coached him up and turned him into a good player, that’s obviously a great thing for everybody. I personally think he’s a developing player, so I think he’s solid, but there’s compelling evidence that he can continue to improve to be even better.
So there’s that part of it, I mean it’s just kind of a great story and we see these from time to time in the NFL, but this was a particularly compelling journey. The contract side, there are times I wish I could just talk to an agent and just say, ‘Tell me what the rationale was.’
At first, I saw the average of the deal which I thought was much lower than I had anticipated it being. We’ve got probably five left tackles making over $20 million a year and I think one at $23 million, even. Sixteen million is almost 50% less than $23 million. You just don’t see that, you don’t see a quality player at an important position developing and improving taking that low of an average. He’s basically paid like a high-paid guard, so the average was really stunning.
If he happens to continue to progress, he’s already underpaid, so he will become massively underpaid. Really, if he just played the way he did last week — now that wasn’t a great game to judge him because he wasn’t against very good competition and we’ll see as he plays better people, but if he’s even just a solid starting left tackle, he’s already underpaid. As the cap goes up and we move forward with that situation, it’s going to become really obvious.
EJ: How do his limited playing experience and injury history play into the deal he got?
JB: The Eagles obviously think he’s a good player or they’re not going to offer him $16 million. If he’s a good player, $16 million combined with the guarantee that he got is a massively low number for where the market is now and where it’s headed. Remember, we already know the cap is going up $20 million just next year. He’s locked in for the next five years on a contract that’s below market value now.
It’s been a very long time since a player had a serious injury in his contract year and still didn’t get paid. Medicine has progressed, offseason training programs and rehab programs have gotten to the point now where there’s a long list of players, and we just saw a huge example with Dak Prescott, but there are lots of examples over the last five or six years where players who had serious injuries in the last year of their contract still got paid 100% of what we would have anticipated they’d get paid. If you’re walking away from millions and millions of dollars a year because you’re afraid of “Oh my God, what if I get hurt,” then you just haven’t studied the updated stats.
EJ: With how much upside he has and him being just 24, it seems like he could have had a chance to reset the market had he played well this year and signed in the offseason.
JB: He was in a position, assuming he plays well — and I already think he was a solid player, so it’s not like we’re making some crazy projection that he stays solid or gets even better — he was in a position to make massively more than any left tackle over the course of his career has ever made. He still has a chance to do that, but it’s a little less than it was.
EJ: How does Mailata’s extension change anything for Dillard, if at all?
JB: I think in the immediate future he’s most likely to stay and be a quality backup. … I wasn’t a big fan of that pick when they made it, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to play out, but I think anything other than hold him just in case for this year, that would be a mistake. If someone came in and offered them something consequential they should grab it because it would be their only chance to get something consequential.
In the offseason, they can sign a veteran guy to get some depth and try to move him. They won’t get a lot, but they can get something back.
From a fan perspective and even from a media perspective, you gotta realize, if you’re running the team, you couldn’t care less that the first-round pick didn’t work out, but the seventh-round pick did at the same position. You made those picks hoping to fill the hole at left tackle and you did it.
EJ: What stood out in the Eagles’ Week 1 win against the Falcons?
JB: Well, their lines were just dominant in that game. I caution people to wait and see, that wasn’t a very good opponent, and of course we have to hold our breath on injuries because some of those players are a little bit older.
I was very happy to see Hargrave. I spent the whole last year doing this and talking about what a phenomenal signing Hargrave was and looking like I didn’t know anything. I was glad to see him come out and play like that. I’ve been a big fan, I called that signing one of the best they’ve done in years and last year was watching it going, “Boy, what the hell was I talking about?” I think you saw it a little bit at the end of last year and I think you saw it in that game, I thought it was a heck of a signing.
EJ: The thing that stood out to me watching Week 1, watching Hargrave, Mailata, DeVonta Smith, and several other young players was how we’re starting to see a younger crop of players that will be cornerstones. What are your thoughts on where the Eagles are at in terms of cultivating young players to build around?
JB: I still think they’re short on the quantity of that, but what I think is really compelling is with a guy like Sweat who is young, with a guy like Mailata, you’re starting to lay the groundwork at the most important positions for long-term continuity with quality players and people. The good news is, if you had a wish, like, “I’ve got some young, developing players that I’m very excited about,” you would hope they play those positions, so that’s a huge positive. It’s hard to fill those positions with young, improving quality players and there’s encouraging signs that they’ve done that.
I still think that the overall roster quantity of young players has definitely improved, it’s definitely on the right track, but I still think on the quantity side, they need even more to feel really good about the future.
EJ: What did you think about Hurts? His intended air yards were noticeably short, which I pointed out, but I didn’t think it was a reg flag so much as something worth noting.
JB: This is how I say it, and I don’t think you’re bringing up an invalid question: The quarterback can’t do any more than execute what he’s given really well and I thought he did that. He deserves credit for that and the coaching staff deserves credit for using him in ways that took advantage of his strengths and didn’t expose his weaknesses, so I think that was really good.
I do think it matters that they throw the ball downfield and effectively. If they could win handily without doing it, so be it. Why risk it? But before we can start to make real judgments on Hurts — I know some people have him in the Hall of Fame — but before we can make any serious judgment, not just a knee-jerk, going up and down week-to-week, there are things he wasn’t asked to do.
If we’re going to project whether over the next three-to-five years he’s going to be a quality starting quarterback, we still haven’t seen enough to know. What we saw was encouraging, he couldn’t have possibly done any more in that game than he did. He executed effectively everything they gave him to do.
The second question, though, is how does it project to what he’s going to be in the future and the long run, and that’s kind of incomplete. We’re encouraged by what we saw, but there’s a whole bunch of things we have to see. What happens when a defense plays tighter and tries to take away the short game, is he going to be able to do something about that? What happens when a team plays man-to-man with a really good secondary and the space where people are open is much smaller?
I’m not predicting anything negative. I’m not criticizing him by any stretch, actually what he’s done so far, he couldn’t have done any better. But if we’re projecting his career, we have to realize there’s some really important things that he’s going to have to be good at that we haven’t seen yet. It’s not negative, it’s just kind of unfinished. The air yards are one to keep an eye on, but they didn’t call plays for him to have good air yards. It is something that, as we make a longer-term projection of him, is worth keeping an eye on.
EJ: People always want to jump to conclusions on quarterbacks, but it often takes years to really know what you have in one. I understand it’s probably a case-by-case basis, but how long, ballpark, does it take to get a sense of whether you have a franchise quarterback or not?
JB: Obviously it’s a gradual process, so the answer is partially from Day One and it grows. I would have told you that I would have thought probably a couple of years before you really feel like you know that you know what you got. But you just saw Goff and Wentz, at least I would have thought we knew what we had after two years and it turned out to be quite different.
So that’s a little harder question than it was. You’re gaining knowledge and projecting the future of a quarterback when you’re working for the organization from the first meeting that they attend internally. The first practice, the first reps, the first tape they watch.
EJ: How about Nick Sirianni? What was your overall sense of his game-planning and the way he managed his first game?
JB: For me, I’m almost taking Hurts and saying “ditto.” For the opponent they had this week, he put together an excellent game plan on both sides of the ball. They got the execution of the game-plan to be done really well. It was really sound, both in taking advantage of the skills of the Eagles players, but maybe even as or more importantly, taking advantage of the weaknesses in the Falcons defense.
You can be nothing but positive about him so far. If you’re looking for a long-term projection, we need a lot more information, but what we saw this week was extremely encouraging in terms of how he approached the game, how he thought about it, how his coordinators managed the game.
How good a coach is he going to be over the next five years? I think all the signs are encouraging, but you can’t make a confident judgment at the moment with the amount of information we have from outside of the building. But I’d be hopeful from what we’ve seen so far.
EJ: Do you think we still might see a few extensions get done soon or are we too far into the season now?
JB: We’re probably out of the imminent phase, although sometimes you have a few conversations going on right before the first game that didn’t get done. So there’s a little bit of a chance between now and Sunday we see what will be a small quantity, but we still could see a deal or two. There’s another point in the middle of the season at which some teams do extensions occasionally. We did some at the Eagles when I was there. Other than that, I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot until the end of the season. There’s a moment now, maybe another four or five days left in the moment now.
EJ: Fletcher Cox restructured his deal earlier this week. What was your impression of that? Is it indicative of something coming?
JB: I think it’s more just to maintain flexibility in case. This is my speculating, but I don’t think they have something in mind they’re going to do tomorrow. I think they have awareness that there are things that could come up and wanted to be in a position to be able to move and move quickly if needed.
Personally, for me, I tried to avoid doing these because it does guarantee larger future chargers for a smaller current charge. It’s not like you’re actually saving any money. I personally would’ve waited until there was actually something that required this because you’re increasing the yearly cost for Cox and the ultimate cost when he stops playing. They’ve been employing this different philosophy than what I used now for a little bit, and my understanding is that it’s mostly to just maximize flexibility in season for things that could come up that aren’t anticipated.
EJ: When we talked extensions in the past, we didn’t really touch on Josh Sweat. What are your thoughts on him as a player and a potential extension for him?
JB: He’s a good player, they’re lucky to have him. He’s exactly what they want and look for. It’s very hard on both sides to value him right now, which is why it’s hard to do a deal. I would be surprised if the Eagles hadn’t called to at least check it out and try and see if there was an opening there. But if he keeps playing like he is and improving, he’s gonna be worth a lot of money. He’s what the whole league wants and there’s a meaningful shortage of, that’s what he is. So he’s in a position if he continues to play well and improve to do quite well financially, but at the moment, If I were him, I wouldn’t even consider doing a deal because I don’t really know how to value myself.
EJ: The NFL announced that Hard Knocks would follow the Colts throughout the season. What would your reaction be if you were still an executive?
JB: From running a team perspective, we push hard to not be on Hard Knocks. There’s nothing to gain, and I don’t know if there’s anything to lose or not but, “Why would I even take the chance?” was kind of our attitude.
There was nobody in the building whose ego needed to be on Hard Knocks. Doing it in-season versus during training camp feels a little bit more intrusive, although I suspect we’re going to see a little bit of a scaled-down version. They are playing teams each week and have to be a little bit careful now that you’re actually playing. People may or may not see it.
I was surprised to see the announcement, but I was really surprised to see the team. That seems to be a team that’s kind of private, in-house, kind of just doing their business.