For the first time in more than a decade, developing the Eagles wideouts is more important than developing a quarterback. The Birds used their last two first-round picks on DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor. Quez Watkins might turn out to be a sixth-round steal from last year.
The team’s universe now revolves around making them better, and not necessarily quarterback Jalen Hurts.
It is a jarring paradigm shift.
For decades, the Eagles focused on developing a quarterback; creating him from scratch, and sacrificing almost anything to assure his success. They used No. 2 overall picks on Donovan McNabb in 1999 and on Carson Wentz in 2016, so most of the past 22 years in Philadelphia were focused on developing, protecting, and weaponizing a top-flight passer in a pass-first league. Now, in Philly, it’s all about the wideouts.
Hurts? He’s an unknown commodity. In fact, he is so lightly regarded by general manager Howie Roseman and owner Jeffrey Lurie that they won’t let rookie coach Nick Sirianni name Hurts the starter over Joe Flacco.
The wisdom of this strategy, or lack thereof, merits its own discussion. One thing is certain:
Whoever plays quarterback for the Eagles this season must be on point, and must be so on Sept. 12. There can be no learning curve. He must know the offense and be able to read defenses. He must be able to deliver the proper pass to the proper spot at the proper moment. He must be able to make the basic, difficult professional throws, intermediate routes to the sidelines, down the seams, and he must be able to do so without error.
The Eagles simply cannot afford to waste a year. The talent is raw, but it’s there.
Maybe they believe Hurts is The Man. League sources say they do not.
This is why the Eagles are continually connected with the fate of embattled and disgruntled Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
And it is why Flacco cannot be Plan B, even if that means reacquiring Big Play Nick Foles.
Embarrassment of riches
The last time the Eagles had this much talent at the receiver position, DeSean Jackson was in his second season and Jeremy Maclin was in his first. That was 2009, and D-Jax and J-Mac could not have asked for a better situation.
Tight end Brent Celek was the team’s top pass-catcher, running back LeSean McCoy was a rising star mentored by Brian Westbrook, and the offensive line was anchored by Jason Peters, perhaps the best Eagle in history. Most importantly, of course, Donovan McNabb was a veteran quarterback who went to his sixth Pro Bowl.
Is Hurts as capable? The other spots are solid: three great offensive linemen, two outstanding tight ends, a scintillating running back. What about the QB?
This is not meant to slight the quarterback. Roseman drafted Hurts in the second round last year 2020 as a long-term backup to Wentz, a gadget-play roster luxury, and a long-term project for former head coach Doug Pederson and his quarterbacks coach, Press Taylor. If Hurts ever developed into a competent NFL starter, then he’d have justified the pick.
Roseman assumed he’d have an established, Pro Bowl quarterback in place. But Wentz cratered, betrayed his bosses and teammates, and fled to Indiana.
As it turns out, for the Eagles to maximize the rest of the roster, Hurts has to be competent now.
Because Smith looks like this year’s version of Justin Jefferson, whom the Eagles passed over, and who, as a Vikings rookie, last year set an NFL rookie record with 1,400 receiving yards.
Because Reagor, free of both injury and Carson Wentz, seems to have turned a corner at training camp.
Because Watkins, who ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Draft Combine, looks like the first Eagles receiver since Jackson whose speed doesn’t disappear when he’s wearing a helmet and shoulder pads with a defender on his hip.
The Birds know how crucial these wideouts are. After all, look who they hired to run the team.
For the first time since 1994, Lurie hired a head coach whose speciality isn’t developing quarterbacks. Nick Sirianni, a college receiver, is a receivers coach, first and foremost. Shane Steichen, his offensive coordinator, and Brian Johnson, his quarterbacks coach, both were college QBs. And, for a head coach, Sirianni spends an inordinate amount of time with the wideouts.
The Eagles have far greater investment in offensive players surrounding Hurts than they have in Hurts himself, and that goes beyond the three young wideouts. This is a key year for tight ends Dallas Goedert, who’s due a new contract, and Zach Ertz, who’s in the final year of his; for third-year running back Miles Sanders, who recalls LeSean McCoy; and for aging linemen Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson, whose windows are more closed than opened.
The 2021 season matters. It cannot be wasted on a low-return dalliance with a low-ceiling quarterback.