The Eagles spent their bye week hoping that center Jason Kelce and quarterback Jalen Hurts get well fast. Well, Kelce, anyway.
Kelce’s the anchor of the best thing the Eagles have going for them: a top-flight offensive line, which has propelled the Birds to their 6-7 record, and will be the biggest reason they reach the playoffs, assuming they surge through the four-game homestretch that begins Sunday against Washington. Hurts? When he returns to the lineup, he could be the reason they fail.
Those are two of the five things we’ve learned about the rebuilt Eagles, so far.
1. Holding the line
Kelce, who suffered a foot injury against the Jets last week, is better at 34 than he was at 24. Right tackle Lane Johnson remains irreplaceably dominant — the Eagles went 1-2 without him — and left tackle Jordan Mailata, the converted rugby player, has been a bargain at $40 million, which he bagged after making just 10 starts in three seasons. Rookie left guard Landon Dickerson has been a revelation. And Jeff Stoutland — who lost his best lineman, right guard Brandon Brooks, to injury in Game 2 — continues to prove himself the best assistant coach in Eagles history.
Why is this No. 1? Because you can build a franchise around an offensive line and, assuming Kelce stays in the game, this one looks like it will be excellent for years to come.
2. Jalen hurts
The Eagles drafted Hurts in the second round in 2020 as a Taysom Hill-style gadget player who could fill in for Carson Wentz in a pinch and who might eventually become an adequate game manager. However, the COVID-19 pandemic cost Hurts normal offseasons in 2020 and 2021, so his development as a passer remains far behind schedule. Hurts sprained an ankle in Game 12, and his deficiencies were magnified in Game 13, when, with virtually no preparation time, Gardner Minshew looked like Joe Montana in the same offense Hurts has struggled to grasp.
After two seasons and 16 starts, Hurts still throws bad deep balls, struggles with accuracy, misses open receivers, makes poor decisions, doesn’t throw receivers open, doesn’t like to throw to his left, flees the pocket too quickly, and doesn’t hit receivers in stride on the simplest passes. Comparisons to Lamar Jackson, a transcendent runner with a huge arm, and Russell Wilson, a future Hall of Fame quarterback whose mobility enhances his passing, are ridiculous. Hurts is a good runner whose mobility replaces his passing.
Minshew might not be the answer, but after 13 games in 2021, Hurts doesn’t look like he’s the answer, either.
3. Fletch, plateaued
Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, saddled with lousy linebackers but blessed with star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, planned to blitz little. It was a sound plan, until he lost Pro Bowl defensive end Brandon Graham. The presence of Graham on Cox’s hip freed Cox for all nine of his NFL seasons. Without Graham, Cox, who turns 31 on Monday, looks human, even if Cox’s abilities still demand double teams that have freed tackle Javon Hargrave. The combination of Graham’s absence and Cox’s age defanged the defensive line, and Graham will be 34 next season.
4. Nick learned quick(ish)
It took him a few months, but first-time head coach Nick Sirianni has proved himself an acceptable hire. Jeffrey Lurie still shouldn’t have fired Doug Pederson, who would be much better at developing Hurts. But, after seven games, Sirianni eventually figured out how to coach around Hurts’ shortcomings by running the ball much more frequently than he’d like to and by leaning on his elite offensive line. Sirianni’s catastrophic introductory press conference set the bar quite low for acting as the public face of the franchise, but his recent predecessors — Pederson, Chip Kelly, and Andy Reid — hadn’t exactly set expectations high. As it turns out, Sirianni can be clear and forthright in his evaluations, and, after admitting to motivators such as Rock-Paper-Scissors and Flower Power, he’s 100% authentic.
5. Howie Roseman did OK
No one expected Howie Roseman to trump drafting JJ Arcega-Whiteside over DK Metcalf in 2019, but he outdid himself when he took Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson in 2020. That said, consider the rest.
Roseman moved up in this year’s draft to take receiver DeVonta Smith, who is superb. He gambled a second-round pick on the health of recuperating guard/center Landon Dickerson, who had first-round talent, and who’s playing like it. Third-round defensive tackle Milton Williams is playing regularly.
Roseman also gave Mailata a contract extension that looks like a bargain. Darius Slay, who got a three-year, $50 million extension after arriving in a trade last year, is a top-five cornerback again at the age of 30. Even Andre Dillard, the first-round pick in 2019, has proved to be an adequate starter at left tackle and will almost assuredly have his fifth-year option picked up after this season. Tight end Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders, second-rounders in 2018 and 2019, respectively, are excellent.
Derek Barnett, a mediocre first-round defensive end from the 2017 draft, isn’t playing to his $10 million salary, but he isn’t awful. Neither is defensive end Josh Sweat, who got a three-year, $40 million extension.
Four crucial games remain. Both can better prove their value.