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Eagles 2021 predictions: Breakout player, most impactful rookie, expectations for Jalen Hurts and more

Josh Tolentino and EJ Smith discuss what to expect from the Eagles as they get set to open the regular season Sunday against the Falcons.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni looks on as players stretch before a preseason NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Philadelphia, (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni looks on as players stretch before a preseason NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Philadelphia, (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)Read moreChris Szagola / AP

Our Eagles beat writers Josh Tolentino and EJ Smith have been with the team for five weeks, since the beginning of training camp. They’ve watched quarterback Jalen Hurts work on his craft en route to being named the starter, top draft pick DeVonta Smith rehab from a minor knee injury and be inserted as the No. 1 wide receiver and first-year coach Nick Sirianni implement a new culture across the locker room.

Here, the two writers discuss some rookies to watch, expectations, and offer their season predictions in anticipation of the Eagles’ season opener Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

Inquirer Eagles’ writers EJ Smith and Josh Tolentino go through some bold predictions in anticipation of the Eagles’ season opener Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

EJ Smith: What’s up, Josh? Happy Labor Day! Hope you enjoyed whatever free time you had the last few days, because we’re about to get into regular-season mode.

» READ MORE: Eagles 2021 season preview: Who are these guys?

I figured it’s a good time to talk predictions as we impatiently await the Eagles’ opener against the Falcons. I usually reserve whatever “hot takes” I might have for when my dad calls me fresh off binging hours of WIP in the car, but I’m gonna do my best. I even workshopped a few of my predictions in one of my group chats filled with Eagles fans, so I’m very prepared!

Let’s start off with an easy one. Who is your pick for a breakout player?

Josh Tolentino: Happy Labor Day, EJ! I’ve quickly fallen in love with Philadelphia, and I’m stoked to dive into regular season with you and fellow beat scribe Jeff McLane.

Hot takes, already?! I’m betting on running back Miles Sanders to have a big year. There are a few reasons why I’m confident he’s about to burst onto the scene. First-year coach Nick Sirianni’s offense is still a bit mysterious at this point, but history tells us there will be a heavy dose of run packages and Sanders could be the main beneficiary. Obviously, he needs to stay healthy.

The 24-year-old tailback played in only 12 games last season, but he still finished 15th in total yards (867) and seventh in yards per carry (5.3). Those are impressive numbers during a limited sophomore season for Sanders.

Another main factor in this equation is the success of the offensive line, one of the team’s strongest position groups. The O-line is anchored by several veterans, including center Jason Kelce, guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Lane Johnson.

ES: That’s a good one. I’m tempted to stick in the backfield for my breakout player, although I’m torn between a few. Give me Kenny Gainwell.

You’re right, Sirianni will utilize his backs often in this offense and Sanders is clearly established as the bell cow, but there will still be plenty of work for the fifth-round pick out of Memphis. I was looking at Colts running back Nyheim Hines’ stats the last few years to get a sense of how he produced with Sirianni as his offensive coordinator. The last three seasons, Hines averaged 700 yards from scrimmage. Gainwell has a similar ability out of the backfield and looked capable as a runner during the preseason as well. I think he could be in for a similar amount of production.

» READ MORE: From Kobe to Kobayashi: How Eagles’ Nick Sirianni uses ‘storytelling’ to teach his players

When Sanders is healthy, Gainwell’s touches may be limited some, but I still expect him to get a good amount of work, especially as the season wears on. There’s also the chance that Sanders could miss some time. He’s healthier than he was last summer, but he battled injuries last year as the team tried to rely on him as a lead running back. If Sanders is sidelined, Gainwell could become a focal point of the offense.

JT: Man, EJ – watching Gainwell reminds me of the Road Runner from Looney Tunes. He’s just so quick and explosive, especially after he catches the ball and runs in the open field. Could Sanders act as Wile E. Coyote? The possibilities are exciting for Sirianni with Gainwell and Sanders in the same backfield. Sanders might be viewed as a steal in a few years if he continues his upward trajectory from camp.

Let’s keep the hot takes rolling like Gainwell on a Saturday afternoon at Memphis.

I’m really curious about this year’s rookie class. I thought it was interesting the team kept eight of nine draft picks – only linebacker JaCoby Stevens was cut, then added to the practice squad – despite some underwhelming training camp performances from some late-round picks. General manager Howie Roseman said after cut day that he’s trusting the team’s development staff to mature and mold some late selections, such as defensive linemen Tarron Jackson and Marlon Tuipulotu – but I found it particularly interesting he said the expectation is that each rookie contributes this season.

I want to ride off Roseman’s statement and predict one rookie besides Gainwell you expect to contribute the most this season.

ES: It’s funny you ask that, because it coincides really nicely with one of my boldest predictions (Emphasis on bold!).

I think Landon Dickerson will finish this season as a starter, whether it’s because of an injury to one of the current starter or otherwise. We obviously haven’t seen very much of him to date, but once Dickerson is fully recovered from his ACL tear — which doesn’t seem too far off considering the team activated him off the non-football-injury list last week — he’s going to be a starter-level interior lineman. The chance of an injury to Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce, or Isaac Seumalo is the most likely path for this coming true. Counting on all three making it to Week 18 would be unwise based on the history of not just those players, but offensive linemen in general. Still, I could see a world where Dickerson is a spot starter for someone over a few weeks and plays so well that they can’t keep him off the field. In that event, he’d play over Seumalo, I guess.

I know it sounds a bit crazy but you have to remember, Dickerson was an elite talent with a very scary injury history. If he’s truly healthy, they have a difference-making interior lineman waiting in the wings. You don’t waste that talent on the sidelines, especially if he shows it in game action.

JT: Roll Tide! As I’ve done all summer, I’m sticking with Eagles’ top pick – and Dickerson’s college teammate – DeVonta Smith to have the biggest impact among Philadelphia’s 2021 draft class.

NFL fans and pundits are quick to question Smith’s frame – but the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has succeeded at every level of his career. Smith’s route running skills are as advertised. It’s obvious the Eagles have big plans for him to step in right away and lead a very young wide receiver room. With so much unproven talent across the depth chart, I’m expecting Smith to lead the team in receiving yards and touchdowns.

That’s certainly a tough task for any rookie, especially on a team that boasts tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, but Smith has already established good chemistry with Jalen Hurts. Smith regularly wins his one-on-ones and he made several defensive backs look foolish during joint practices with the Jets. History hasn’t been on the side of many receivers during their rookie seasons. However, Smith is clearly the most talented wideout on the roster.

If Smith does indeed go on to have a successful rookie campaign, Hurts will have played a large factor. What are your expectations for the second-year quarterback? And what do you make of Sirianni and Roseman waiting until the final moment to name Hurts the starter?

ES: I’m with you on Smith for the most part here. Everyone always likes to downplay the preseason, but I thought the way he played against the Patriots, whose defensive backs play more press man than just about anyone, was one of the most important takeaways from the summer. That was the major concern with him as a prospect, whether he could handle physical press coverage against NFL athletes. He showed that his releases off the line will keep most guys from getting their hands on him. That will be important.

When it comes to Hurts, I’m kind of a fence-sitter. Young quarterbacks are hard to project, and I’m not sure what to make of him so far. He started training camp off rocky, but definitely took command on the offense during practice the last two weeks. It doesn’t help that we’ve hardly seen him in preseason action.

» READ MORE: Ten reasons the Eagles’ defense is their best since the Super Bowl year

I don’t put much stock in the hesitancy to name him the starter. The Deshaun Watson rumors may have played a part in that, but Hurts isn’t the kind of guy to get rattled by not being named QB1.

My best guess with Hurts is probably one the Eagles don’t want to hear: I think he’ll be fine. I’m not ready to say he’ll be great or show them enough to prove he’s the long-term answer at the position. I also don’t expect him to be catastrophic and leave them with a high draft pick and an easy decision to draft or trade for a replacement. I don’t think it will be clear-cut by the end of the year. I think his running ability will keep the team competitive and I think he’ll make a throw or two every week to give everyone hope, but beyond that I’m not sure.

How about you?

JT: Hurts’ rushing stats from his rookie season are intriguing.

He only started four games, but Hurts finished with 272 yards on 46 rushes. The only other quarterback in NFL history with more rushing yards in his first four starts? Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, who had 332 rushing yards on 68 carries.

Between Donovan McNabb and Mike Vick, Eagles fans have gotten accustomed to watching mobile quarterbacks bring electricity and juice to Lincoln Financial Stadium. Will Hurts follow their path? A lot will depend on Sirianni’s play calls. We’ve seen some packages tailor-made for Hurts, along with a significant dose of run-pass-option. How much actually gets implemented on game day is TBD, but Sirianni has said he’s created a playbook that will maximize the strengths of the main pieces in the offense.

Hurts will need to show improvement with his timeliness and his ability to get the football out quicker. As I mentioned earlier with Sanders, the success of the offensive line will be a key piece here. If Hurts is able to expand and create plays outside the pocket, he’ll give the Eagles a fighting chance to stay in games with his feet.

ES: How much they use Hurts’ in designed quarterback runs will be one of the most important things to watch this season for sure.

» READ MORE: Eagles are beginning a new era with Jalen Hurts, but they may not finish it with him

Let’s switch things up and focus on the defense here. The defensive line has looked good all summer. Even for a team that has consistently been at the top of the league at those positions, this group looks like one of the better ones in recent memory.

Who do you have as the sack leader?

JT: As much as I want to say defensive end Brandon Graham, who was voted by teammates as one of six team captains, I’m going with fellow defensive end Josh Sweat.

IMO, he’s flashed the most in camp and has earned a ton of recognition from the Eagles offensive line for giving them their money’s worth in practice. Sweat, a 2018 fourth-round pick, recorded six sacks last season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished with double-digit sacks this year. Heck, there’s even a chance he doubles his sack total.

Tackling the quarterback isn’t allowed in camp, but Sweat constantly made his presence known in the backfield. If he continues to make a loud impact, Sweat will be seeking a big payday as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. Who’s your sack leader?

ES: I guess it’s time I tell you, asking this question was all a part of an elaborate ruse for another bold prediction.

I’m also going with Josh Sweat. I think he’s poised for a true breakout year and think he’ll be in double digits. The hot take is this: Javon Hargrave and Sweat will combine for more sacks than Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox.

Make no mistake, Cox is still the best interior rusher on the team and one of the best in the league. It’s just, Hargrave has been constantly disruptive all summer, and he figures to face fewer double teams than his linemate. I think the Eagles will be among the top teams in the league in sacks this season, and I figure Hargrave and Sweat are the leaders in production.

JT: Doubling down on Sweat – check. I can’t believe the season opener is just a few days away. We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but let’s squeeze in a record prediction.

What’s the Eagles’ win-loss count after Week 18? And a bonus: Who wins the NFC East?

ES: I had them at 7-10 when the schedule was released and I feel pretty good about that still. I could see them easily being 1-4 after five games, but the schedule eases up toward the end of the year.

NFC East winner? Give me the Washington Football Team. Its defensive front is probably the best in football. I think Terry McLaurin is underrated, Ryan Fitzpatrick is aggressively fine, and they have a decent coach in Ron Rivera.

Who are you feeling in the East?

JT: Philadelphia could very well end up being one of the biggest surprises in the NFL. But there’s just so much unknown right now with Sirianni taking over an offense with multiple inexperienced skill players who are expected to have big roles.

The team is refusing to call the current state of the franchise a rebuild. Rather, the Eagles have labeled it a transition stage. Well, transition still takes time and expectations across the city should be tamed with a new coaching regime in place. I’ve heard the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field can be wild and rowdy, which meshes well with the team’s schedule – a majority of the Eagles’ toughest opponents are home games.

With the extra game, it’s no longer possible to finish .500, but I imagine that’ll be right around where the Eagles finish. I’ll give them an extra victory at 8-9.

In regards to the NFC East, the division was an absolute mess last year. As much as the casual NFL fan wants to see Fitzpatrick make the playoffs for the first time in his career, the Cowboys have the most talented offense in the division. I’ll pencil in Dallas for now, but check back after the Week 3 matchup between the Eagles and Cowboys at Jerry World on Monday Night Football.

Maybe Sirianni really does have something up his sleeve with Hurts and Smith taking over the offense.