Jalen Hurts could be at the center of an interesting NFL experiment, though he clearly would rather not acknowledge his role in it. Take Wednesday, for instance. The Eagles made a few of their veteran players, Hurts among them, available to the media, and Hurts was asked whether he had allowed any of the scuttlebutt and chatter and doubts about his long-term future with the team to seep into his mind.
“That’s stuff you all talk about,” he said. “Everything’s good over here.”
Well, yes. Everything for Hurts and the Eagles is good now. Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, and Nick Sirianni have cast public ballots in support of him, and the Eagles’ big move at the NFL draft was their trade with the Tennessee Titans to acquire wide receiver/Hurts compadre A.J. Brown. But it is just early May, and as Hurts himself said, “We’re not going out there and playing a game tomorrow.”
Once those games begin, the Eagles will commence with their experiment, which, in its broadest and most basic terms, can be expressed this way:
Does an NFL team really need a franchise quarterback?
Now, don’t misread that question. Every team wants a franchise quarterback, of course, and those that have one — the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, the Bills with Josh Allen, the Chargers with Justin Herbert, etc. — view themselves as having a leg up (or, more accurately and literally, an arm up) on most of their competitors. The Eagles have long tried to be one of those teams, and there have been times when they have been or presumed they would be. They had Donovan McNabb. They took a chance on Michael Vick. They traded up to draft Carson Wentz, then signed him to a mammoth contract extension.
Hurts’ situation is different from those, for obvious and less-obvious reasons. McNabb and Wentz were the second-overall picks in their respective drafts, and Vick had been the No. 1 selection before demonstrating, over six seasons with the Falcons, his considerable physical skills and still-untapped promise. Hurts was drafted to be a low-cost backup. Had he been a top-10, even a top-20 selection, it would pretty much be taken for granted that his 2021 season — 3,144 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions, a 61.3 completion percentage, 784 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, an 8-7 record and a playoff berth as a starter — was a good start and that the Eagles would give him plenty of time to develop further.
“Everything improves when you do it more and you’re more efficient,” he said. “I think that’ll settle itself.”
It had better settle itself quickly, for Hurts’ sake. Since the Eagles haven’t invested as much in him as they did, say, Wentz, his development has a hard and fast expiration date. With two first-round picks in next year’s draft, including one that belonged to the potentially bad New Orleans Saints, the franchise has insulated itself against any stagnancy or falloff in Hurts’ performance. He gets 2022, and if he doesn’t measure up, the Eagles can draft his replacement. That’s how it goes in the league. A first-round pick has to prove he can’t play. A second-round pick, such as Hurts, has to prove he can.
But the very quality that puts Hurts in this awkward position could be a great advantage — to him and to the Eagles. Still on his rookie contract, Hurts will cost $1.643 million against the salary cap this season, according to the online database OvertheCap.com. To appreciate how much of a bargain it is to have a starting quarterback, even one with Hurts’ apparent weaknesses and limitations, at that price, consider that the following players will count more against the Eagles’ cap, assuming they are on the team’s 2022 roster: Andre Dillard, Jalen Reagor, and JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
What Hurts’ low cap number does, of course, is afford the Eagles more flexibility and room to shore up other areas of their team or to blunt the impact of their own roster-building mistakes.
Ideally, a team would have a young, cost-effective quarterback “outperform” his rookie contract — as Wentz did in 2017, as Mahomes and Herbert and Joe Burrow did from the moment they became starters — and capitalize on it. (You’ll remember that’s exactly what the Eagles did in 2017-18 to win the Super Bowl.) And if Hurts manages to improve to the point that the Eagles don’t have to use a 2023 first-round pick on a QB, they’ll consider that a happy problem.
But then, they would have another problem. They’d presumably have to decide whether to sign Hurts to a new, more lucrative contract, a move that would come with its own risks. It’s possible he would justify such a contract. Or, he might turn out to be Wentz. Or Joe Flacco. Or any other quarterback who isn’t Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or a reasonable approximation of them. A quarterback who — in a cap era, no matter his accomplishments — is overpaid for the player he is right now.
So, here’s the experiment: Unless you know you have an all-time great — and no one is suggesting Hurts will turn out to be such a quarterback — why not cycle through some less-expensive QBs instead of settling on one who, in all likelihood, eventually will cost you too much?
If you’re a “quarterback factory,” as the Eagles have claimed to be, recognize the fungibility of the position in the modern age of football, understand that it has never been easier to play the position, and exploit that reality to your advantage. You might miss on a couple of quarterbacks here and there, sure, but they won’t cost you much, and there’s always another draft next year. The Eagles already have planned for that last fact. They may end up counting on it.