There are no more excuses readily available for Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles‘ passing attack. Hurts enters his third season in the NFL, and he does so with two first-round picks at receiver and a second-round tight end. But unlike last season, the two top receivers are good first-round picks. Hurts has the weapons, and if he and the passing attack has progressed from a season ago, the Eagles could be incredibly dangerous in the NFC.
If Jalen Hurts and Eagles offense progresses, they could be title contenders
Hurts is a lightning rod of a conversational piece. Opinions on his abilities are all over the place, depending on who you ask. But behind a strong offensive line and Quez Watkins as the third receiver on the depth chart, the pieces are in place for Hurts to have a monster season.
However, Hurts and the offense must evolve if they’re going to be consistently dangerous through the air, even with their weapons. But their floor should still be relatively high, given what we’d already seen from this offense last season.
Howie Roseman is as aggressive as they come. We all remember the 2011 “dream team” that fell flat on its face. The Eagles’ general manager is as active as he was creating that 2011 team, except he’s arguably done more 11 years later, and he’s been more careful.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is the wild card. He’ll play as a back-end safety instead of a slot player for the first time since college. That could have a learning curve and will limit what Jonathan Gannon’s defense can show early on as he picks up the playbook. But the rest of the pieces Roseman has put together all fit well.
He traded for A.J. Brown, which gives the Eagles a legitimate X receiver who is a three-level threat and one of the best at creating yards after the catch. Haason Reddick has proven his worth as an edge rusher, and drafting Jordan Davis opens up a world of possibilities for Gannon on the defensive front.
And the Eagles have struggled with linebacker play over the past few seasons. So adding Kyzir White and drafting Nakobe Dean steps in the right direction. James Bradberry played like a top-10 cornerback a few years ago and is still only 29 and looking to reinvent himself in Philadelphia.
We can surmise that the Eagles’ roster is darned talented.
How Jalen Hurts can progress
Hurts amassed over 3,100 yards a season ago, which is nothing to write home about in the modern NFL. He adds a lot on the ground. His vision as a runner is outstanding and dates back to his time at Alabama. He’s also a well-built player who can take a bit of punishment, like the dirty hit from Jets linebacker Quincy Williams during the Eagles’ first preseason game.
But when we think about traditional “quarterbacking,” Hurts hasn’t shown much linear growth since his time at Alabama. He’s remained a “see it, throw it” passer in some ways. Many likened him to Dak Prescott coming out, but that comp never made sense for that reason alone.
Next Gen Stats compiles charts each game of where receivers are targeted. One glance will show that the middle of the field is largely ignored in the Eagles’ passing attack. And despite a respectable average depth of target (aDOT) of 9.1 yards, the Eagles relied far too much on touchdown-to-checkdown passing.
Adding horizontal elements to the passing attack
Philadelphia’s passing game must have far more horizontal concepts to maximize Brown’s skill set. Much of their attack was screens and receivers running to the sticks and turning around to find the football. Philly was third in the NFL in screen frequency, adding to the “touchdown-to-checkdown” narrative.
But for Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen to implement those horizontal concepts, Hurts must be comfortable with reading keys and defensive leverages against concepts in zone and zone match looks.
Working on the vertical plane lets Hurts know precisely where he’s going with the ball, and he can key defensive leverage in those concepts. But having receivers stop takes a variable away, making it simpler to attack.
That’s also likely why Philadelphia attacked at and outside the numbers more frequently. There is far less visual noise to deal with out there. At most, Hurts was dealing with keying an outside cornerback, a slot defender, and the play-side safety in two-high looks.
Concepts attacking the middle bring in a bevy of problems. Backside safeties can jump crossing patterns from the other side of the field. We’ve all seen Jimmy Garoppolo lose a linebacker in coverage and throw it right to him. It’s part of the dangers of attacking that area.
But opening up the entire field adds versatility to a passing attack that makes it incredibly difficult to defend.
Enter Arthur Juan Brown. He’s the archetype of receiver that can build the confidence in a young QB like Hurts over the middle. Heck, attacking the middle off play-action looks was the calling card of Arthur Smith’s offense in Tennessee. With the Eagles’ offensive line paired with Hurts’ legs and two talented backs, we should see the middle attacked far more often.
Dallas Goedert is a massive part of this equation, also. His athleticism and size will be used as a weapon. But he’ll often likely be used as a decoy to influence a safety that opens up the area in zone coverage behind the linebackers.
One thing that was noticeable with Hurts that could be improved in 2022 was his assertiveness in his drops, both traditional and off play-action. There is nonchalant nature to his drops, and it often makes him out of sequence, which leads to throws being a bit late.
If we see him assert himself on his play-action drops, especially from under center, we could witness him picking apart the middle of defenses.
But he must feel comfortable executing those concepts against zone coverage.
If we see him executing those concepts early on in the season, the Eagles will put the entire conference on notice. Because one thing nobody should question about Hurts is his arm. He’s got plenty of that.
The floor if Jalen Hurts and the offense stay stagnant
They’re still a good offense. Even running a very hatable offense, they ranked 15th in dropback EPA per play. Their success rate was only good enough for 23rd in the league, but even if the offense remains vertical, that number should improve with better weapons and natural year-to-year progression from a quarterback like Hurts.
Philly’s rushing attack will remain dominant. Their offensive line is full of bullies. And they have a mobile quarterback with outrageous vision as a rusher. Sometimes things get too big to fail, and the Eagles’ offense feels like that.
The problem is trying to win when it matters with a limited passing attack. Against the Buccaneers in the playoffs, Philadelphia was the one bullied off the field. They ran into a team with corners that weren’t bothered by the Eagles trying to get physical at the breakpoint and linebackers and defensive backs that flew to the football on checkdowns and screens.
As talented as they may be, if they can’t be competitive in the game of schematic chess that football is, it will bite them against more talented teams. It did a season ago, when they beat a grand total of zero playoff teams, going 0-8 against them.
To reach their potential, Hurts and the coaching staff must show marked improvement from a season ago. The talk from training camp has been glowingly positive toward Hurts. The sky is the limit if they do.