Can Jalen Hurts become next Lamar Jackson? Eagles have pieces in place to find out in critical Year 3 for QB
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts needs to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season to prove he is THE long-term face of the franchise in his upcoming third NFL season and second with head coach Nick Sirianni. "Need" may sound extreme, but the Eagles have two first-round draft picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, one courtesy of the New Orleans Saints. The upcoming draft has Heisman Trophy-winning Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, as well as Heisman finalist, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud.
However, Hurts has put together an early career resume that stylistically resembles another quarterback whose team has gone all-in to build its offensive system around his skill set -- 2019 unanimous NFL MVP and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Hurts is the only player in NFL history with over 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards within his first 20 career starts. Jackson is the only player with over 3,000 passing yards and over 1,000 rushing yards in a single season in NFL history, while breaking the league's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback in that MVP season.
Entering Week 8 last season following a 2-5 start to 2021, Sirianni halted his attempt to run an offense that suited the style of the prototypical, drop-back passers he had coached like quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck in his last eight seasons as an assistant coach with the Chargers (2013-17) and Colts (2018-20).
The Eagles transformed from one of the more pass-oriented teams to the NFL's No. 1 ground attack (51% rush percentage, highest in the NFL), which allowed Hurts to help orchestrate a 7-3 finish and a playoff appearance. It was the first time Philadelphia reached the playoffs after starting a season 2-5 or worse. Thanks to Hurts, the Eagles' leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, 2021 also marked the first season of Jackson's career as a full-time, starting quarterback that his Baltimore Ravens weren't the NFL's rushing yards leader.
According to the NFL's NextGen Stats, Hurts led the NFL in designed QB runs (72), rushing yards gained on those runs (377) and yards per carry on such runs (5.2, min. 30 such runs).
"What we've done as coaches is figured out what he [Hurts] likes and what he's [Hurts] good at, so it's now just accumulating those reps," Sirianni said.
One downside of an offensive system that leads to more running plays than passing plays like the Eagles did in 2021 is it works significantly better with a lead, which isn't something any team, even the best ones, can expect to have through the majority of its games. In games in which they trailed at halftime, the Eagles went 2-7. Against better teams, there's a higher likelihood of falling behind early, and the Eagles lost all six games against teams that did make the playoffs last season while winning nine of 11 games against teams that missed the postseason.
Naturally, an offense that allows for a larger margin of error, a better passing attack, is something the Eagles will look to build in 2022. Hurts certainly isn't a finished product at 23 years old and entering his third NFL season, so having consistency in the coaching staff he works with for the first time in his career could pay huge dividends. He has played for four different coaches and their staffs in his last four seasons of football: Nick Saban at Alabama (2018), Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma (2019), Doug Pederson with the Eagles (2020) and now Sirianni (2021-present).
"I think the biggest thing is just coming in with having the same coach consecutively, all the plays being in the same system, so I think that's been very pivotal going into the offseason and as we go throughout the plays," Hurts said at the Eagles' organized team activities in early June. "Just going through the plays and running them against our defense, just being decisive out there on the field knowing where I'm going to go with the ball based on the look that they give me. I think there's a natural maturation as I've always talked about. Just taking it day by day."
His head coach echoed the sentiment that Hurts has exhibited continued growth in his offense.
"Jalen is, in my opinion, more comfortable in the offense," Sirianni said. "That's just the part of the process in the second year [in this offense]. He knows where the receivers are going to be vs. different looks. He knows where to go with the football a little bit quicker."
Another factor that allows any quarterback to be more decisive with his throws is trust in his receivers and after this past offseason, the Eagles have done as good a job as any in building out a talent-rich offense. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the 10th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft from Alabama, enters his second season after breaking the team's rookie receiving yards record (916), the fourth-most among rookies last season. That's significant considering it was previously held by one of the NFL's most explosive playmakers of the last decade, former Eagle DeSean Jackson.
"With the time we've put in and the reps we've had, I think that's been beneficial for our connection and it will be good for the football team," Hurts said when asked about his former Crimson Tide teammate's growth. "I think it's important for us to keep stacking days on days whether that's me throwing to Zach [Pascal], throwing with A.J. [Brown], DeVonta [Smith], Quez [Watkins], or whoever."
Sending a first- and third-round pick in the most recent draft to the Tennessee Titans for Brown, the NFL's leader in receiving touchdowns of 50 or more yards (7) since he entered the league in 2019, allows for Hurts to have more than one bona fide option on the outside when dropping back to pass.
"It takes the pressure off the other guy," Brown said at OTAs when asked about playing alongside Smith. "[If I take] cornerback No. 1 and I go against him, that gives another really talented receiver to go against cornerback No. 2. In my opinion Smitty's a wide receiver No. 1 and he's going against a cornerback No. 2, and I expect Smitty to dominate."
In addition to the Eagles top rookie receiver in franchise history (Smith) and one of the NFL's best at finding the end zone (Brown has 24 career receiving touchdowns since 2019, tied for the 10th-most in the NFL), Hurts also has a top five option at tight end back in the fold in Dallas Goedert. His 830 receiving yards ranked fifth among tight ends in 2021 and his 14.1 yards per catch ranked second among his position group behind only Atlanta Falcons rookie Kyle Pitts, the highest drafted tight end in the common-draft era (since 1967).
"Jalen [Hurts] looks really good," Goedert said. "Just him going through his reads, his progressions, I feel like the ball's got a little more zip on it, he's getting it out a little bit quicker, you see kind of a 1-2-3 throw. He doesn't have as many hitches, he's seeing the game faster, which is really promising."
The Eagles' offense also benefits from returning three offensive linemen who were ranked in the top 10 by Pro Football Focus at each of their positions last season in left tackle Jordan Mailata (87.4 PFF offensive grade, third among tackles behind only 49ers' Trent Williams and Cowboys' Tyron Smith), center Jason Kelce (84.4 PFF offensive grade, fourth among centers) and right tackle Lane Johnson (82.4 PFF offensive grade, 10th among tackles who played a minimum of 600 snaps).
Hurts emphasizing the importance of reps wasn't lip service, he showed franchise QB-level leadership in organizing group workouts with the offense in California outside of the team's mandated activities.
"His determination to be great is something that you see every day," Goedert said. "I was out there in California with him working, and the detail that he has with the coaches looking at film, looking at his throwing mechanics, things like that. He really wants to be great and he shows that each and every day."
On top of the improvement with his mechanics, Hurts needs to expand his comfort in throwing over the middle of the field, an area in which Jackson and his Ravens tight end Mark Andrews dominate. Perhaps improved throwing mechanics, a higher comfort in his offensive playbook and the addition of a Pro Bowl receiver like Brown could fix this issue, but in order for Hurts and the Eagles to take the next leap, they need to rise to at least league average in throwing over the middle, something they were not in 2021, according to PFF.
"The reason we know Jalen is going to continue to get better is because of the character and the football character and the personal character that he has," Sirianni said. "He's just the type of guy that's going to reach his maximum potential because of all the off-the-field qualities he has. He's working every day to get better, and I'm really pleased where he is right now, but we have to continue to lay the groundwork.
Fortunately for Hurts and the Eagles, they enter this evaluation season with the NFL's third-easiest schedule (their 2022 opponents won only 46.4% of their games last season) thanks to playing in an NFC East in which the Dallas Cowboys got worse, the New York Giants are starting over with a new front office and coaching staff, while the Washington Commanders are starting Eagles and Colts castoff Carson Wentz at quarterback. Philadelphia will play just five teams that made the playoffs in 2021: the Arizona Cardinals, Cowboys (twice), Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and Tennessee Titans.
The 2022 season couldn't be set up much better for Hurts to make a Jackson-like sprint up the NFL's quarterback hierarchy. All that's left for Hurts is to continue to keep "stacking days on days" until Week 1 arrives. Read More