2022 NFL Preview: Eagles have an exciting roster but one big question mark
Jalen Hurts has a 2022 salary-cap hit of $1.64 million. Ryan Tannehill's league-leading cap hit of $38.6 million is about 23.5 times what Hurts will cost the Eagles this season. Hurts' cap hit is a fraction of just about any starting quarterback in the NFL.
That's why A.J. Brown is with the Philadelphia Eagles. And Brown is one of the main reasons Philly is fired up about its football team this season.
Ironically, the biggest obstacle to a huge season might be the quarterback position that's allowing the Eagles to build a strong roster everywhere else.
The salary cap really isn't a myth. Teams know how to manipulate the cap, but it's there. And smart teams know that if you have a quarterback making about what you'd pay a free-agent backup safety, you have a chance to get aggressive. That's why the Eagles made a big move to get Brown, then paid him $100 million over four years. Brown is one of the best receivers in football, an explosive athlete who will transform the Eagles offense. It was a key addition.
"I don’t want to talk for [Titans general manager Jon Robinson] but I’m sure that was part of his thinking, like, ‘I got a quarterback that I’m paying,'" Eagles GM Howie Roseman said via Pro Football Talk.
The Eagles have worked a rookie QB contract to their advantage before. They won a Super Bowl in 2017 when Carson Wentz was on his rookie deal, allowing them to build a roster that was so good it could support Nick Foles when he had to take over at QB. The Eagles would rather be paying a Patrick Mahomes more than $35 million a year. When you don't have a great player like that, you do the next best thing and build around the QB you have.
The Eagles have a fantastic roster. Their offensive line was No. 1 in Pro Football Focus' preseason rankings. The receiver room has been remade the past two years with Brown and 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith, who had a very good rookie season. The defense is deep along the line, improved at edge rusher and linebacker and Roseman made a nice move when he landed cornerback James Bradberry after the New York Giants had to cut him for salary-cap reasons (seriously, it's not a myth).
And now, we get back to Hurts, who needs to be more than just a frugal option at quarterback if the Eagles are going to win big this season.
There are a few teams in the weird vortex of having a great roster with a questionable quarterback. The Indianapolis Colts for the past couple years and the 2016-21 Denver Broncos come to mind. Maybe the San Francisco 49ers are in that club, too. You can win big with a mediocre quarterback — the notion you absolutely need a hall-of-fame talent at QB to make a Super Bowl actually is a myth — but you do need that QB to be a positive asset. Two seasons into Hurts' career, we don't know if he can be good enough to help the Eagles to a division title or a deep playoff run.
The Eagles took off last season when they had a big shift away from Hurts as a passer and became a run-first team. That shift coincided with offensive coordinator Shane Steichen taking over playcalling, and Steichen will call plays again in 2022. Then in the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers exposed Hurts. By halftime Hurts had 88 passing yards, a 47.7 passer rating and the Eagles trailed 17-0. He looked like a quarterback prone to long stretches of inconsistent passing (though, fairly, he played through an ankle injury that would require offseason surgery), and a defense like the Bucs could take advantage of his shortcomings. Philly can't have Hurts play like that and make a deep run in the postseason. That finish led to plenty of columns and sports talk radio shows debating Hurts' future as a quarterback. It's Philly, after all.
And Hurts will be the question mark for a very good Philadelphia team until he proves otherwise. He is a talented runner, which helped the Eagles' offense in the second half of the season. Philadelphia went 7-3 in their final 10 regular-season games after the running game became the focal point, so the Eagles know they can win playing that way. Hurts has had stretches of good play as a passer too. Adding Brown, with Smith taking an expected step forward in his second season, would help any quarterback. Hurts also has started just 19 NFL games, so it's impossible to say exactly what he is yet. There's still room for development.
“I think that’s common of who Jalen Hurts is as a player and as a quarterback, that he just continues to get better,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said, via NJ.com. “Whether that’s from Alabama to Oklahoma or Oklahoma to his first year in the NFL or first year to the second year. We just know that progression is going to continue. It’s not just because we’ve seen the progression go like that, it’s because of the person that he is. He loves football. This guy loves football, and he’s just willing to do the things that he needs to do to get better, and that’s why he does continue to get better.”
Still, the Eagles enter 2022 in a bit of a weird spot. The table is set for them to be a Super Bowl contender if Hurts does his part. The roster is that talented. They also could be mediocre if Hurts holds them back. And the truth is, we have no idea which way that will go.
Outside of teams like the Broncos who massively improved at quarterback, it's possible the Eagles had the best offseason in the NFL. A.J. Brown is 25 years old, one of the most talented receivers in the NFL and the Eagles landed him for the 18th overall draft pick and a third-rounder that was No. 101 overall. That's cheap. The Eagles paid him $100 million over four years but that's fine when you have a QB on his rookie deal. It was a slam dunk. In free agency they made a huge addition early on, adding pass rusher Haason Reddick on a three-year, $45 million deal, then got a great bargain landing cornerback James Bradberry for $7.25 million on a one-year contract. They also managed to retain defensive linemen Derek Barnett and Fletcher Cox and add linebacker Kyzir White, who is an upgrade. The biggest loss was cornerback Steven Nelson, and the team can survive that. The draft got a grade of A- from Yahoo's Eric Edholm and a top-five grade from just about every analyst. The Brown trade factors into that, but the Eagles had a fine draft class despite trading a first- and third-round pick. Huge first-round defensive tackle Jordan Davis could be a great addition, second-round center Cam Jurgens makes sense with Jason Kelce nearing retirement and third-round linebacker Nakobe Dean was a smart gamble on a player who has first-round talent but a bad injury report. General manager Howie Roseman had a heck of an offseason.
At every turn this offseason, the Eagles supported Jalen Hurts as their starter. Part of that is seeing Hurts improve in his second season and envisioning more. Right after the season, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said he had to build around Hurts.
“I think for us, we got to do whatever we can to continue to help him develop,” Roseman said, via NJ.com. “How do we do that? By surrounding him with really good players. Players continue to grow. That’s a huge part of developing."
Then Roseman got A.J. Brown, one of the biggest non-quarterback moves of the offseason.
Hurts is under a lot of pressure this season, but he's in a good spot. He has talented targets — receivers Brown, DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins with tight end Dallas Goedert — and an offensive line that paved the way for the top rushing attack in the NFL last season. After two seasons Hurts is an average passer and a very good runner, and the Eagles can build a solid offense around that. What if Hurts becomes more as a passer with better teammates around him and a coaching staff that is more comfortable in its second season? It's also worth noting that if Hurts struggles, the Eagles have one of the league's better backups in Gardner Minshew II.
The Eagles' odds have been on the move. They were +120 to make the playoffs in April, and now they're -160 to make the playoffs at BetMGM. That's a big move. Their win total opened at 8.5 and is up to 9.5. I still like all of the positive Eagles futures you can give me: yes to make the playoffs, over 9.5 wins, +185 to win the division and even a short stab at their 25-to-1 Super Bowl odds. There are many reasons to like this Eagles team, which was mispriced to start the offseason.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "One of the keys to fantasy football success is separating real-life value from statistical value. A.J. Brown might be a top 5 receiver in the NFL, but he has almost zero chance to hit his theoretical upside in the Eagles offense, at least as it’s currently constructed.
"Jalen Hurts is still a work-in-progress as a passer, and the Eagles offense has plenty of mouths to feed. DeVonta Smith is an emerging receiver, Dallas Goedert a star tight end, Miles Sanders a handy running back. This offense also has to make room for Hurts as a runner, and when he’s scrambling for yards and touchdowns, no one else on the roster gets a statistical benefit.
"If backup quarterback Gardner Minshew gets a chance to play, all bets are off; you might have noticed that the best Goedert fantasy game last year came in one of Minshew’s two starts. This passing game might be more explosive with Minshew. But so long as Hurts is the man under center, I’m going to be careful with the pass-catchers here, especially Brown, the new kid in town. Brown’s current Yahoo ADP around 32 overall is too rich for my taste."
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One thing the Eagles didn't master last season was beating good teams. According to Jeff Sagarin's ratings at USA Today, they were 0-6 against top-10 teams and 1-6 against top-16 teams. Their best win all season was a home win over the New Orleans Saints. The good news for the Eagles is their schedule is easy again. Last season they had the fifth-easiest schedule in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. This season they have the second-easiest schedule, according to NFL analyst Warren Sharp who uses sportsbooks' win totals to project schedule strength. That's yet another reason to believe in the upside of the 2022 Eagles.
Can the Eagles defense improve?
The Eagles have a lot of defensive players who are either blue-chip stars or at least above-average starters. Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave are fantastic interior defenders. Haason Reddick has 23.5 sacks the past two seasons. Darius Slay is a top-five cornerback and James Bradberry played at that level two seasons ago. A pair of rookies, Jordan Davis on the defensive line and Nakobe Dean at linebacker, could be immediate contributors. The Eagles also got coordinator Jonathan Gannon back after he was a hot name in the head-coaching market this past offseason. With all that talent, why were the Eagles so underwhelming on defense last season? They were 18th in points allowed, 25th in defensive DVOA, 23rd in passer rating allowed ... it was a fine defense and it got better in the second half of the season, but it wasn't great. New additions should help. There are still questions at safety and the pass rush needs to be a lot better. Philly's 29 sacks were second-lowest in the NFL last season, and Reddick can't fix that all himself. But the ingredients are there for this to be a much better defense.
A lot of people like Jalen Hurts' odds to win MVP. That probably won't happen, but what if he plays somewhere near that level? Take a look at the Eagles' roster aside from QB, on both sides of the ball and including depth, and you see a potentially elite team. They're that good. The addition of A.J. Brown could turn the passing game into an asset. Additions on defense, and the retention of coordinator Jonathan Gannon, could lead to a big jump on that side too. If the Eagles start rolling against an easy schedule, the NFC is there for the taking. Philadelphia fans like to live in a world of misery, but they should be excited about this team. If Hurts is a top-10 quarterback or close to it, the Eagles could be a surprise Super Bowl team.
You can have a good team and still miss the playoffs if you don't have a quarterback you trust. Ask the 2021 Colts. Jalen Hurts isn't a sure thing to be any better than he has been. The playoff loss to the Buccaneers was telling: The Eagles are good but there's still a glass ceiling if Hurts doesn't get better. It's challenging to win in the NFL as a run-heavy team with an average defense, and that's what the Eagles had last season. The Dallas Cowboys are favored to win the NFC East for a reason, and the Eagles' promising offseason could just end up resulting in a disappointing season and a difficult search for a new quarterback in 2023.
The Eagles are the first team on the countdown that I can talk myself into being a true Super Bowl contender. It doesn't seem like such a stretch if you can talk yourself into a Jalen Hurts improvement. I have the Cowboys higher on the countdown because they're the more proven commodity, but I'll likely be picking the Eagles to win the NFC East. They might not be capable of a great playoff run, but I wouldn't rule it out either. Even if Hurts is basically the same quarterback he was a year ago, this should be a playoff team. I can't wait to see if this team makes a big jump.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts