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How much better does the Jalen Hurts pick look in retrospect?

The Eagles’ scrutinized second-round pick is not only playing in a season many expected him to sit — he’s playing well! But many of the same questions that floated around Howie Roseman’s team building in April remain in December.

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NFL: OCT 18 Ravens at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s going to happen eventually, so let’s get ahead of it and own the story.

I was not a fan of the Jalen Hurts pick. Most Eagles beat writers weren’t. The 2019 season was an exercise in quarterback heroism — Carson Wentz became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 4,000 yards without an individual WR cresting 500 — and accordingly, the expectation for the Eagles’ front office in the 2020 offseason was that they’d improve the team around Wentz. They tried to do that with their first round pick, TCU WR Jalen Reagor — and, if you ask them, they did it with their second round pick as well: Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts.

I disagreed. So I called the pick “the sweater you bought on sale, not because you loved it, but because the deal was too good to pass up. Now it lives crammed in the back of a dresser drawer.”

Well, we’re wearing the sweater now, folks. And we look damn fine.

Two games into Jalen Hurts’ unexpected tenure as the starter for Philadelphia, and the Eagles have more life on offense than they had all season during the worst play of Carson Wentz’s career. Hurts’ 400 total yards of offense against the Cardinals in Week 15 is more than Wentz ever produced across a 68-game career; Hurts’ 300+ passing yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions has only been matched by Wentz once. Beyond arbitrary cutoffs, it’s plainly evident: Hurts is hitting open receivers that Wentz missed. Hurts is making plays with his legs that Wentz can’t. He’s playing better ball.

Before the season began, nobody predicted that the Eagles would end up here: 4-9-1, starting their rookie quarterback, wondering who was going to get fired this offseason and why Wentz’s agents threw a hissy fit to Adam Schefter about Wentz’s benching. But the saving grace of this nightmare season comes at the hands of the pick few understood and even fewer supported: Hurts.

But does Hurts’ early success change any of the arguments made about the pick back in April, when confidence was still high in Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson? I took a trip back in time to remind myself of the arguments.

The pro-Hurts angle

The best case in defense of the Hurts pick I’ve read was written by Kevin Cole, an analyst for PFF — it was a great read in April and is an even better read now that the Eagles are in one of those fringe futures in which Hurts is playing in Year 1. Cole argued that team-building stages shouldn’t be viewed as an if/then proposition hinged on the franchise quarterback: If you have a franchise quarterback, then you need to build around him; if you don’t, then you need to get one.

With Wentz in hand, Eagles fans and analysts alike expected and hoped the Eagles would build around Wentz — but in an unstable league in which only a few quarterbacks are truly elite, the quarterback position demands continued stewardship even when it feels secure. By selecting Hurts, Cole argued the Eagles both insured themselves against short-term Wentz problems — like an injury, or perhaps, a sudden drop-off in play — and gave themselves long-term value with an improved chance of getting an elite quarterback, as they had two horses in the field instead of one.

This argument echoes those made by GM Howie Roseman, VP of Player Personnel Andy Weidl, and Pederson in the press conference after the Hurts selection. Roseman insisted that the Eagles viewed Wentz as a franchise quarterback and that building around him was their goal. The Eagles’ brass viewed Hurts as a contributing piece to that supporting cast — a great teammate who will “throw [support] behind the starter” — as well as a good quarterback in his own right, and thereby a fit for a team that gets more value out of quarterbacks than any other team in the NFL.

This is critical. The Eagles’ development of quarterbacks and the subsequent transactions including those quarterbacks were the driving forces behind the Hurts selection. Nick Foles’ Super Bowl win remains fresh in the organization’s mind, and while no team expects to win a Super Bowl with their backup quarterback, Foles’ success certainly boosts Philadelphia’s confidence in their ability to win when their starter goes does. But Foles — who would later return a third round selection in the compensatory pick market — isn’t the only success story in crowded Eagles QB rooms.

After drafting Carson Wentz and signing Chase Daniel in 2016, Roseman flipped incumbent starter Sam Bradford to the Vikings for a first round pick and change. In 2007, the Eagles drafted Houston QB Kevin Kolb in the second round to sit behind Donovan McNabb and A.J. Feeley. After a concussion opened the door for another backup QB — Michael Vick — to Kolb’s starting job in 2010, Kolb was traded to Arizona for a second-round pick and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Feeley himself had established precedent for such a move: a fifth-round pick in 2001, Feeley started for five games in 2002, and was flipped for a second-round pick from the Miami Dolphins in 2004 once McNabb recovered the starting job.

As such, wheeler-dealer Howie Roseman is not in uncharted waters. He was on the Eagles’ staff for each of these deals, and with two potential starting quarterbacks in hand in Wentz and Hurts, Roseman is confident he can extract value from a trade for either player, while still giving his team a potential starter for the next few seasons.

That’s not to say Roseman expected to be exactly here. He didn’t. As he said after the Hurts selection, “nobody is going to be looking at a rookie quarterback as somebody who’s going to be taking over a Pro Bowl quarterback, a guy who’s been on the cusp of winning an MVP.” Even though they didn’t think he’d need to start in 2020, the caliber of play that Hurts has delivered is likely within the Eagles’ expectation of him. They thought he was a value pick at 53 overall, which means they believed he could be a fringe starter in the NFL. But any strong argument for Hurts’ future caliber of play is still largely undefined.

How good has Hurts been?

A large part of Cole’s argument is founded on PFF’s evaluation of Hurts as a prospect. They forecasted Hurts as the second-best quarterback in the 2020 class behind only LSU QB Joe Burrow, ahead of both Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon QB Justin Herbert. Other models agreed that Hurts was undervalued by film rats and league decision-makers. As such, PFF’s modeling gave Hurts a 10% chance to end up a Top-6 quarterback in the league and a 30% chance to end up a Top-12 quarterback in the league. While analytics is not a catch-all bucket, it’s likely that the Eagles’ data-driven front office had a similarly high estimation of Hurts’ future in the league.

In April, PFF’s projection for Hurts was about as rich as you could find from any public-facing evaluator. Most film analysts placed Hurts as a Day 2 player. The Draft Network called him a “perfect Day 2 QB in today’s NFL who can shine via extended plays, mobility, playmaking ability, and comfort off-script;” Dane Brugler of The Athletic said Hurts “offers the intangibles and mental toughness required for the next level, but he is a tardy passer who will struggle to consistently create plays with his arm vs. NFL speed, which is why he projects more as a developmental backup than a starter right now;” Lance Zierlien of NFL.com said Hurts would “struggle to beat NFL defenses from the pocket, but his ability to grind out yards on the ground and make off-schedule plays should make him a solid backup with upward mobility.” He was compared Tim Tebow and Tyrod Taylor.

Through two electric games, these projections for Hurts have largely held true. Hurts’ inhuman coolness has led to clutch performances in high leverage situations. Three drives at the end of first halves have created two touchdowns and a chip shot field goal attempt; both end-of-game drives against Arizona got into scoring position. Hurts has thrown five touchdowns this season: two on third down, at distances of 5 and 20 yards, and an astounding three on fourth down, at distances of 2, 3, and 18 yards. He’s 6/8 on 4th downs as a starter.

Hurts has found explosive plays, but not necessarily with downfield passes. He attempted two passes more than 20 yards downfield against the Saints and completed neither; against the Cardinals, he was 2/7 with a couple of DPIs drawn. Half of his yards this season have come after the catch, which is partially to Hurts’ credit — good ball placement encourages YAC — but is difficult to sustain.

As a runner, over 20% of Hurts’ carries have gone for an explosive gain (10+ yards). Only Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Daniel Jones are more likely to rip off a chunk gain with the ball in their hands.

The Eagles’ offensive approach has shifted mightily with Hurts at quarterback to account for his skill set. They have dedicated themselves to rollouts and out-breaking routes that are easier for Hurts to see uncover from the back of the pocket, heavily deploying flood concepts that allow Hurts to read one area of the field, working deep to intermediate to shallow. Neither Doug Pederson nor Jalen Hurts want Hurts throwing to the middle of the field, a dangerous area for young passers who struggle to read zone defenders and throw with anticipation, as Hurts does.

Chart via Next Gen Stats

It’s only Hurts’ second start, but this glaring absence of middle, intermediate targets matters. Losing a third of the field clips the wings of your passing game, especially when the areas you’re currently targeting — the sidelines, behind the line of scrimmage, et cetera — tend to be low value regions. At some point, Hurts will need to sink or swim with a full plate of NFL concepts — especially in an offense like Philadelphia’s, which typically hammers the middle of the field.

Written evaluations of Hurts have largely held up, but the lofty expectations for his future detailed by PFF and Philadelphia’s front office seem achievable given Hurts’ immediate success in an otherwise anemic offense. So where does the truth lie?

It’s likely that the evaluation of Hurts understated the value of Hurts. In a changing league, it’s both becoming easier to manufacture offense with passable QB play — thereby lowering the bar for a “starting-caliber quarterback” — and becoming more common to see QB relocations in the offseason. In that environment, a mobile quarterback and levelheaded playmaker like Hurts would be valuable, even if his evaluation was reminiscent of career backups.

What’s next? It’s still a mess of questions

It’s undeniable that some of the reasoning behind the Hurts selection has come to pass. The Eagles paid a steep price for insurance, and like the car owner that neither expects an accident nor anticipates his car breaking down, the Eagles are pleased that they prepared for this unforeseen Wentz implosion. Of course, the season is already all but sunk, but the future of that all-important quarterback position in Philadelphia remains buoyed. Hurts is a life raft in stormy seas; thank goodness he’s here.

Of course, some of the reasoning behind the frustration with the pick remains valid as well. While the Eagles’ recent draft history indicates that an alternative selection at 53 overall likely wouldn’t have produced an impactful rookie, Philadelphia walks into the 2021 offseason with many of the same needs — CB, S, LB, WR — that they ignored at 53 last year. The weakness of those positions have led directly to losses this season, just as the poor quarterback play from Wentz did.

It is unlikely that a WR selection would have turned Wentz’s catastrophic 2020 performance into quality play, but it wouldn’t have hurt — and with Wentz’s fragile locker room relationships already well dissected, we can say it seems likely that Hurts’ selection impacted Wentz negatively. Part of the selling point on the pick was that it actually helped Wentz. Predictably, it didn’t.

Bringing Hurts into the building forced the Eagles’ hand when Wentz played poorly, and while the Eagles still have two potential starting quarterbacks in the building, neither is a safe bet. They must play their next moves carefully. Wentz is officially on the trade block, but is coming off the worst season of his career. Roseman’s machinations will be tested by what should be a tentative market, as teams want to take only a cheap swing on Wentz’s heavy deal. Can Roseman renegotiate the franchise QB contract in Wentz’s eagerness to get out of Philadelphia and start elsewhere?

Can Doug Pederson and his offensive coaching staff build around Jalen Hurts? The Eagles called themselves a QB factory in April and proceeded to drive their Pro Bowl QB into the ground by November. Wentz has been getting worse for the last three seasons, and a myriad of personnel moves and coaching decisions share the blame with Wentz’s individual development and injury history. Have Press Taylor, Rich Scangarello, and Marty Morninhweg earned the opportunity to attempt the serious developmental work needed to make Hurts into an every-week starter, after they had no success solving Wentz’s problems in 2020?

And what will Roseman do in the 2021 NFL Draft? The Eagles look destined for a Top-10 draft selection, and could have a QB room without both Wentz and Nate Sudfeld. That’s the sort of room Roseman would look to improve, given the emphasis he places on quarterback. With a Top-10 pick, the Eagles could add a much better prospect than Hurts was: BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance are all on the table. Why wouldn’t he make another quarterback pick? By the same logic he drafted Jalen Hurts, it makes perfect sense.

Drafting and developing quarterbacks may have more wisdom than I acknowledged back in April, but on that path comes many pitfalls. Even now, we’re far from calling that draft pick a success — Hurts would need to become a starting-caliber quarterback for multiple seasons — and we can clearly call this season a failure. Just look at the Eagles’ record and look at what happened to Wentz.

The human aspect of constant QB investments cannot be ignored. Yes, Hurts is inexplicably unfazed, but that’s to his credit, not Philadelphia’s. The Eagles won’t enter 2021 camp with him as their unquestioned starter, and will again invite drama and debate when they add to the room. Individuals in the locker room and on the staff will consider the constant, hanging question of the other quarterback, whose grass certainly looks greener from over here. And as they chase those preferable pastures, the remaining positions on their roster will continue to suffer from their neglect.

Hurts was meant to be a solution to a Wentz disaster — and he is, in the sense that the offense is better with him at the helm. But the Eagles are still largely a disaster. It is unlikely that they develop Hurts as a coaching staff and unlikely that they stop investing in quarterback even as he plays well. An offseason quarterback addition seems inevitable; continued poor WR play just as inescapable. Hurts might end up good, but the Eagles are still pretty bad — and that reality puts the wisdom of Roseman, Pederson, and the organization into a dubious light more than any individual move.