“When [Head] Coach [Doug] Pederson came in and we sat down in 2016, we said we were always going to be about the quarterback position, that it was the most important position in sports.”
Those were the first words out of GM Howie Roseman’s mouth after introducing the Jalen Hurts press conference last offseason. He went on to talk about the success the Eagles had drafting Wentz in 2016; how adding Hurts to the room would be to Wentz’s benefit; and how this pick didn’t indicate a lack of faith in Wentz. Those arguments looked feeble then and, after the Eagles tumultuous season, still struggle to hold weight. I walked through those arguments in retrospect earlier this season.
Suffice to say, it was Roseman’s QB-centric team-building philosophy that brought Jalen Hurts to Philadelphia. In the three games Hurts has started, he has been perfectly acceptable: cool under pressure, effective as a runner, accurate against man coverage, fearful of zone coverage, too willing to break the pocket early, fumble-prone. As with most rookie quarterbacks, there are exciting traits to hang your hat on; there are concerning habits that must be erased.
The bad news is that Hurts’ rookie performance has been better than most of what the Eagles got from 5th-year pro Carson Wentz, their presumed franchise quarterback. Wentz hasn’t played to the caliber of his 2017 season since the injury that ended it, but his 2018 and 2019 season both showed a functional quarterback who could read a defense; feel pressure; avoid a sack; throw an accurate football. 2020 was an unprecedented year for many, and it certainly was for Wentz, who looked straight-up broken. The coaching staff had no solution, and the supporting cast struggled in their own right.
And what happens when your team has bad quarterback play? You don’t win very many games. The Eagles are 4-10-1 with a game against the division-leading Washington Football team inbound, and currently own the 6th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Barring the result of Week 17, they’ll pick anywhere from 3rd to 10th.
Complete #Eagles Week 17 #NFLDraft positioning scenarios. Eagles don't play until #SNF, so will know precisely how result will impact draft pick: could be anything from no impact (locked into 6th no matter what) to 7 spots (dropping from 3rd all the way to 10th with a win). pic.twitter.com/pkP9Smc5fq— Deniz Selman (@denizselman33) December 30, 2020
Where they pick is a question that will get answered this weekend. Who they pick? That’ll take a little longer.
There’s Ja’Marr Chase, the true sophomore WR for the 2019 LSU Tigers who opted out of the 2020 season to stand on his Biletnikoff-winning production. His claim to WR1 is challenged this year by Alabama WR DeVonta Smith, the Heisman front-runner who has seen almost equivalent production as the feature piece of Alabama’s record-setting passing game.
WR is a big need for Philadelphia; so is cornerback, where expected Top-10 picks Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) and Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) could both be available as a running mate for Darius Slay. If the Eagles decide to invest in a linebacker with an early pick — extremely unlikely, given their commitment to analytics — Penn State LB Micah Parsons is viewed as a unique defensive prospect at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, and 4.43 40-yard dash speed. These weak positions on the Eagles roster don’t even disqualify them from attacking the trenches with premium picks, as they’ve been known to do: both EDGE and OT could be sneaky needs.
You know another position that demands premium picks at which the Eagles are fairly weak?
Right now, you have two bets in the field at quarterback. One is Wentz, and the other is Hurts. With Wentz, you’re betting that your 2021 offensive coaching staff — whoever is on it — can at least return Wentz to his career-average play. You can be a good team with that level of QB play — even better if Wentz ascends beyond that.
Those are narrow bets, however. After the season Wentz just had, expecting him to deliver a consistent season of starting-caliber play, under the coaching staff that benched him, with largely the same offensive roster that may prefer Hurts over him, is tough. If Wentz does resurrect his career, it’s likely he did it somewhere other than Philadelphia.
Hurts is also a narrow bet. The coaching staff doesn’t trust him yet as a full-field passer, and largely tries to avoid the middle of the field, where Hurts was a poor college passer. His running ability elevates his floor, however, and the Eagles could build a functional offense around a zone read offense.
But even if you get a functional offense out of Hurts or Wentz, that offense must be measured against the offense ran by a Top-10 draft pick. And I’m not sure either stacks up.
This quarterback class is as strong at the top as we’ve seen since the 2018 class — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson — and perhaps even stronger in the Top-5 picks. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence has been billed as a generational prospect; Ohio State QB Justin Fields just outdueled him in the college football playoff and has just as much natural talent, if less experience; BYU QB Zach Wilson is the biggest riser of the 2021 cycle, drawing Kyler Murray and Aaron Rodgers comparisons.
If one of the three is on the board, the Eagles must consider taking them. Prospect evaluation is tough, and you shouldn’t be over-confident in your ability to identify good pro quarterbacks — but they only have two weak bets in hand for a high-impact starting quarterback. I’m talking about a franchise-changing player. Neither Wentz nor Hurts is likely that guy; Fields and Wilson very well could be.
Getting the quarterback right will have more impact on the Eagles’ next few seasons than getting even a top-flight WR or CB will. Roseman’s implicit point when he talks about “always [being] about the quarterback position, the most important position in sports” is that he will pour resources into quarterback until it’s right before addressing any other spot on his roster.
And Roseman’s philosophy is what matters here. His job is apparently secured for 2021, and if he’s the shot-caller, the Eagles will consider making the quarterback pick in the Top-10 — whether we think it’s wise or not. There are several hurdles left between now and then — they need to evaluate the prospects, have high opinions of them, evaluate Wentz and Hurts internally, make changes to the coaching staff, go through free agency.
A lot could happen over the next four months to make the Eagles less likely to take a quarterback — but as it stands now, it should be viewed as a likely outcome. And potentially a franchise-saving one.