PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and coach Nick Sirianni sent a clear message Wednesday they're heading into the offseason with the intention of building around quarterback Jalen Hurts rather than looking for his replacement.
"Jalen knows where he stands with us," Sirianni said. "There's no secrets there. He knows he's our guy."
That's a pretty solid endorsement of Hurts, who at age 23 became the youngest quarterback in franchise history to start a playoff game. He bumped his completion percentage up nearly 10 points from his rookie year to 61.3%, showed growth as a pocket passer and decision-maker, and led all quarterbacks with 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. He is a strong leader with an exceptional work ethic who is obsessed with improving at his chosen craft. This was a transition year for the Eagles, and he helped them overachieve by guiding them into the postseason with a 9-8 record.
On the flip side, Hurts ranked 26th in completion rate despite those improvements as a thrower. He was a critical component to a ground game that finished tops in the NFL (159.7 rush yards/game), but the offense often faltered when the Eagles had to rely on the pass, as seen in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' convincing 31-15 win over Philadelphia in the wild-card playoff game Sunday, in which Hurts went 23-of-43 for 258 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. The Eagles were 0-7 against playoff teams in 2021 and were outscored by a combined 96 points in those games. Hurts went 8-8 as the starter and beat one team that finished the season with a winning record -- the Saints, who had third-string QB Trevor Siemian at the controls.
Quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson, who have all been to multiple Pro Bowls, could potentially be available by trade this offseason. The Eagles have three first-round picks in April's draft (Nos. 15, 16 and 19 overall). They are as well-positioned as any team from a capital perspective to land a standout veteran, and could also use those assets to move up to select one of the top quarterbacks in this draft class.
Why did they send such strong signals that they're rolling with Hurts? And could there be another twist ahead in this storyline? Let's explore.
Acquiring a veteran
The Eagles have already told us through their actions that they're intrigued by Wilson and Watson.
Wilson, 33, is the one who got away. Management has not been shy in expressing how high they were on him coming out of Wisconsin, and how much they kick themselves for not being more aggressive during the 2012 draft. They thought they would have a chance to take him with their third-round selection, 88th overall, but he was plucked by the Seattle Seahawks with the 75th pick. Philadelphia ended up taking Nick Foles, and while their relationship with Foles certainly worked out, missing out on Wilson remains a sore spot. It changed the way the Eagles think about quarterbacks: If there's one you really believe in, it's better to deviate from the value chart to go after him than live with regret. That's part of the reason they took Hurts in the second round in 2020 even with Carson Wentz in place.
Philadelphia showed interest in Watson before. One league executive described the Eagles as being in "active pursuit" of Watson leading into the 2021 season, if not later, though he remained on the Texans' roster through the Nov. 2 trade deadline. Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits by women accusing him of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior.
As for Rodgers, what team wouldn't be interested in acquiring the three-time MVP?
Quarterbacks, though, have more sway than ever over where they end up, and to this point, there's no evidence any of the top quarterbacks view Philadelphia as the most desirable destination. Watson was reportedly willing to waive his no-trade clause for the Miami Dolphins but not the Eagles before the deadline. Meanwhile, the only teams Wilson would have waived his no-trade clause for last year were the Cowboys, Saints, Bears and Raiders, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Even if Wilson and Watson were to expand those teams to include Philadelphia, there's bound to be competition. If Wilson wants the Giants, say, and the Giants want Wilson, New York has two top-10 picks in April's draft to offer Seattle.
Beyond Rodgers, Wilson and Watson, the next tier of quarterbacks who could theoretically become available include Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins. It's debatable how much of an upgrade those signal-callers would be over Hurts, whose contract is considerably less expensive than all of them with base salaries of $1.1 million and $1.3 million over the next two seasons.
Drafting a QB
This is not considered a strong quarterback class, and there is little separation currently among the top prospects.
“This year’s quarterback race is a little bit different from what we have seen in years past," ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid said. "There hasn’t been that top quarterback who has really grabbed your attention and [positioned] himself to be the No. 1 overall pick like we’ve seen with Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow or even Kyler Murray going back to 2019. I think this quarterback race is going to [continue] up to draft day."
Reid currently projects Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Mississippi's Matt Corral and North Carolina's Sam Howell as first-round picks, with Liberty's Malik Willis and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder as wild cards.
Pickett, 23, is considered the "safe option" in draft circles right now, Reid said, heightening the odds he is the first quarterback taken. Reid believes Pickett and Corral will be gone by the time the Eagles get on the clock with their first pick at 15, but that they're well-positioned if one of the other quarterbacks is to their liking.
"They are probably in the wheelhouse if they want one of those guys. It will probably be between Willis or Sam Howell,” he said.
Reid called the big-armed, fleet-footed Willis "my favorite of the group right now" and thinks his skill set best matches what Sirianni wants to do on offense. But he's raw and would probably need a year or two to develop behind a veteran.
As for QB prospects later in the draft, Reid said you could likely get Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe, who broke Burrow's NCAA record with 62 passing touchdowns this past season, in the third or fourth round.
If it were Reid's decision, he would roll with Hurts for another year as opposed to selecting a quarterback high in this year's draft, especially considering the question marks surrounding each prospect.
"If I were a betting man, I don't think the Eagles make all three of those picks in the first round," he said. "I think they try to trade back for one more pick in next year's draft so they can have two first-round picks in 2023 in case they want to move up and get a quarterback of their liking."
Building around Hurts
Hurts is very young. His top receiver this year, DeVonta Smith, was a 23-year-old rookie. He didn't have a single primary wideout over 25.
There's a strong case to me made that the right course of action is to use the bulk of that draft capital to build the roster up around Hurts and his green supporting cast.
"We have to do whatever we can to continue to help him develop," Roseman said. "And how do we do that? By surrounding him with really good players -- players who continue to grow."
Roseman knows it's a lot easier to construct a championship-caliber roster with a starting quarterback on his rookie deal. Hurts carries a cap hit of $1.6 million and $1.9 million over the next two seasons. A player like Wilson, in contrast, carries cap hits of $37 million and $40 million. There are benefits to growing this thing organically, and some evidence Hurts would be an ideal tone-setter for such a venture.
“I want to follow that dude," said 6-foot-8, 365-pound left tackle Jordan Mailata. "He wants to fix his mistakes. When I see my captain doing that, I want to do the same thing.”
Hurts was on his sixth playcaller in as many seasons in 2021, an unfortunate streak that dates all the way back to his freshman year at Alabama. And Sirianni overhauled the offense at the midway point of the season after realizing it wasn't maximizing his personnel. Still, Hurts showed marked improvement as a pocket passer over the course of the year.
He suffered a high ankle sprain against the New York Giants on Nov. 28, missed a pair of games and wasn't the same as a runner the rest of the way. Hurts, who appeared at the postgame news conference Sunday in a walking boot, said he "wasn't able to get freaky like usual" down the stretch.
Sirianni remains focused on Hurts' footwork and believes his accuracy and decision-making will continue to improve as he learns through experience and film study. If he can combine a more efficient passing game with his "freaky" ground attack, the Eagles will really have something.
Could the Eagles throw us a curveball?
Of course. It's always best to watch what an organization does rather than listen to what it says.
Case in point: Last January, Roseman likened Wentz to a finger on his hand. "You can't imagine that they're not part of you, that they're not here. That's how we feel about Carson," he said. A little over a month later, he traded Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts.
Even amid his backing of Hurts on Wednesday, Roseman did not entirely discount the possibility of trading for a quarterback, saying his job is to "look at everything, evaluate every position and every player."
If Wilson became available at a reasonable price and wanted to play in Philly, would the Eagles consider it? You would think so.
Wednesday wasn't the end to this story. There are likely to be rumors that pop up between now and the start of the league year, in part because the Eagles are famous for exploring every option, no matter how feasible.
But the most likely outcome is Hurts is the starter in 2022, as reflected in Roseman and Sirianni's messaging Wednesday.