By Pete Baxter
The Philadelphia Eagles are a team with a great deal of talent but an even greater number of question marks heading into the 2021 NFL Season.
First-time head coach Nick Sirianni, most recently the offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, has had an impressive rise through the league’s coaching ranks over the past decade. However, his early press conference performances gave fans serious Adam Gase vibes. There are already rumors amongst the local media that Sirianni is struggling to gain the trust of the locker room. However, veteran right tackle Lane Johnson staunchly defended his coach on twitter.
Second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts had an up-and-down rookie season. He finished just 1-3 as a starter but should have in fact been 2-2. His third loss came after he was benched by former head coach Doug Pederson and company in what is widely believed to have been a tank job. He showed flashes of brilliance, throwing for six touchdowns and rushing for three more. He struggled with accuracy, however, with just a 52% completion rate through the air. He has received praise from his veteran teammates for his approach and work ethic, however, and seems ready to lead this team into the future.
With Zach Ertz reporting to training camp, it is looking increasingly likely that Hurts has an improved set of weapons at his disposal. The Eagles could very well have a top-10 offensive line led by Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson should their veterans (particularly right guard Brandon Brooks) stay healthy. The combination of Ertz (should he return to anything close to his pre-2020 form) and Dallas Goedert at tight end give Hurts a respectable safety blanket.
Hurts’ former college receiver Devonta Smith, taken tenth in this year’s draft, joins second-year pass catcher Jalen Reagor in a young, unproven receiving core with high potential.
This is a make-or-break season for third-year running back Miles Sanders. He rushed for 867 yards in just 12 games last season, with an impressive 5.3 yards per carry. However, he struggled to hang onto the football and saw his role in the passing game decline from his rookie season. If Sanders can limit his turnovers and stay healthy, he could be a key to the success of this young offense.
The Eagles are expected to have a mid-level defense. They are anchored by veteran, Pro Bowl caliber players in cornerback Darius Slay and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Talented fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson will likely need to make an immediate impact in the secondary. Third-round pick defensive tackle Milton Williams will have an opportunity to learn behind Fletcher Cox but could quickly become an impact player as well. However, serious question marks at linebacker and in the secondary keep this defense from projecting as much better than mediocre at this point.
This equates to a combination of intriguing young talent, on-field veteran leadership and glaring inexperience throughout the coaching staff. Where should we expect this squad to finish the 2021 NFL season?
Well, if you ask many pundits around the NFL landscape, the expectation is rock bottom. ESPN ranks the Eagles at 29th in terms of roster talent. Sports Illustrated agreed with this assessment and put the Eagles at 29th in preseason power rankings.
Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports and Matt Fitzgerald of Sportsnaut both see the Eagles at least achieving mediocrity and finishing with an 8-9 record in 2021.
However, I believe slightly higher expectations are in order for this squad. They are rebuilding, yes. However, the NFC East should once again have a low margin of talent differential between its four teams. The Cowboys under Mike McCarthy, the New York Giants and Daniel Jones, and the Washington Football Team with newly acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick should all be beatable squads.
The Washington Football Team may be the most talented squads on paper, but not by a wide margin. Fitzpatrick is a true wildcard, who could just as easily make a Pro Bowl as implode immediately in week 1.
Let’s a look an optimistic look at the Eagles’ 2021 regular-season schedule to determine their high-end win/loss potential this season:
Week 1 – At Falcons – Win. Jalen Hurts explodes onto the scene in 2021 against an abysmal Atlanta defense. He outruns and outguns Matt Ryan and company 28-24.
Week 2 – Home against 49ers – Loss. The 49ers defense is back with a vengeance in 2021 and holds Jalen Hurts in check to the tune of a 24-14 defeat.
Week 3 – At Cowboys – Loss. Despite the ongoing ineptitude of Mike McCarthy and company, Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliot do just enough to defend their home turf, handing the Eagles a 28-21 loss.
Week 4 – Home against Chiefs – Loss. This young, overachieving Eagles squad is no match for the buzzsaw that is Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, and they take a 35-17 beating.
Week 5 – At Panthers – Win. Hurts bounces back from a tough string of tough losses to beat up on a poor Panthers defense. Sam Darnold does not appear to be the answer in Carolina (maybe it wasn’t all Adam Gase’s fault), and the Eagles cruise to a 28-14 victory.
Week 6 – Home against Buccaneers – Loss. The Eagles face another tough matchup at home as Tom Brady and company come to town. The defending champs don’t disappoint, their talented defense shuts down Hurts and company, and Eagles fall 35-17.
Week 7 -At Raiders – Loss. Despite the Raiders continuing their wildly inconsistent ways under Jon Gruden, the Eagles aren’t quite able to steal a road upset in Vegas and fall 24-21.
Week 8 – At Lions – Win. The Eagles continue their winning ways on the road, beating a bad Lions team in Detroit 24-14. Jared Goff misses the sunny shores of Southern California.
Week 9 – Home against Chargers – Loss. Another tough game at home. Justin Herbert picks up right where he left off in 2020 and outduels Hurts in Philly in a 35-31 thriller.
Week 10 – At Broncos – Loss. The Eagles luck on the road runs out as the Denver Broncos prevail in a close game in Denver 21-17. The Broncos defense is just good enough to hold Hurts in check, and Drew Lock is just good enough to squeak out a win in his home stadium. Should Aaron Rodgers happen to replace Lock, this becomes a blowout.
Week 11 – Home against Saints – Win. The Eagles squeak out a low-scoring victory at home against the New Orleans Saints, 17-14. The Saints’ pass rush keeps enough pressure on Hurts to limit his offense, but whoever starts at quarterback for the Saints (be it Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill) can’t capitalize on the road.
Week 12 – At Giants – Win. The Eagles begin what should be their easiest stretch of the season with a win against an abysmal Giants team. Daniel Jones regresses and the Giants defense can’t stop Hurts in a big Eagles win in New York 31-14.
Week 13 – At Jets – Win. The Eagles complete a sweep at MetLife stadium. The Eagles defense under first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon gains momentum as the season progresses, and the Eagles beat up on Zach Wilson and company 24-13.
Week 14 – BYE
Week 15 – Home against Washington – Loss. The Eagles come off their bye and face the best of Ryan Fitzpatrick in a shocking home loss in which Fitzy balls out and outduels Hurts 31-27.
Week 16 – Home against Giants – Win. The Eagles sweep the season series against the Giants with a comfortable 28-17 win at home against Joe Judge’s team.
Week 17 – At Washington – Win. The Eagles get revenge and steal a win on the road in Washington. Fitzpatrick can’t duplicate his week 15 performance and struggles with turnovers. Philly takes the win 27-13.
Week 18 – Home against Dallas – Win. The Eagles end the season on a promising three-game winning streak, winning six of their last seven games. They prove that they have Dak and company figured out, and defeat Washington at home 24-17.
The Eagles finish with a winning record of 9-8 for the year. This is good for second place in the NFC East. They fall just short of a Wildcard playoff spot despite an outstanding finish to the season.
Jalen Hurts proves he is a viable starter and leader for this franchise. He makes his first Pro Bowl appearance in just his second NFL season.
Nick Sirianni proves to be a better fit within the organization to keep the peace between the players and front office. The defense improves as the season progresses and is on the cusp of being a top-10 unit.
Most importantly, after the absolute debacle that became of the 2020 season, the Eagles have a direction. They have hope, and they have positive momentum across the board heading into 2022.
Keep in mind, this is my optimistic perspective. This is the ceiling for this squad in 2021. They won’t be world beaters, but everyone in the front office and coaching staff keep their jobs and expectations are much higher moving forward.
More to come from Philly.