By Pete Baxter
There is obviously still a ton of football left to be played in the 2021 season for the Philadelphia Eagles. However, the only thing more up-and-down than the Eagles’ season so far has been Howie Roseman’s tenure as General Manager. Philly fans are, therefore, already looking with cautious optimism towards the 2022 NFL offseason.
The Eagles are expected to boast three first round draft picks in next years draft. While they sit smack dab in the middle of the league in terms of salary cap space heading into the offseason, they have a young quarterback on a rookie deal and the financial flexibility to make a few impactful moves in free agency.
It is far too early to predict exactly where the Eagles will finish this season. While they currently hold a 4-6 record, they will be entering the easiest stretch of their season and are still in the hunt for a wildcard playoff spot. This is modest but notable progress since their rock bottom 2020 season that pushed Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz out the door and kickstarted the current “retooling” phase.
With a few smart moves by Roseman and company, the Eagles could become a legitimate playoff squad next year. Let’s have a look at five moves the team should make during the 2022 offseason to take the next step as a franchise:
#1. Run it Back with Jalen Hurts
Jalen Hurts has shown more than enough this season to prove himself to be a viable NFL starter. He has elite athleticism at the position. He has the personality and charisma to lead the team. Hurts currently has an adequate, improving arm (though his accuracy must improve).
As of the writing of this article, Hurts is 14 starts into his NFL career. He has led a bad Eagles squad to a 5-9 record in those starts. Hurts has thrown 19 touchdown passes to just 9 interceptions. He has added eight more touchdowns on the ground along with 903 yards. Those numbers are all rock solid for what has essentially been a combined rookie campaign. As noted, the most concerning statistic is his 58.8% completion percentage during that span. However, he has improved his accuracy by more than 10% from 2020 to 2021.
Hurts has a great head on his shoulders and has responded to the harsh criticism of Philadelphia’s media and fanbase by improving week after week. He is already arguably a top-15 quarterback in the NFL and is continuing to climb. There is no surefire quarterback prospect in the 2022 draft. The last thing the team needs is to bring the Deshaun Watson circus to town and rekindle the dysfunction that destroyed their 2020 campaign.
Howie Roseman must fight the urge to waste a high pick or huge percentage of his available cap space to gamble on a new quarterback. In this case, the conservative choice in the right choice.
Hurts has proven he can win games with a mediocre-at-best team around him. Build the defense back into the top-10 form it had been in recent years, add a couple of weapons, and this can be a winning team for the foreseeable future. Stay the course at QB.
#2. Go Defense in the 2022 Draft
The Eagles should have three first-round picks in 2022. They have three positions on defense that need to be upgraded. Simple enough, right?
We will talk about the defensive line in the next section, but long-story-short, the D-Line does not need to be addressed in the draft. However, both their linebacking corps and defensive backfield need to be upgraded. Darius Slay is a star and at cornerback but needs support on the opposite side of the field.
Depending on whose mock draft you choose to believe, and how the last seven games of the season play out, it is difficult to predict exactly where the Eagles will pick and who will be available. However, in a perfect world, the Eagles could snag this trio of top prospects in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft:
- Kyle Hamilton, Safety, Notre Dame – At 6’4” and 220 lbs, Hamilton is as scary a defensive prospect as we have seen in years. Not only is he a physically dominant, freakishly athletic player with superstar potential, but he has been praised for his leadership and “coaching” of his teammates by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. Hamilton has missed nearly all of his junior season as he rehabs a knee injury. This could be enough for him to slide to the Eagles.
- Andrew Booth Jr., Cornerback, Clemson – Arguably the top cornerback prospect in the draft, he is an elite athlete and an outstanding tackler for the position. A no-brainer if he is available, and an ideal partner in crime for the Eagles’ best defender, Slay.
- Devin Lloyd, Linebacker, Utah – At 6’3” and 235 lbs, Lloyd has shown he can do it all at the linebacker position. He has recorded 48 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions during his outstanding 2021 campaign, and could be a steal in the mid-to-late first round.
The Eagles have managed to remain a borderline top-20 defensive unit in the league despite the aforementioned weaknesses and losing their top pass rusher in Brandon Graham early in the season. With three young potential superstars joining this defense through the draft, and with a healthy Graham in 2022, this should be a top-10 unit.
#3. Go Young, Maintain Depth on Defensive Line
Speaking of defense, barring injuries, the defensive line is still the strength of the Philly defense. It is also the veteran heart and soul of the team. If the Eagles want to take the next step and become a legitimate playoff team next season, there are a few minor tweaks to be made on their defensive frontline.
First, the team should move on from Fletcher Cox. Cox, after a 2020 Pro Bowl campaign (his sixth Pro Bowl campaign), has been remarkably unproductive in 2021. He has recorded just one sack and 16 total tackles through ten games. At 30 years old, it is possible he has lost a step, but it is also possible he just simply isn’t motivated as the team works through a major overhaul and rebuild. The team shopped him before the trade deadline but were unable to find an ideal package in return. However, during the offseason, if they can add something in the area of a third-round draft pick for Cox, freeing up additional cap space in the process, I believe they should do so.
Cox is simply expendable at this point. He has been outplayed by two backups this season in rookie Milton Williams and veteran Hassan Ridgeway.
Williams, a third-round pick in the 2021 draft, is ready to start. Ridgeway, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, should be resigned to a team friendly deal. Ridgeway has filled in admirably for injured starters this season with 2.0 sacks and 12 tackles to his name. He deserves to remain a part of this defensive front.
Best of all, the Eagles will have Brandon Graham back in 2022. Graham signed an extension in March. Graham was a Pro Bowler in 2020 with 46 tackles and 8.0 sacks. His presence has been massively missed by this team, following his week two Achilles injury. A healthy Brandon Graham, along with Javon Hargrave (6.0 sacks this season) will anchor a solid pass rush next season.
#4. Sign a Legit Number Two Receiver
DeVonta Smith has had an outstanding rookie campaign so far and is already proving himself to be a legitimate number one receiving threat. Second-year speedster Quez Watkins is a perfect third option in the slot or as a deep threat. Tight end Dallas Goedert has been locked up for four more years. The one thing missing from Jalen Hurts’ arsenal of receiving weapons is a legitimate starting receiver opposite Smith.
Second-year receiver (last year’s first-round pick) Jalen Reagor was supposed to be that guy. Unfortunately, he simply has not improved since entering the league. He has, in fact, regressed this year, putting up pedestrian-at-best numbers with 22 catches for 171 yards (an abysmal 7.8 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. Watkins appears to have jumped over him on the depth chart at this point.
Fortunately, there are a number of great options on the free agent market in the coming offseason. Davante Adams would be a dream come true, but Adams will have his choice of suitors and will likely look to join a squad with a more proven quarterback (assuming he and Rodgers don’t re-up in Green Bay).
I believe the player the Eagles should target is just across the state of Pennsylvania. The Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster needs a change of scenery almost as bad as the Eagles need his services. Smith-Schuster hasn’t quite lived up to the hype as the heir apparent to Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh. He is less a number one threat and more of a 1-A, but he is a former Pro Bowler and is just 24 years old. 1A is exactly the role he would play opposite DeVonta Smith in Philly. Both receivers would benefit eachother by keeping defenses honest, exploiting single coverage or forcing double coverage to open up Watkins and the other dynamic weapons on this offense.
The mix of Goedert (along with intriguing young 6’7” behemoth Tyree Jackson), Smith, Smith-Schuster and Watkins would rival just about any group of pass catchers in the league.
#5. Bring Back Jordan Howard as a Workhorse RB
Jalen Hurts has played the best ball of his career over the past month. The Eagles seem poised to make a run. The biggest change? Nick Sirianni has finally started calling running plays.
The Eagles have a deep stable of running backs between rookie Kenneth Gainwell, speedster Boston Scott, starter Miles Sanders (returning to action this week), and one of this year’s most pleasant surprises, veteran Jordan Howard.
Howard worked his way from the practice squad into game action while Sanders was out with an ankle injury. He has looked better each of the past three weeks. He rushed for two touchdowns against the Lions on Halloween and picked up 83 yards on just 12 carries for nearly seven yards per carry last week against Denver. He is the only bruising power back on the team’s depth chart and is by far the most capable blocker.
Let’s not forget, Howard is a former Pro Bowler who has two 1,000+ yard seasons on his resume. He just turned 27 and seems to be the healthiest and most productive he has been since the peak of his Chicago tenure.
Even with Sanders returning, the Eagles should keep Howard as an integral part of the offense. He can be a workhorse power back to complement Sanders’ athletic, finesse game. This strategy has worked well with Howard and Boston Scott filling in for the past three weeks, and Sanders is an even more explosive speed back than Scott. Howard, making his case for a second chance in the league, can be re-signed on a team friendly deal.
A combination of a Howard, a healthy Sanders, and Jalen Hurts should be a terrifying rushing attack. This will be particularly true as the offensive line (namely Brandon Brooks and Jordan Mailata) gets healthy heading into next year.
A Bright Future
After a dramatic fall from grace that pushed Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz out of town, Howie Roseman and company seem to have stumbled their way into a highly effective, short-term rebuild. They have their quarterback, he has weapons, and they have talent on the offensive and defensive lines. With three first-round picks and cap room to play with, they may just be in the perfect position to fill the remaining holes left on the roster during the 2022 offseason.
If the Eagles play their cards right, they can return to form as a perennial playoff team as early as 2022.
More to come from Philly.