A year ago at this time, nothing was promised to Jalen Hurts. Not the Eagles’ starting quarterback job beyond the 2022 season. And certainly not a $51 million-a-year contract extension.
The Eagles made sure to hang on to multiple first-round picks in the April draft in case they decided Jalen wasn’t the long-term answer and needed to find another franchise quarterback candidate.
But Hurts proved he was the long-term answer. He improved by leaps and bounds last season, leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl and finishing as the runner-up to the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes for NFL MVP.
Hurts’ 2021-to-2022 night-and-day improvement was a testament to his relentless work ethic and his drive to be the best that he can be. Consider:
–He jumped from 28th to fourth in passer rating (101.6 from 87.2).
–His third-down completion percentage improved from 54.2 to 62.6.
–He finished third in yards per attempt (8.0) after finishing tied for 17th the season before (7.3)
–He improved from 12th to 5th in interception percentage (2.1 to 1.3).
–He made dramatic strides as a deep-ball thrower, improving from 19th to third in 20-plus-yard touchdown passes (4 to 11), 17th to third in yards per attempt on 20-plus-yard passes (12.2 to 14.7), and 19th to 10th in deep ball completion percentage (38.1 to 39.3).
–He was seventh in completions of 20 yards or more with 52 and finished tied for the most touchdown passes of 20 or more yards (13). In 2021, he had just 44 completions of 20-plus yards and only three TDs.
–Hurts also was a key component in an Eagles run game that finished fifth in rushing yards per game (147.6) and first in rushing touchdowns (32). He finished second in the league in rushing TDs (13) and third in rushing first downs (67). In the Eagles’ heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, Hurts had 10 rushing first downs to go with 304 passing yards.
All of which begs the question: What is Jalen Hurts’ ceiling? Did he reach it last season? Or is the best still yet to come?
Statistically, I think there are areas where he still can put up better numbers. One is completion percentage. Accuracy was one of the knocks against him when he was drafted, even though he had a 69.7 completion percentage as the Heisman runner-up to Joe Burrow in 2019.
He finished 36th in completion percentage in 2021, completing just 61.3 percent of his passes. Last year, his completion percentage jumped more than five points, to 66.5.
I seriously think he can make a run at 70 percent this season. Why? A couple of reasons. The first is his familiarity and chemistry with his receivers, particularly wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert.
The second is running backs Kenny Gainwell and newcomer D’Andre Swift. Eagles running backs caught a total of 48 passes last season, which was one of the lowest totals in the league. Gainwell finished 43rd among running backs in the league in targets (29) and Miles Sanders finished 46th (26).
Sanders, who signed with Carolina in the offseason, wasn’t a natural receiver. Gainwell is. He can line up anywhere in the formation. He is an excellent route runner.
And Swift is one of the league’s better pass-catching backs. Had 156 catches in 40 games in three seasons with Detroit. Finished 10th in targets among running backs last season (70) and ninth in yards per catch (8.1).
When Brian Johnson was a college offensive coordinator at Florida, Houston, and Utah, he liked to throw the ball to his running backs. With opposing defenses likely to be obsessed with trying to take away the Eagles’ outside receivers this season, I think Hurts is going to utilize his running backs in the passing game much more than he did last season and that’s going to translate to a higher completion percentage.
You started to see that a little bit in the Eagles’ three playoff games when Gainwell was targeted nine times and had seven catches.
I also think Hurts can improve as a red-zone passer. The Eagles finished third in red-zone offense last season, converting 68.0 percent of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. That was the Eagles’ best red-zone touchdown efficiency rate since at least 2003.
But their primary mode of travel in the red zone last season was the run, including Hurts. They had the second-highest red-zone run percentage (66.7) in the league. They ran the ball a league-high 122 times in the red zone and threw it just 61 times. Hurts finished 17th in red zone pass attempts (48). The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes was first with 123.
Hurts had an 88.7 passer rating in the red zone. Finished tied for 25th in red zone completion percentage (50.0, 24 for 48) and tied for 24th in red zone touchdown passes (9). No Eagles receiver had more than eight red-zone receptions (AJ Brown).
Opposing defensive coordinators, particularly the other three in the NFC East, spent a lot of time this offseason studying tape of the Eagles’ offense, trying to figure out how to better defend them this season.
One thing they’re going to do is focus on shutting down the Eagles’ run game in the red zone and make Hurts throw the ball more down there. Easier said than done since they still have to stop Hurts from taking off and running in the red zone. He was fifth in red-zone rushing attempts (41) last year and third in rushing TDs in the red zone (11). But I think you’ll see Hurts’ red-zone passing numbers jump this season.
Another area Hurts can get better at is ball security. He had the fifth-best interception percentage in the league last year, averaging an interception every 76.7 pass attempts. But his 18 fumbles over the last two seasons have been the seventh most among quarterbacks, ahead of only Justin Fields (28), Matt Ryan (26), Kyler Murray (21), Josh Allen (21), Trevor Lawrence (21) and Kirk Cousins (19).
His most infamous fumble, of course, was the one in the second quarter of the Super Bowl that Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton returned 36 yards for a touchdown.
A big reason for Hurts’ high fumble count is the type of offense the Eagles run – they’ve led the league in RPOs each of the last two seasons. RPOs can be conducive to an occasional dropped ball. There’s also the fact that Hurts ran the ball more than any other quarterback in the league last season (165 times).
The good news is the Eagles have only lost four of Hurts’ 18 fumbles over the last two years. But ball security clearly will be a high priority this season.
–Paul Domowitch has covered pro football for five decades and has been a Hall of Fame selector since 2001. You can reach Paul at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter/X at @pdomo.