It’s game week!
The Eagles will open their 2021 season in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon.
But before we start to look forward, let’s take one more look back at training camp.
In total, the Eagles had 17 practices in training camp — 13 against themselves and 4 joint sessions — as well as 3 preseason games. I got to watch every minute of the action and learned quite a bit about this football team.
Here are 11 things I learned this summer:
1. Jalen Hurts is a real leader
I was impressed by Jalen Hurts the football player this summer, but I was more impressed by Jalen Hurts the leader. It’s clear that Hurts’ teammates continue to gravitate toward him. That process started last year when he was a second-round pick. It wasn’t his fault the Eagles had an incumbent starter and Hurts never acted like a backup. He always acted like a starter … and now he is.
A lot of the things we saw from Hurts this summer, his teammates began to see from him as a rookie. He’s poised, he’s in control, he’s the leader of that offensive unit. He doesn’t do it with a rah-rah style, but instead controls with a quiet and unmistakable confidence.
To be clear, I still have questions about whether or not Hurts will be the Eagles’ long-term solution at quarterback. And, to be fair, the Eagles seem to question it as well. But Hurts performed well this summer on and off the field. A lot was made about Nick Sirianni’s refusal to name Hurts the starter for a while but that hasn’t been questioned among Hurts’ teammates. He’s the guy and they’re following him.
2. Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat ready to break out
The Eagles will no longer be in Jim Schwartz’s ultra-aggressive front in 2021 but make no mistake about it, the defensive line is going to be the motor that powers this new defense too. In particular, Hargrave and Sweat are coming off tremendous summers and both appear poised to have big seasons.
They’re in slightly different situations, but Hargrave and Sweat could each topple their highest single-season sack totals of 6 1/2 and 6, respectively. Hargrave has already been paid — he signed a three-year, $39 million deal last offseason — but Sweat is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Sweat could earn some serious money if he puts together the kind of season some folks think he will.
With the potential from Hargrave and Sweat, this Eagles’ DL has a very high ceiling. They also still have Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Milton Williams.
3. Sirianni’s offense will look different
We’ve gotten used to watching Doug Pederson’s offense over the last five years, but Sirianni’s offense is going to look different. Here are some things I’ve learned about it over the last month:
• There will be an emphasis on getting the ball into the hands of playmakers and letting them make plays. That seems obvious but Sirianni believes that a big play can come from a short pass too, not just deep balls. So look for shallow crossers, bubble screens and halfback screens. The screen game in particular — and throwing to backs in general — should be a big part of this offense. The Eagles have the line to make those plays work.
• Expect to see some more pre-snap motion and misdirection looks. There were a few times during camp where the motions got me and I lost the ball. That’s the goal.
• This offense will utilize Hurts’ strengths. Even if Hurts isn’t keeping the ball as a runner, the threat of his legs will be utilized. We will see some read-option and RPOs in the scheme, even though Sirianni admitted that’s not his speciality.
• The wide receiver positions will be interchangeable at times. We won’t see outside receivers moving inside all the time but it will happen and a lot of it will be matchup dependent.
4. Miles Sanders’ drops are troubling
To be clear, Sanders looked strong and explosive as a runner all training camp, but we can’t overlook his drops. There were too many of them and after a season where he dropped more passes than any running back in the league, that’s not a good sign.
Sanders has worked hard on his hands but still struggled at times with them this summer. He might eventually start losing some snaps to guys like Kenny Gainwell or Boston Scott in clear passing situations. But the Eagles might also have to live with the knowledge that Sanders might drop a pass here or there. To be fully utilized as a running back in this system, Sanders needs to be able to leave the backfield and become a receiver. To avoid that because of his struggles with drops would be to greatly minimize his potential in this offense.
5. The Eagles improved at DB and LB
The Eagles’ two biggest weaknesses in recent years have been at cornerback and linebacker. They have taken great strides to improve both of those positions. A few big moves this offseason to sign Eric Wilson, Anthony Harris and Steve Nelson will help. All three are here on one-year deals, but they’re all young enough that they could stick around beyond this year if they have good seasons.
The Eagles are in this weird rebuilding mode but they’re also trying to remain competitive this year. And these three players will go a long way. All three looked very solid during training camp. That’s not to say they’re going to be Pro Bowl players but they should be improvements.
Wilson is better than Nate Gerry. While Wilson’s strength isn’t as a run stopper, he’s the Eagles’ best linebacker in coverage and should really help in that area.
Anthony Harris is a very different player than Jalen Mills, but it’s probably fair to say he’s an upgrade too. If Harris had been a free agent after 2019, he probably would have gotten a much bigger contract.
And the addition of Nelson might be the most important of the bunch. He’ll be a nice upgrade over Avonte Maddox as that CB2 position and it also allows the Eagles to move Maddox into the slot, where he’s a better fit.
6. Jonathan Gannon isn’t lying about being multiple
A lot of coaches talk about being multiple but all indications are that with Gannon it’s not just talk. One of the most telling moments of this summer was when Gannon brought up the 2020 Rams on his own. Last year, the Rams were extremely multiple under DC Brandon Staley and it was enough for Staley to get a head coaching gig.
So this summer we saw a bit of everything from Gannon. Three-man fronts, four-man fronts, zone coverage, man coverage, the addition of this new hybrid SAM position. It’s ambitious, but Gannon’s defense is going to be very dependent on opponent and game plan.
Here’s what Gannon said back on July 29 when asked about using 3-4 and 4-3 fronts:
“If our players can do it, yes. I would say that if you look at the No. 1 defense in the league last year, the L.A. Rams, they had by far the most different personnel groupings and the highest amount of different fronts.
“Not to say that we're going to do that, but I do think that versatility in your front and coverage makes it hard on the offense. We're going to do that. The other reason for that is to, again, trying to accentuate our guys' skill set to move them around a little bit because they present problems for the offense when you do that.”
7. Receivers have potential but are question marks
The Eagles have some talent at the wide receiver position but it’s mostly unproven and that’s a little scary. It’s a good thought to grow these receivers with Hurts, but we still don’t know how good any of them are going to be. All three starters are extremely young. DeVonta Smith is a rookie and Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins are second-year players.
I’m less concerned about Smith. Even though he dealt with a knee injury in camp, we saw how polished of a route runner he is and how mature his game is. He’ll be able to get open this year with his route running alone. He had a few uncharacteristic drops early in camp, but I expect him to have a big season.
I’m a little less convinced about Reagor and Watkins. That’s not to say they won’t be good; they certainly have talent. But it’s raw talent for now. Reagor had a disappointing rookie season and Watkins had a great camp but is a second-year sixth-round pick.
8. Sirianni will be forced into 12 personnel
Sirianni called it a good problem to have, but a good problem is still one to figure out. The Eagles still have Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and even though Sirianni said Ertz’s (somewhat surprising) presence on this roster won’t force him into 12 personnel more … that’s hard to believe.
Because if the Eagles are trying to get their five best skill players on the field, it’s hard to imagine that Ertz and Goedert don’t belong.
The problem part of this is that Sirianni would prefer to be an 11 personnel offense (three receivers) more often. But can the Eagles really justify having Watkins on the field over Ertz? That’s what it could boil down to at some moments.
I agree with Sirianni that having two good tight ends is a good problem to have. But he’s going to need to figure out how to divvy up playing time.
9. Strengths of this team are still the lines
This is by design. The Eagles want to build their teams around their two lines and this roster is no different. The clear strength of the defense is that line. And if the offensive line can stay healthy (big if) that’s the strength on that side of the ball.
On defense, the Eagles will have Graham, Cox, Hargrave, Barnett, Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan, Milton Williams, Hassan Ridgeway and T.Y. McGill rotating in and out.
On offense, the starting line of Jordan Mailata, Isaac Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson has the potential to be one of the best in the league. And they’re deeper this year too with Landon Dickerson, Nate Herbig, Jack Driscoll, Andre Dillard and Brett Toth on the bench. Dickerson and Driscoll aren’t healthy right now but they should be later this season.
10. Jordan Mailata won his position battle with ease
The biggest winner overall of training camp was Watkins, who went from a bubble player to a starter in a little over a month. But the biggest storyline heading into camp was the position battle between Mailata and Dillard.
Mailata won that battle in about a week.
The story of Mailata’s NFL journey ought to be a movie one day. This is a guy who didn’t know anything about American football a few years ago and now he’s a starting left tackle in the NFL. And he beat out a first-round pick to win his job. Incredible.
11. Eagles will enter 2021 healthier
This summer, the Eagles had short practices and emphasized the controlled joint practice environment over preseason games. A big reason for that was to keep the team healthy … and it worked.
The Eagles are entering 2021 much healthier than they were in 2020.
As a reminder, in last year’s opener, the Eagles were without many starters: Johnson (ankle), Sanders (hamstring), Barnett (hamstring), Hargrave (pec, hamstring), Alshon Jeffery (foot), Brooks (Achilles), Dillard (biceps).
We’ll see if Rodney McLeod is ready for this opener, but even if he’s not, the Eagles are going to be much healthier this year.
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