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Philadelphia Eagles: 2021 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

Philly is pressing restart, handing the keys to head coach Nick Siranni and quarterback Jalen Hurts

Those fans who were disgusted by last season’s 4–11–1 performance and demanded change certainly got it during the offseason. Just three years removed from a Super Bowl win, the franchise underwent an upheaval that has dramatically changed its personality, firing head coach Doug Pederson and trading quarterback Carson Wentz, who was supplanted late last season by rookie Jalen Hurts.

Other assorted veterans, including Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson, were jettisoned, and the team stepped into its transition with plenty of work to do. Leading the charge — at least on the field — is Nick Sirianni, who spent three years as Indianapolis’ offensive coordinator. He’ll preside over a roster that has plenty of holes and is unlikely to produce too many wins this season.

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OFFENSE

As the season dawns, it is Hurts’ team. The Eagles signed Joe Flacco, but Hurts is the clear No. 1. During his four-plus games as a regular, Hurts demonstrated the ability to run well and showed promise in the passing game. But he completed just 52 percent of his throws, and it’s difficult to tell how much of that was due to his own shortcomings, those of the Eagles’ weak receiving corps or the fact that he was behind a porous offensive line. Hurts gained trust in the locker room almost immediately and showed a sustained willingness to be coached. Now, he must develop into a reliable NFL starter. New coordinator Shane Steichen comes to Philly after helping Justin Herbert become the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season in Los Angeles. He must take advantage of the skills Hurts demonstrated when he was a Heisman finalist at Oklahoma in 2019.

There is reason to think there will be something of a step forward from the Birds’ pass catchers, who accounted for just 2,082 receiving yards last year, third worst in the NFL. The primary source of hope is first-round draft pick DeVonta Smith, the Alabama Heisman Trophy winner and big-play machine. Though slight, Smith has the quickness and ability to get open. He will elevate the receiver room the moment he walks in the door.

Second-year man Jalen Reagor, last year’s first-round draft pick, averaged a mere 12.8 yards on his 31 catches and scored just once in 2020. He needs to be better. Travis Fulgham (38 catches, 14.2 yards per reception, four TDs) looked for a while like a remarkable discovery, but his production sagged late. Greg Ward is a reliable slot receiver. After that, there isn’t much. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a second-rounder in 2019, has just 14 catches in his first two seasons. Second-year men Quez Watkins and John Hightower combined to catch only 17 passes last year.

Dallas Goedert has caught 104 passes and eight touchdowns the past two seasons, emerging at tight end to the point that the Eagles are moving on from Zach Ertz.

Miles Sanders rushed for 867 yards (5.3 per carry) despite missing four games. A 1,000-yard season is on his horizon. Boston Scott is a nice change-of-pace option who added 25 catches out of the backfield. Fifth-round pick Kenneth Gainwell might be an asset out of the backfield as well; he caught 51 passes for 610 yards last season for Memphis.

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Last year’s offensive line was ravaged by injury to the point where the Eagles used an NFL-record 14 different starting combinations in 16 games. Three-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce remains the key. He was a Pro Bowler last year and is tough and smart, as well as a great leader. The Birds are hoping right tackle Lane Johnson will be free of the ankle troubles that plagued him last year, and they need right guard Brandon Brooks to be fully recovered from the torn Achilles tendon that cost him the ’20 campaign. Isaac Seumalo is solid at guard, but the left tackle spot is unsettled. Andre Dillard should return from the torn biceps he suffered before last season and battle Jordan Mailata for the starting spot. Second-round pick Landon Dickerson can play center or guard, and if healthy — he had four major injuries in college, including an ACL tear in both knees — he could be a starter inside by season’s end.

Philadelphia Eagles 2021 Schedule

Athlon Sports' 2021 Pro Football Magazine

DEFENSE

New DC Jonathan Gannon must improve a unit that finished 19th in total defense and was particularly susceptible against the run (125.8 yards per game allowed).

Tackle Fletcher Cox is coming off his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl season, a year that saw him register 6.5 sacks and force at least one fumble for the seventh straight season. Cox will turn 31 in December, but he appears to still have plenty of juice as he continues to lead the unit. Javon Hargrave is a steady complement to Cox inside. Hassan Ridgeway and T.Y. McGill are journeymen who can provide depth. Third-round pick Milton Williams from Louisiana Tech could find his way into the DT rotation or serve as a situational pass rusher.

Brandon Graham has recorded at least eight sacks in three of the past four seasons, including eight in 2020, and he also continues to excel as a run-stopper. At 33, he’s still playing at a high level. The same level of confidence cannot be expressed about Derek Barnett, who in four years with the team has not displayed the kind of steady production to warrant his first-round status in 2017. Barnett had 5.5 sacks in 13 games last year and has yet to play a full season. The third member of the end rotation is Josh Sweat, who posted six sacks and nine total tackles for a loss last year. He isn’t a star, but he’s a solid fill-in.

With Gannon on the scene, the team added former Viking Eric Wilson this spring on a one-year deal. The 2017 UDFA broke out in 2020 with 122 tackles and three interceptions after Minnesota Pro Bowler Anthony Barr went down with an early-season injury. He’ll play alongside another 2020 breakout linebacker: Alex Singleton led the Eagles with 120 tackles — 115 more than he had as a rookie in 2019 and 46 more than any other Bird last season. T.J. Edwards (70 tackles in 2020) has rotational value.

The Eagles signed Darius Slay before last season to be a fixture at one corner, but he intercepted just one pass and allowed opposing QBs to complete throws 76.7 percent of the time. Avonte Maddox showed potential in 2019 with 10 passes defended in six starts and Philadelphia signed former Kansas City and Pittsburgh starting corner Steven Nelson to a one-year deal right before the start of training camp. Fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson has the potential to help in the slot. Reliable safety Rodney McLeod returns for a sixth season in Philadelphia. The Eagles added another Minnesota free agent to fill the other safety spot, signing Anthony Harris following a season that saw him record a career-high 104 tackles and break up seven passes.

SPECIALISTS

Kicker Jake Elliott made just 14-of-19 field goals and somehow missed two of three from inside 30 yards. He also missed a pair of extra points. The Eagles expect better in 2021. Arryn Siposs, who has never punted in an NFL game, is the early candidate to replace Cameron Johnston, who signed with Houston. Siposs averaged 44 yards per punt in his two-year career at Auburn (2018-19). Reagor showed potential returning punts, taking one of his four tries back for a 73-yard score against Green Bay. He’ll battle Ward for those duties. Scott is a serviceable kick returner.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Eagles hung around the NFC East race until December — because the division was that bad. They can’t expect the same thing to happen this season, which means they might get left behind while Sirianni attempts to fix the roster. Smith will be an intriguing addition to a receiver group that desperately needs a jolt. But if the offensive line cannot stay healthy, Smith may not have much of a chance to shine. It may fall to Hurts and Sanders to carry the offense with their legs. The defense isn’t awful, but if the front four doesn’t register a pile of sacks, Philadelphia could be extremely vulnerable to the pass. There are depth problems across the roster.

Prediction: 4th in NFC East