When the Eagles limped into a Nov. 14 visit to Denver with a 3-6 record and seemingly little hope for a playoff berth, media and fans had already decided new head coach Nick Sirianni — he of the rock-paper-scissors games with draft prospects — was a bust, and the organizational leadership tandem of owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman had once again proved itself unworthy of trust.
But thanks to a pillow-soft late schedule that included nary a playoff team, the Birds closed with a 6-2 binge (before a meaningless blowout loss to Dallas) and somehow earned a wild-card berth. Now, with Sirianni safer in his position, and QB Jalen Hurts assured of at least one more season to prove himself as a long-term answer, Philadelphia tries to build on its playoff season in the NFL's most dysfunctional division with an imperfect roster and plenty of questions.
Hurts has supporters throughout Eagleland, and his 2021 performance was solid. He completed 61.3 percent of his passes, had 16 TD throws to nine picks and ran for 10 scores. If he takes a step forward in '22, it's likely the Birds will keep him. However, if he continues to struggle with late reads and doesn't improve his accuracy, it's possible the team will use one of its two 2023 first-rounders to draft a replacement. Hurts is charismatic and has strong leadership qualities. But he still hasn't proven that he can be a long-term answer at quarterback.
The Eagles made a strong move to support him by trading with Tennessee for wideout A.J. Brown, who has racked up 2,995 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns in three seasons. He will team with last year's first-round choice, DeVonta Smith (64 catches, 14.3-yard average, five TDs), who showed big-time potential. After that, there isn't too much. Quez Watkins (43 catches, 15.0-yard average) had a solid year, but he scored only once. Dallas Goedert is a reliable tight end target, and he can get downfield. But 2020 first-rounder Jalen Reagor (33, 9.1, 2) has been a sizeable disappointment, and no other Eagles receiver caught 10 passes last year. The Eagles inked former Colt — and Sirianni favorite — Zach Pascal to a one-year deal. The signing of Olympic hurdler Devon Allen, a former deep threat at Oregon who hasn't played football since 2016, could be interesting.
The Eagles' ground game has plenty of potential, particularly with Hurts' ability to challenge defenses with his legs. But Miles Sanders (754 yards, 5.5-yard average, 0 TDs) has missed a total of nine games the past two seasons and hasn't been a full-time, top-tier back. Kenneth Gainwell showed promise as a rookie last year, particularly as a receiver, and Boston Scott is back as an all-purpose reserve who scored seven times on the ground last year.
There was much rejoicing throughout the kingdom when center Jason Kelce decided to return for another year. The offensive line linchpin is one of the league's best and has become one of the most popular Eagles of all time. His fellow starters are strong. Right tackle Lane Johnson continues to be steady, while Jordan Mailata began to reach his substantial potential on the left side last year. Second-year man Landon Dickerson has plenty of potential at guard, with steady Isaac Seumalo at the other interior position.
The Eagles were next to last in sacks per game last year, contributing greatly to the team's 28 TD passes surrendered and a league-worst 69.4 percent completion rate allowed. Philadelphia took a step toward improving its pass rush by signing outside linebacker and former Temple Owl Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million contract. Reddick had 23.5 sacks over the past two years with Carolina and Arizona.
The Birds also re-signed end Derek Barnett, who has disappointed since the team drafted him, and re-upped veteran tackle Fletcher Cox. Cox can still be an occasional force in the middle, but his production has dipped over the past few seasons. The Eagles are hoping Brandon Graham's torn Achilles allows him to return to the form that produced eight sacks in 2020, while Josh Sweat (7.5 sacks) emerged as an outside force last year. Veteran tackle Javon Hargrave is a steady inside piece who had a career-high 7.5 sacks last year and earned a Pro Bowl bid. Philadelphia drafted Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, who has great speed and size but might be a situational player due to conditioning issues.
After weakside linebacker Kyzir White had his best year in the NFL — 144 tackles with the Chargers — the Eagles signed him to a reasonable, $3 million ($5M with incentives) one-year deal that could end up being quite a shrewd move. He joins a trio of starters that includes Reddick and middle man T.J. Edwards, who finished second on the team last year with 130 stops. If third-round MLB Nakobe Dean (shoulder) can stay healthy, he could be a full-time standout on the second level.
The pass rush was a big reason why the Eagles struggled against enemy QBs last year, but the secondary came up with only 12 interceptions. Veteran corner Darius Slay had three and defended nine passes, a step up from 2020 but well off his 2017 performance, when he picked off eight and defended 26, both league highs. Second-year man Zech McPhearson and veteran Avonte Maddox are other corners of note, and the team signed former Giants Pro Bowler James Bradberry in May.
After Anthony Harris had 72 tackles last year at strong safety, the Eagles re-signed him for another year. The team also signed former 49er Jaquiski Tartt to a one-year deal in mid-June. Harris and Tartt will likely start on the back line with K'Von Wallace and Marcus Epps behind them.
This was not a strong area for the Birds last year, and it might not be too much better this year. The placekicker situation is in good shape with Jake Elliott, who made all 44 of his extra points last year and converted 30-of-33 field-goal attempts, including 13-of-16 from beyond 40 yards. He is reliable and has a strong leg that can be counted on to 55 yards — and sometimes beyond. Elliott's long last year was 58.
The punting situation wasn't quite as impressive. Rookie Arryn Siposs averaged a sturdy 43.9 yards per boot, but his net of 38.7 was not too inspiring. The Eagles' return men weren't all that productive, either. The much-maligned Reagor did not distinguish himself on punts (7.3-yard average) or kickoffs (21.3). Meanwhile, the Birds' coverage units allowed rivals to average 9.4 yards on punt returns and 26.1 on kicks.
Hurts is the key to another playoff run. If he continues his development and becomes a top-shelf QB, Philadelphia is in very good shape, especially with the improved collection of weapons around him. If he continues to struggle against better opponents, then it could be time to move on at the most important position. The addition of Brown helps the receiver group considerably, and if Sanders can stay healthy, the ground game should be fine. If he can't, the Eagles will be somewhat one-dimensional. The addition of Reddick and the return of Graham should fortify the pass rush, which will help the secondary. Still, the Eagles' defensive backfield needs some upgrades. And it would be good if the special teams took a step forward, particularly the return and coverage units.
It's good for the Eagles that the NFC East is in such flux. New York and Washington have stumbled around, and the Cowboys continue to underachieve. Still, Philadelphia can't depend on its neighborhood's low profile forever. It needs better quarterback play and improved defense against the pass — among other things. Last year was surprising, but it is unwise to expect a big jump forward in 2022.