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Eagles draft preview: Taking stock of the quarterback options

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 12/25/2021 EJ Smith, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Part 4 of a weekly series previewing the NFL draft.

It’s hard to unpack the Eagles’ offseason needs without at some point addressing Jalen Hurts’ one-year audition as the franchise quarterback and whether he’s earned more time.

Hurts has demonstrated he can be at the center of an efficient, winning offense in the league. He’s also struggled as a passer on multiple occasions, showing some problems with accuracy and anticipation. The latter is something he can — and should — improve on with experience, but just how much improvement remains to be seen. Whether he makes a leap in that area could very well determine if he becomes a proven starter in the league, with the Eagles or elsewhere, or something short of that.

If the Eagles come to the conclusion that Hurts isn’t their long-term answer at a position they value so highly, what are their options?

The team could target a veteran quarterback seeking a trade, whether it be Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, or Aaron Rodgers. The Eagles did their due diligence on Watson in the offseason, but the Houston Texans quarterback is under criminal investigation and is being sued in civil court by 22 women for sexual misconduct/assault.

Unlike Watson, Wilson hasn’t requested a trade, at least not publicly, but he’s also been linked to the Eagles in the event that he wants out of Seattle.

“I think, if he’s available, they’d be very interested and they should be,” former Eagles GM Joe Banner told the Inquirer last week. “If they get him, assuming they can fix this line, I think they’d do very, very well with him.”

Joe Banner: Eagles should start Jalen Hurts, though he’s unlikely to be their long-term QB answer

If the veteran market doesn’t shake out, it’s a middling year for quarterback draft prospects. This year’s class has a few first-round prospects, but it’s not close to last year’s, which had five quarterbacks taken inside the top 15. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is doing his due diligence on at least some of the quarterback prospects; he went to see Pittsburgh star Kenny Pickett and North Carolina’s Sam Howell play on the other side of the state last month.

Pickett has been a quick riser up draft boards this season and is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns while completing 67.2% of his passes. He’s a well-rounded prospect with plenty of starting experience in an offense that asks its quarterback to go through progressions.

Other first-rounders include Mississippi’s Matt Corral and Liberty’s Malik Willis. Corral has the requisite level of arm talent and athleticism to go along with good production in the Southeastern Conference to make him a decent projection to the NFL. Willis is far more of a boom-or-bust proposition. He’s a strong-armed, athletic quarterback, but his inconsistent play paired with a suspect level of competition is a valid concern.

Given the risk that comes with an unheralded group of quarterback prospects, the Eagles might be better off punting on this year’s class and riding with Hurts for another season.

Looking ahead to the draft

-Part 1: A ‘transformational’ opportunity

-Part 2: Ranking the Eagles’ defensive needs

-Part 3: What is the Eagles’ bigger need, O-line or WR?

-Part 5: Carson Wentz pick watch

- Part 6: Who the analysts think the Eagles will be watching

Hurts is under contract through 2023 for a very affordable number ($1.64 million next year and $1.93 million the following season), and at the very least he has shown he can be part of a successful offense, albeit in a limited sample size.

There’s some urgency to find an elite quarterback or a top prospect while the Eagles have an advantage in draft capital. They’re likely one more Colts game with Carson Wentz in the lineup away from securing their third first-rounder in the 2022 draft, giving them the chance to outbid almost anyone to trade up for a quarterback or to trade for a veteran.

If they do want to run it back with Hurts in 2022, the urgency created by those picks could be mitigated by trading one for a future first-rounder.

“Right now they have four firsts over the next two years,” Banner said. “Don’t be shocked if what they do is turn that into two firsts this year and two firsts next year and they don’t pick a quarterback this year even though they still have doubts about Hurts. If they don’t like what’s available, they’ll give him another full year to prove what he can do and they still have some ammunition to go get a quarterback the year after if he doesn’t live up to their hopes.”

“It’s not going to be a binary choice,” Banner added. “It’s going to be a complicated series of ideas and possibilities that they’re going to have to choose from.”

Projecting the quarterback class two years out is an extremely dangerous game — Oklahoma backup Spencer Rattler was in the running for the top quarterback in the 2023 draft going into this college football season — but two current Heisman hopefuls (Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud) will both be draft eligible next year.

There is one pitfall worth mentioning, though. The Eagles’ draft assets are starting to look considerably worse than they did a month ago.

Going into Week 9, the Eagles were projected to have three picks inside the top 10 of the draft, but all three of those picks are trending in the wrong direction for the team.

The Miami Dolphins have won five straight games after starting the year 1-7, going from a top-five pick to the 13th pick if the season ended today. The Colts are also making a playoff push, winning four of their last five games. Indy does have a tough remaining slate of games, though.

Combine Miami and Indianapolis’ recent success with the Eagles’ resurgence into the playoff picture, the team has seen its assets depreciate in the last month. If one or two of the teams make the playoffs, they’d be a playoff run away from seeing a pick once projected in the top 10 slip all the way into the late-20s.

The real NFL power rankings, using analytics that matter most

While a higher pick is clearly more favorable, there are some disagreements about the actual value of picking 10th versus 20th in some circles.

“It’s stupid to think it doesn’t matter and that everybody who is drafting doesn’t want the higher pick, even if it’s by one spot,” Banner said. “I will tell you, the stats show that the likelihood of hitting on a player 1-through-10 is only a little bit higher than the chances of hitting on a player 11-through-20.”

Can they still get a future first-rounder if they’re offering a pick in the late-20s?

“Once you get to 25 or later, you possibly can move back a little bit and get like third- or fourth-round picks,” Banner said. “But to get a future first, you have to trade out of the first round and you’re going to need some team that really badly wants to get into the first round. Probably for a quarterback, and it has to be one that you don’t like, so a lot has to come together. If you’re at 15, the chances are pretty high that if you want to find a trade partner for next year, you can. If you get into the 20s, now it’s harder, but it’s possible.”

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