It will be a changing of the guard on September 12th as the Philadelphia Eagles begin their 2021 campaign under new head coach Nick Sirianni. Most importantly, it will also be the first year Jalen Hurts will start the season as QB1 for the Eagles. Entering his second year in the NFL, Hurts will be tasked with running Sirianni’s offense and trying to significantly improve upon last year’s 4-11-1 record.
With youth, comes hope
Currently, the 2021 Philadelphia Eagles are an enigma. The franchise was infused with youth this past offseason – both players and coaches. The Eagles new head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator are all 40 years old or younger.
Sirianni, 40, takes over the reins after Doug Pederson was fired. He was the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts last year. This is his first stint as a head coach. Offensive coordinator, Shane Steichen, 36, was previously the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. Jonathan Gannon, 38, is the new defensive coordinator, replacing Jim Schwartz. This is his first coordinator’s job. He has worked his way up after being an assistant coach for the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans, and Atlanta Falcons.
Their roster is ranked as the 19th youngest in the league (25.9 years old). While this is only slightly younger than last year’s average (26.0 years old), on the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles have become significantly younger at the skill positions. Quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receiver Jalen Reagor are entering their second year. Heisman Trophy winner and prized first round pick, wide receiver DeVonta Smith is lacing his cleats up for his rookie year. Running back Miles Sanders is the elder statesman of the bunch and he is only entering his third year. So, will this youth translate into success?
What to expect
Heading into the season, the Eagles have more questions than they do answers. In the preseason, the starters rarely played and the backups did not look all that impressive. The Eagles held joint practices with both the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Several accounts had the Eagles “winning” both of those sessions. However, attaching any significance to such claims would be silly. Heading into the season opener against the Falcons, no one can be sure what to expect.
However, Broad + Liberty is willing to take the plunge and we can boldly say that we expect the Eagles to be an exciting football team this year – much more so than they were in 2020. With a first-year head coach and a second-year quarterback, Broad + Liberty anticipates a young offense to be exciting and score a lot of points but experience their fair share of growing pains.
From a personnel perspective, Jalen Hurts has the potential to be a dynamic player. He is an athletic quarterback who can make plays with his arms and his legs. Arguably, Hurts has the ability to be as exciting as previous Eagles quarterbacks Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, and Randall Cunningham. And, Hurts will have more offensive weapons to work with than both McNabb and Cunningham did – especially during both of their first years as full-time starting quarterbacks.
At running back, the Eagles have a solid rotation of players but Miles Sanders is the starter. He is fast, quick, and is a breakaway threat to score a touchdown anytime he touches the football. Last year he had three touchdown runs of 70 yards or more – the first running back in eight years to do so. In just his third year, he already has achieved three of the top nine longest rushing plays in the history of the franchise. He also earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last year, making him the first Eagles running back to do so since LeSean McCoy. Broad + Liberty feels that Sanders can become one of the top running backs in the league if Sirianni’s offense feeds him the ball more than Pederson did a year ago. Also, keep an eye out for rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell. The 5th round pick out of Memphis can become a valuable weapon as a receiver out of the backfield.
At wide receiver, the Eagles have speed – a lot of speed. Second-year player Jalen Reagor, who was highly touted as a speedster upon his arrival last year, hopes to rebound from a disappointing rookie year. His lack of production was made all the worse given that the player drafted directly after him, turned out to be NFL Rookie of the Year Justin Jefferson. Jefferson set an NFL rookie record with 1400 yards receiving; Reagor had slightly less than 400 yards.
At the other wideout position, all eyes will be on the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, DeVonta Smith. Coming from the University of Alabama, Smith was a dominant receiver and considered by some to be the best wide receiver in the most recent NFL Draft. If the Eagles are going to have any success this year, Smith must have a major impact. However, needs to have closer to Justin Jefferson’s stats than Jalen Reagor’s production. Since Hurts and Smith were teammates at Alabama, a lot of the Eagles’ potential success is riding on the hopes the two can rekindle their gridiron success in Philadelphia.
The return of the veterans
Despite the influx of youth at the skill positions, the Eagles will also have several key veterans returning. Fan favorites such as Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Brandon Graham, and Fletcher Cox will return for the 2021 campaign. They are all members of what should be some of the better offensive and defensive lines in the NFL. Cox and Kelce are perennial Pro-Bowlers. Both are veterans and will undoubtedly be in the Eagles Hall of Fame when they hang up their cleats. Brandon Graham earned his first Pro Bowl selection last year and Lane Johnson is a three-time Pro Bowler.
Long-time Tight End and Super Bowl hero Zach Ertz is also back. After a tumultuous offseason between Ertz and the front office that will rival most “will they or won’t they” couples of romantic comedies, Ertz is looking to vindicate himself after an injury-plagued, subpar 2020 season. He will be a veteran presence for Hurts and a dynamic safety net for the second-year quarterback. The Hurts-Ertz combo has the potential to be one of the best offensive weapons in the league.
The new bodyguard?
Jason Peters has been a staple on the Eagles offensive line since Andy Reid was head coach. He was one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL during his time with the Eagles and, most likely, is a future Hall of Famer. Now, for the first time since Donovan McNabb was quarterback, the Eagles will have a brand-new starter at left tackle on opening day.
Mailata’s ascension is a success story in its own right. A seventh-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mailata beat out 2019 first round draft pick Andre Dillard for the starting spot. Mailata is tasked with protecting Hurts and will be the new guy on a veteran offensive line. All signs point to Mailata being a successful replacement for Peters.
Rocks, papers, scissors, Sirianni
Super Bowl winning coach Doug Pederson was exiled after the disastrous 2020 season and replaced by Nick Sirianni. Little was known about him other than that he was Colts Head Coach Frank Reich’s offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts. Sirianni is already off to a rough start in Philadelphia. He was criticized and mocked after his introductory press conference in which many people say he looked nervous and sounded unprepared.
Later, Sirianni raised eyebrows again, when he stated that he would challenge potential draft picks to games of “rocks, paper, scissors” to gauge their competitive nature. His unconventional nature and child-like enthusiasm drew the ire of many Philadelphia sports fans and pundits. He has seemingly rebounded since his rough start and, so far, appears to have the respect of the team.
Sirianni remains the Eagles’ biggest question mark. How the team performs and responds to him will be his biggest challenge as head coach. He was the offensive coordinator for Frank Reich’s Colts. Now he will be the man in charge. Can he actually lead the entire team?
Sirianni’s savvy will dictate the Eagles success. He has stated how he will tailor the offense to the strengths of the players he has on his roster – a task which his predecessor did not always appear to do. He has also emphasized that he will be committed to the running game, which would allow him to reap the rewards of Miles Sanders’ talent. In turn, this could significantly help Jalen Hurts’ development as quarterback. Ultimately, Sirianni’s success will hinge on whether he is able to coach up and develop Hurts. If he is, the Eagles should soar. If not, it will be a bumpy road ahead.
The 2021 Season and the NFC (L)East
A new coach, a new quarterback, a young coaching staff, and a dynamic rookie wide receiver should make for an exciting season. Most “experts” have the Eagles destined for a last place division finish. However, as CBS analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said, the Eagles could surprise people. Broad + Liberty shares Romo’s enthusiasm and anticipates the Eagles dramatically improving from their 2020 record.
Last year, the NFC East was perhaps the weakest division in football. If that holds true again, the Eagles could perhaps steal the division away from the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and defending champions Washington Football Team. Broad + Liberty believes that while the Eagles will improve, they will not win the division, or make the playoffs this year.
With the NFL switching to a 17-game schedule, the Birds will finish somewhere between 7-9 wins during the season. In the most optimistic of circumstances, the Eagles’ ceiling will be 10 wins and sneaking into the playoffs. However, all things considered, I think the Eagles will finish 2021 with a 7-10 record.
When evaluating my prediction for their record, I took several things into consideration. First, is the history of Jeffrey Lurie’s first year with coaches. Lurie has been owner and had (inherited) Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes, Andy Reid, Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson. The average win total of each of those coaches’ first year comes slightly under 8 wins. Rhodes and Kelly had the highest amount their first years – each with 10 wins. Kotite and Pederson each had 7. Reid had 5.
Next, consider this year’s roster versus 2020. There is more talent on the roster this year. There is also the expected growth of rookies from last year’s campaign. Adding in the increase in talent and the anticipated growth, that means they will definitely improve on last year’s total of 4 wins.
Combining both of these facts, 7 wins seems appropriate. The Eagles have a tough start to the schedule and a 1-5 record after the first six games is a distinct possibility. They play the two teams that faced off in last year’s Super Bowl, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs. Barring a miracle, those will be losses.
They also play at Dallas in week 3. Dallas has a better team than the Eagles and with it being an away game, this should also be a loss. The remaining three games are against the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, and Carolina Panthers. San Francisco is much improved and was in the Super Bowl in 2020, but they play the Eagles in Philadelphia. The Falcons and Panthers aren’t very good but they are on the road. This is where one of the Eagles’ wins will come from. I anticipate a 1-5 or 2-4 start to the season. If, by chance, the Eagles do better than this, they will likely make the playoffs.
A New Hope
While 2021 will not be the most successful season in Eagles history, it should provide a solid foundation for the Eagles to build on. If the offensive line can stay healthy, Eagles fans should see solid development from Jalen Hurts at quarterback. If Sirianni shows he is a good coach, can manage a game, and coach up and develop players, then this team will have a bright future. This year should be a successful building block for future success. If not, Hurts will most likely not be back at quarterback in 2022 and the rebuild will start anew.
Chris Tremoglie has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, and National Review. He recently completed his honors thesis on “Did Glasnost and Perestroika Cause a Rise in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in the Post-Soviet Balkans?” @cwtremo.