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State of the NFC East: A look at the 2021 Philadelphia Eagles

Are the Eagles in tank mode?

Washington Football Team v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Doug Pederson era of the Philadelphia Eagles will forever be marked by a rapid rise to unprecedented heights (for the franchise, that is) followed by a very precipitous decline. After going 7-9 in his first season as head coach, Pederson’s Eagles went 13-3 and won their first Super Bowl ever with a backup quarterback.

What followed was two straight 9-7 seasons in which quarterback Carson Wentz gradually lost the support of the fan base and, according to some reports, his own team before the Eagles fell apart completely in 2020. A last place finish in the NFC East courtesy of a 4-12 record was punctuated by the surprise firing of Pederson a whole week after their season ended, resulting in a delayed hiring process. In the end, Philadelphia hired Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, and the move was met with mixed reviews.

But perhaps the bigger development at the time was the decision to retain general manager Howie Roseman, whose reportedly tense relationships with Pederson and owner Jeffrey Lurie had cast his job security into question. But it seems that has all been smoothed over, and Roseman looks to be in an even sturdier position now than when Pederson was shown the door.

Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation joined me to offer some insight on the Eagles’ offseason after such a rough transition, and the first thing he pointed me to was his article from earlier this month where he touched on the Roseman issue:

Barring some unequivocal disaster where the Eagles become the first team in NFL history to go 0-17, it doesn’t seem like Roseman is in any jeopardy of losing his job. Jeffrey Lurie already set the stage for lowered expectations by saying the Eagles are in a “real transition period” that is “not unlike 2016.” A key difference from 2016, however, was that Roseman was returning to power to fix the mess that Chip Kelly created.

This time, Roseman is being tasked with coming up with solutions to self-created problems. And it’s natural to think if he actually had the right answers, the Eagles wouldn’t be in the poor shape they currently find themselves in. In fairness to Roseman, he did successfully push the right buttons five years ago. He created a Super Bowl champion before and maybe he can do it again by getting this iteration of the Birds back on the right track.

But there’s reasonable concern that Lurie is just wasting time by being hesitant to move on from his longtime general manager. And even if the Eagles do show promise this year, to what extent can we truly trust a bright future is around the corner? What if another string of bad offseason(s) is simply waiting for us instead? Seeing Roseman ultimately skirt blame for the 2020 season was pretty frustrating. It’ll only be even more so if the Eagles continue to struggle and Lurie continues to hold Roseman above reproach.

That said, Gowton wasn’t completely negative on Roseman. For starters, he loves the Eagles’ first-round draft pick this year, Heisman winning receiver DeVonta Smith. Although Roseman and the Eagles owe a thank you to the Cowboys for allowing them to trade up and select Smith ahead of the Giants. Gowton loves the Smith pick so much that he singled out the rookie right away when I asked about the best move the team made this summer:

The sequence to draft DeVonta Smith. Trading down from No. 6 overall to No. 12 overall to pick up the Miami Dolphins’ 2022 first-round selection. Then moving back up to the Cowboys’ spot (!) at No. 10 to acquire a true future star. Yes, I’m very high on DeVonta, and I was before the Eagles drafted him.

But having that extra pick next year is really [huge]. The Eagles might have three first-round selections between their own pick, the Indianapolis Colts’ pick (if Carson Wentz trade conditions are met), and the Dolphins’ pick. Having that ammo could allow them to pivot to a new quarterback (Deshaun Watson? Russell Wilson) if Jalen Hurts struggles. Or, if Hurts excels, they’ll have prime picks to help build a strong foundation around him.

It’s easy to be excited about Smith as he’s the first wide receiver to win the Heisman in nearly three decades, and Smith was nearly unstoppable at Alabama. Gowton loves him so much that he even defaulted to him when talking about breakout player candidates:

Did I mention I like DeVonta Smith? I guess it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 10 overall pick excel in the NFL. But he legitimately has a chance to be the best rookie wide receiver in Eagles history. And their first 1,000 yard receiver since 2014.

As for more under-the-radar options … I’m not especially bullish on anyone. Maybe Jalen Reagor takes a step after disappointing as a rookie but I’ll believe when I see it. I do think there’s something there with Jalen Hurts, though not sure he tops out as a franchise quarterback. I could see a path where Derek Barnett has his long-awaited breakout year now that he’s finally entering a season healthy.

Of course, Hurts is the one who’s going to command the most attention. Having Smith and Jalen Reagor helps, but Jalen Hurts is being given an opportunity in just his second season in the NFL - and with four career starts - to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback. If not, the Eagles could look elsewhere. As Gowton pointed out, Hurts’ small sample size in 2020 didn’t offer much to feel confident about in that regard, but it’s also far too early to be solidifying any opinions.

It’s not like Hurts, who turns 23 in August, can’t improve. But is he realistically going to go from being one of the league’s worst starters to one of the very best? That seems like a gap too far to bridge for me. And while his running ability is certainly a nice weapon in his arsenal, he’s ultimately going to have to improve from the pocket for the Eagles to have meaningful success.

So with a new, young head coach in tow, the owner downplaying expectations, and an apparent rebuild under way without a clear answer at the most important position, it’s fair to ask: are the Eagles tanking? Gowton isn’t entirely sure.

Depends on who you ask! Many national pundits have the Eagles ranked towards the bottom of the league. And understandably so after a pathetic 2020 season that culminated in a 4-11-1 record. It’s not hard to be down on this team.

Then again, I’ve seen a lot of “the Eagles might not be very good but they’re not AS bad as everyone thinks!” pushback. There are those who think this team can legitimately surprise people in 2021. They point to the new coaching staff, Carson Wentz being gone, a last place schedule, and the perceived strength in the trenches among reasons for optimism.

As for me? I’m keeping expectations low. Some seem to gloss over how Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie literally said the Eagles are entering a “transition period” similar to how the team was in 2016. By their own admission, it’s not an “all in” season. To be clear, that’s not to say the Eagles are trying to tank. But such messaging cautions a level of patience.

I think the Eagles are looking at something like a 6-11 record. And that might be too optimistic. At the end of the day, they have huge question marks at the two most important spots: head coach and quarterback. The roster lacks bonafide stars, aside from aging veterans who might very well be past their primes. DeVonta Smith is one of the very few young players who inspires a lot of confidence as a long-term piece.

Either way, it seems as if the Eagles are prepared to look very bad in 2020 in the interest of building up another championship team in the City of Brotherly Love. Despite all his detractors, Roseman has done it once, and very recently; now he’s trying to do it again. Whether he can pull it off remains to be seen, but the short-term outlook isn’t very good, which will be music to Cowboys fans’ ears.