The biggest question facing the Philadelphia Eagles this season is whether or not Jalen Hurts is truly the answer at quarterback. Everything else is a subplot.
On paper, the roster is borderline loaded, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Two exceptional young receivers, a stacked offensive line, a great tight end, and a reliable backfield should be a recipe for success for any franchise worthy signal caller.
Simply put, Hurts doesn’t have any excuses this season. He needs to improve in a number of areas in order to cement his status at the Eagles franchise quarterback.
He did improve from year one to year two. His completion percentage jumped from 52 to 61.3 and the passer rating rose from 77.6 to 87.2. While those simple metrics prove Hurts was a better quarterback in 2021, a deeper look into his statistics prove that he was more a product of the Eagles run-heavy, play action system than anything else.
Play action passes vs. non play action passes
On play action passes last season, Jalen Hurts was great. He posted a passer rating of 102.9 and a completion percentage of 68.8. On non play action passes, Hurts’ passer rating dropped all the way down to 79.8 and his completion percentage dipped under 60, landing at 57.8. His yards per attempt was also lower on non play action passes, averaging 6.3 YPA on such passes as compared to 9.3 YPA on play action passes.
This revelation shouldn’t be a total shock to anyone. The Eagles had the best rushing attack in football last season and Hurts led all quarterbacks in rushing yards. Play action passes are naturally going to have a higher success rate when you average about 5 yards per attempt on the ground. Younger quarterbacks tend to thrive on play action passes because it’s an easier read, but it’s not sustainable.
Last season, we saw a few games where the team was successfully able to run the ball and still lost. The Week 12 loss to the New York Giants was a prime example of this. The Eagles ran for 208 yards in that contest, yet, Hurts was unable to muster up much of anything through the air. He threw for 124 yards while tossing 3 interceptions, ending the day with a passer rating of 17.5.
There were also games where the Eagles just couldn’t run the ball because the opposing defense stacked the box and forced Hurts to beat them with his arm. In the playoff loss to Tampa Bay, Todd Bowles made a concerted effort to limit the Eagles rushing attack and he was successful in doing so. With the burden on Hurts, he failed to move the ball. He finished the game completing just 53.5% of his passes while posting a passer rating of 60.
That Tampa game was a real eye opener. Even when he had time to go through his progressions, he rushed passes and failed to see wide open receivers.
This play is from the first quarter. Hurts has a clean pocket and plenty of time to let the play develop. Instead of staying patient, he scrambled and threw across his body.
If Hurts had stepped up in the pocket and waited for Quez Watkins to finish his route, this would have been a touchdown. Even if he didn’t have the confidence to throw it deep there, Dallas Goedert was wide open at the bottom of the screen on a deep out route. As they say, patience is a virtue, and it reigns true with quarterback play.
This was the same type of stuff we railed against Carson Wentz for. The obvious caveat there is that Wentz was doing it in year five whereas Hurts is still just 23 years old. Nevertheless, if these types of mistakes go unchecked now, they’ll manifest even further and hinder Hurts from ever becoming a competent quarterback.
Throwing under pressure vs. throwing in a clean pocket
Most young quarterbacks struggle when they have pressure in their face and Hurts was no different in 2021. On 136 passing attempts while under pressure, Hurts managed to complete just 43.4% of his passes while posting a passer rating of 75.2.
There were some bright spots for Hurts when under pressure. He posted a big throw percentage (a Pro Football Focus metric that categorizes “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window”) of 8.1 when the heat was on. Without pressure in his face, Hurts’ big time throw percentage was just 3.5. He also wasn’t afraid to throw the ball away when the pressure was on, something most young quarterbacks struggle to grasp. Hurts threw the ball away 20 times under pressure last season.
As evidenced by the clip above, Hurts certainly still had his struggles when he was kept clean. He committed more turnovers in a clean pocket, throwing 7 interceptions when kept clean as opposed to just 2 when under pressure.
A look at Hurts’ pass depth success rate
Jalen Hurts was at his best when throwing intermediate passes (10-19 yards). Per PFF, Hurts was his most efficient throwing to the right side of the field in the intermediate range, posting a PFF passing grade of 92.5 on such passes. Hurts completed 30-of-42 throws there (71.4 completion percentage) while posting a passer rating of 137.5. Hurts was similarly stout throwing over the middle in the intermediate range, posting a PFF passing grade of 83.1 while completing 62.5% of his throws and recording a 106.3 passer rating.
Where Hurts really struggled was on throws to the left side of the field. Here’s a breakdown of his completion percentage and passer rating to the left sideline, categorized by depth of target:
- Short left (0-9 yards): 73.1 passer rating, 73.3 completion percentage, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception on 30 attempts
- Intermediate left (10-19 yards): 69.8 passer rating, 44.4 completion percentage, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions on 27 attempts
- Deep left (20+ yards): 57.6 passer rating, 36.4 completion percentage, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions on 22 attempts.
That’s simply not good enough and it’s something NFL defenses will use against Hurts until he proves he can target the left side of the field efficiently.
While the intermediate area of the field was Hurts’ sweet spot last year, throwing past 19 yards was a completely different story. 5 of his 9 interceptions on the year came when he attempted to throw the ball 20+ yards down the field. In totality, Hurts completed 24 of his 63 deep attempts, which averages out to a completion percentage of just 38. His passer rating on deep passes evened out to 77.4.
The debate on whether Hurts has adequate arm strength to be an NFL quarterback has been a point of contention among the Eagles fan base all offseason. It’s not about whether or not Hurts can throw the ball far; we know he can do that. It’s about whether his ball has the velocity and zip required to make throws down the field at a consistent level. His struggles with targeting the left side of the field and throwing 20+ yards down the field is clear evidence that he doesn’t possess that.
Where can Hurts actually improve his game?
The arm strength issue is something that can’t be coached out of a quarterback. You either have it, or you don’t. Hurts doesn’t have it, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a good NFL quarterback.
There are plenty of examples where quarterbacks make up for their lack of arm strength with pinpoint accuracy and decisive decision making. Those are areas where Hurts can tangibly improve his game.
Hurts proved last year that he does have good accuracy on intermediate passes and can attack that part of the field at a relatively high rate. That’s a great sign and something he can certainly build upon.
The mental side of the game is where Hurts can improve the most. If he can take a step in development there, we will see a vastly improved quarterback under center for the Eagles next season. It’s important for Hurts, and the coaching staff, to know their limitations. The occasional deep ball is always necessary, but it can’t be a focal point. Play action passes will continue to drive the Eagles passing attack, but as I pointed out above, he has to have that same level of efficiency on normal dropbacks. Understanding the timing of routes and the patience required to let plays develop will be a huge stepping stone for Hurts this year.
Luckily for Hurts, he has a ton of weapons around him. The Eagles offensive line is arguably the best in the league, his wide receiving corps is top tier, and he has a great tight end in Dallas Goedert. Not to mention a solid stable of running backs that he’ll be able to rely on in the running game. Developing into an efficient passer is a helluva lot easier when the quarterback has real weapons around him. He won’t have to do everything; all he has to do is take what the defense gives him.
With all that being said, I do believe Hurts can improve in those areas. He’ll never be a Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but he can be a solid starting quarterback in this league if he continues to grow on the mental side of things.
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