• Alec Liebsch

Eagles Midseason Report Card

The season is roughly halfway over, and even in a transition year, the Eagles still have done a lot that the football world can evaluate. Wins and losses are less important. Rather, the most crucial observations from this season were mostly going to be about development, progress and hope.


Even the most bullish fans and pundits penciled the Birds in as mediocre. A below-average roster and inexperienced coaching staff, combined with an easy schedule and a desolate division, could knock on the door of average by season's end. Talented players tend to get better over time, and the Eagles have a few lottery tickets at premium positions.


But to get to that positive growth there is a lot of learning to do, and the Eagles have been taken to school so far. They currently stand 3-5, second place in the NFC East division but tied for 11th in the NFC. The early part of the schedule was supposed to be unforgiving--all five of their losses have come against playoff-caliber teams--but at least two of those games were winnable. The highs have been scattered, while the lows have been frequent and potent. Even the moral victories, which should be easy for a fanbase fresh off The Process to identify, have been sparse.


The adage "it's not that they lose; it's how they lose" is applicable to the 2021 Eagles. And now that we're at the midway point of the season, it's a good time to evaluate the how. Going position by position, here is how I would grade the team to this point.


Photo Credit: Jacob Kupferman, Associated Press


Offense


Football is a very interdependent sport, which can make it tough to evaluate individual players outside of the entire operation. But if there's one spot we can comfortably evaluate, it's the head of the snake: quarterback. Offenses generally sink or swim with their QBs, and Jalen Hurts has done more of the former than the latter.


For a guy with such an extensive football pedigree, Hurts sure makes a lot of mistakes. Normally you'd live with a dual-threat QB getting out of the pocket and going off script, but Hurts' progression is different: he consistently misses reads while in the pocket, bails almost immediately, and in turn forces himself into a boom-or-bust situation. Hurts uses his legs for the wrong reasons.


In addition, these scrambles exacerbate his well-known accuracy issues. You would never mistake him for a gunslinger, but even his mid-distance throws are off the mark too often. If he's off target in a set position, that only worsens when he's on the run.


To be fair, the blame doesn't completely fall on him. Around Draft time, he was considered by many scouts to be more of a project than a ready-made QB. If the league thought he could be a franchise guy, he wouldn't have made it to the middle of round two. He was never supposed to be "The Guy."


Hurts has been the definition of mediocre this year. He's not getting much help, but he's not helping himself much either. Grade: C+


It doesn't help that the rest of the offense is light on playmakers. Running back is not a talented position group. Miles Sanders is their best chance at changing that, and for the most part he's been productive on the ground (4.8 yards/carry). But he hit the injured reserve following the loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, taking him out for at least the next two weeks. His opportunities were few and far between anyway, thanks to the offense Nick Sirianni is running (more on him later).


The same is true for rookie Kenneth Gainwell, who didn't see the field for the rest of Sunday's win after an early fumble. Boston Scott and Jordan Howard got featured instead, and while they were productive, they came into a very favorable situation. There's only one team as bad as Detroit.


Gainwell is clearly just a third-down back for now, which makes evaluation a bit mundane. Success is very situational for that archetype. How often he gets on the field will be more indicative of his progression than what actually happens on the field. Scott can attest to that, usually only seeing the field the past few years when someone else gets hurt. Howard, the team's closest version of a workhorse back, could see a huge jump in production in Sanders' absence. We'll see if it's worth anything more than a win over the Lions.


This group is productive when called upon. Grade: B


Perhaps the least helpful players for Hurts' development have been the wide receivers, a group of inexperienced lottery tickets with loads of uncertainty. DeVonta Smith is headed in the right direction, but he flat-out doesn't get the ball that much. It's tough enough for receivers to get used to the physicality of corners; Smith has to deal with CB1s and double-teams almost every play.


The reason Smith is WR1 is a culmination of past mistakes from the front office. The Jalen Reagor pick was a reach at the time, and it looks worse every day as receivers picked after him thrive on other teams. Before him came J.J Arcega-Whiteside, John Hightower, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson, who were all whiffs as well. Reagor himself has not been productive; 20 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns is simply not good enough. The speedster's longest reception of the year so far? 24 yards. Just not going to cut it.


At least Quez Watkins is a burner. He's a speed threat who gets multiple deep shots thrown his way each game (although not always accurately). With the same number of receptions as Reagor, Watkins has amassed 366 yards, 91 of which he gained on a spectacular play in Week 2. The long ball is entertaining as hell, and it's understandable to wonder why Watkins doesn't get the ball more often.


The play-calling doesn't do Smith or Watkins many favors, as Sirianni has an affinity to put Greg Ward and Arcega-Whiteside on the field more often than he should. If the object of the game is to win, then putting your best players on the field is a good step towards achieving that objective. Incorporating practice squad guys regularly isn't helping in the short term or long term.


So if the offense is so pass-heavy, but the receivers don't get as much attention as they should, where are all the targets going? Tight ends Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz can answer that. Ertz was overqualified for a TE2 role, so it was nice of the Eagles to trade him to the championship-aspiring Arizona Cardinals. Goedert is more than ready to be a primary option on offense, and Sirianni is treating him as such.


I'm combining tight ends into the receivers' grade because they're such an important part of the Eagles' passing game. There's talent here, but the best players don't get enough love. Grade: B-


The offensive line sure was happy with Sunday's gameplan. Run blocking is generally less taxing than pass blocking, and the positive momentum the Eagles generated out of the run made it more sensible to keep the ball on the ground. With all the work they've done in pass protection this year, especially against some nasty defensive lines, the Lions game was a breather.


It's interesting that the players were so happy with this shift, because they've generally been successful with all kinds of protection. Hurts has more time than he thinks, the RBs have all kinds of runways to carve up defenses, and even a lot of plays past the line of scrimmage involve a blocker. The evidence supported this heading into Week 8, per Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, as the Eagles ranked above average in both types of blocking.


This is even more impressive when considering the revolving door of linemen they've dealt with all year. Nine different players have started a game for this unit. Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo are out for the season. Rookie Landon Dickerson and sophomore Jack Driscoll are in for them. Andre Dillard got to fill in for both starting tackles, Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata. Even Nate Herbig got in on the fun. Jason Kelce is the only lineman who has started all eight games so far.


And yet, this position group is the best one in the building. That's partially by design--you won't catch the Eagles missing a chance to add a lineman in the draft--but their work so far, with nonstop change and brutal opponents, is still impressive. Grade: A


And now for the most contentious part of the offense: the coaching staff. Philadelphia fans can be harsh, brutal and in some cases irrational when it comes to evaluating their guys. But in the case of Nick Sirianni and his offense, I think they're onto something.


No one is mistaking Jalen Hurts for Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. His arm talent is subpar for a starting QB, and his decision-making only compounds that issue. His mobility is a strength because it gives him another way to move the chains, not because it helps him get into space to launch a bomb to Watkins. If you want an air raid offense, you're watching the wrong Birds.


And yet, Sirianni is insistent on being a pass-happy offense. Despite how much Hurts could benefit from a little pressure being taken off him, and how easy the game could be for the running backs behind this offensive line, the Eagles are not keen on doing it. Throwing the ball 50 times a game makes sense when you have an elite quarterback; Jalen Hurts is not that guy.


For the record, I've never been a "run the ball" guy. The way in which fans and talk show personalities shove that down our throats gives me a "Boy who Cried Wolf" vibe. It gets spewed so often, that when it's actually the right take, it's difficult to come to grips with. But here we are, halfway through the season, relying on a half-decent quarterback to play like Justin Herbert.


The Lions game was a fan's dream come true. The Eagles ran the ball, ran the ball, and ran the ball some more, for a grand total of 46 rushes and 236 yards. It was an afternoon of vindication. However, it's tough to act like that was a normal game. The Lions are basically as bad as the Process 76ers, and were clearly just going through the motions to get to their bye week. Good teams won't get carved up by Jordan Howard and Boston Scott.


That being said, it was good to see the coaches adjust to the situation. They got up early and never looked back. There should be opportunities to keep that up later in the season, as the New York Giants, Jets, and Washington Football team appear on the schedule a combined five times.


It's easy to be critical of Sirianni. He's never been a head coach before this season, and the decision-makers aren't exactly trustworthy. But if the young players are going to be graded on a curve, the young coaches should be too. These guys are learning on the job. They're going to make mistakes.


That being said, some of these errors have been too obvious to just chalk up to growing pains. Early holes become craters when he makes Hurts chuck his way out of trouble. Veterans are visibly frustrated with the play calling. The team's best playmakers, such as DeVonta Smith, rarely get the ball. The back half of the schedule should yield positive growth, but the early part did not. Grade: C


Photo Credit: Eric Hartline, USA TODAY Sports


Defense


The other side of the ball will be even tougher to parse through, as so much of a defense's success is based on factors outside the players' control. Outside of a few very special players, the personnel can really only defend the way the scheme allows them to. No one in midnight green fits that category.


Their best chance to find that guy starts on the defensive line, where Javon Hargrave has been a menace at the line of scrimmage. With six sacks and 11 QB hits so far, the 10th and 15th-highest figures in the league, Hargrave is well on his way to an All-Pro nomination. That's about it for interior production though, because Fletcher Cox has been a flat-out disappointment. He doesn't feel as though the scheme caters to his strengths, an opinion he not only exhibits through his play, but also expresses to the media.


Cox's protests have had an adverse effect on his substitutes. Hassan Ridgeway is a fine third defensive tackle, but he could look even better if he were stepping in for the Pro Bowler we know Cox can be. The next domino is rookie Milton Williams, who clearly isn't ready for a big role but could be thrust into one sooner rather than later.


The ends have been worse than expected, mainly because Derek Barnett can't get out of his own way. He commits head-scratching penalties almost every week, and doesn't exactly back it up with good sack or tackle numbers. Josh Sweat is very effective against subpar offensive linemen, so his progression against higher-end blockers will be one to keep tabs on. The Eagles paid him to be an upper-echelon DE; it'll be interesting to see if he becomes one.


This unit is supposed to be a strength for the Eagles, but it hasn't exactly been one so far. Some of the blame belongs elsewhere, though. Grade: C+


Meanwhile the linebacker group has played as expected: poorly. Watered down expectations don't completely justify this unit's performance. Eric Wilson went from LB1 in Week 1 to a healthy scratch in Week 8, while T.J. Edwards has been the team's best linebacker to date. Alex Singleton is exactly what he's expected to be. Davion Taylor is making the most of his physical traits, but he still has ways to go before being considered an upper-tier LB. Genard Avery gets way too much playing time because he is "versatile," when really he is just "not terrible."


You get what you pay for with this unit; since 2015, the only significant resources the team has used on linebacker are a third round pick on Taylor and two contracts on Nigel Bradham. Everyone else was either a late draft pick, a trade using a late draft pick, or a minimum signing. At least Taylor is a keeper. Grade: B-


In a surprising turn of events, the secondary has been the strongest defensive unit. Darius "Big Play" Slay has lived up to the name and been the No. 1 corner the Eagles traded for. Steven Nelson was a nice get late in the offseason; he may have played his way out of Philadelphia. Avonte Maddox has earned his next contract too, excelling in the slot. The corners seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jonathan Gannon's scheme.


This is less so the case for the safeties. Rodney McLeod has had similar discrepancies as Cox, hinting through words and body language that the game plan is not best suited for him. When the last line of defense makes mistakes it can look really bad, but McLeod's miscues haven't been egregious. On the flip side, Anthony Harris has been noticeable; among veteran free agent signees, he's closer to Eric Wilson than Steven Nelson.


This defense relies on its defensive backs to stay home and prevent big plays. For the most part, mission accomplished. Grade: B+


And now to evaluate said scheme. Gannon, like Sirianni, is new to his position. He also deserves to be graded on a curve. But like Sirianni, Gannon makes mistakes that are foundational, clear-cut, and unacceptable.


His setup is as follows: sit back in a zone, force the offense to drive down the field, and eventually they'll make a mistake. It's very similar to a prevent defense. Gannon was most recently a defensive backs coach, so it makes sense that his formula favors those players.


However, the parts do not fit the machine. The defensive line is the strongest department on paper, yet those guys are asked to be passive rather than aggressive. The linebacker group is one of the worst in football, but Gannon's scheme funnels plays right into their zone. The safeties are asked to sit back and let the offense make a mistake, which is counter to everything in a football player's nature.


In theory, a full offseason with Gannon in the building should give the team an opportunity to add players more amenable to this style. But in the meantime, shouldn't he be able to utilize the guys he has? Few coaches are more powerful than their personnel, and a rookie coach certainly isn't in that category. Gannon has been putting square pegs in round holes all season. Let's hope these beatdowns have been learning experiences for him. Grade: C


FULL REPORT CARD


Quarterback: C+

Running Backs: B

Receivers: B-

Offensive Line: A

Offensive coaching: C


Defensive Line: C+

Linebackers: B-

Secondary: B+

Defensive coaching: C