A Jalen Hurts contract extension from the Eagles is more a question of when than if

LANDOVER, Md. — The Eagles, behind the strength of yet another second-quarter offensive explosion, jumped out to a 24-0 lead and cruised to a 24-8 win over the shellacked Commanders on Sunday at FedEx Field. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:

Late Sunday night, a text message arrived from an NFL source on another team the Eagles play this season: “How much does Jalen Hurts get after the season?” When you’re wrapped up in the sometimes-insular world of covering a beat, you can lose sight of how the rest of the NFL may view the team you cover. I didn’t think much about a possible Hurts contract extension because literally just over two weeks ago, there was still a legitimate question as to whether he would even be back next season. Hurts showed obvious improvement during training camp and one brief glimpse in the preseason. But no one would know, including the Eagles, how much he had advanced until a live setting.

Through just three games, the answer is clear: Hurts has taken a significant leap in his second full season as the starter and in all probability will be part of the Eagles’ long-term plans this offseason. That’s how fast it can happen in the NFL. He may not be able to maintain his current level of play over the entire season. It’s likely Hurts will have setbacks. But the Eagles will have many more reasons for investing in the 24-year-old than they would in looking elsewhere for an answer, even if their two 2023 first-round draft picks allow them to move up for a quarterback. Even before this season, Hurts checked off a number of intangible boxes that team decision-makers look for in the position. He’s a leader, diligent, accountable, and hardworking. Hurts also brought an element of explosiveness to the offense with his mobility.

The only question – however significant – was whether he could improve as a pocket passer. And it’s obvious, in so many of the throws he has made so far, that he has. Has he been perfect? Not by a long shot, but the trajectory of his progress suggests he’ll become even more consistent. His presnap reads, mechanics and ball placement are all better. Owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman are very much attuned to quarterback play. And while Nick Sirianni is bogged down in the daily operations of coaching, they are certainly starting to formulate a plan for giving Hurts an early extension. The Eagles have long benefited in getting out in front. Have there been mistakes? All they had to do was look across the field at the Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz to be reminded that they haven’t always been right. But their track record has produced more wins than losses.

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It is possible that Hurts regresses to the median of his play since he entered the NFL. But the offense is operating at a high rate, and there just may be too much talent around the quarterback for him to fail. The Eagles will take all of that into consideration before offering an extension. But Sunday offered many more examples of Hurts not only executing, but also elevating the offense. On the 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver AJ Brownthe quarterback saw that Washington was in zone coverage when running back Kenneth Gainwell lined up wide and a cornerback stayed over him. So Hurts motioned to Brown and receiver DeVonta Smith, who were situated to his right, to check for double slant routes. The corner opposite Brown played off with his eyes on Hurts — another zone tell — and with Smith’s corner playing outside leverage, there would be a clear path for Brown. Hurts placed the ball slightly high and away where only his receiver could catch it, and the yards-after-catch maestro took care of the rest and scored.

Hurts’ poise with seconds ticking off the clock just before the half stands in contrast to so many other quarterbacks under similar circumstances. He had just lost a yard on a third-down zone read keep at the Washington 2-yard line and with no timeouts left he called a play, according to Smith, that wasn’t in the game plan. Hurts got the snap off with one second left, tossed a corner fade to Smith, who plucked the jump ball away from the corner. Kendall Fuller, and the Eagles went into the break with a commanding 24-0 margin.

» READ MORE: The Eagles’ win over Washington shows they’re a team that handles things, in the best possible way

The offense wouldn’t score again, and for the second straight week the Eagles were shut out in the second half. They’ve yet to score in the fourth quarter this season. They didn’t quite take their foot off the pedal, but a combination of suspect play-calling and execution prevented the Eagles from closing out another inferior opponent. Hurts addressed the malaise even before reporters had an opportunity to ask about the final 30 minutes. While the inconsistency offers a reminder that the offense isn’t quite running at top speed, or that Hurts isn’t quite there as a thrower, an optimist might see that as reason to believe the Eagles have yet to scratch their ceiling.

In the first half, the Eagles could have scored even more. They passed up a chip-shot field goal at the 8-yard line on fourth-and-1. They appeared to run a Hurts sneak when a Washington timeout just before the snap disrupted the timing. But they must have changed the game after the break and a Zach Pascal end-around was stopped for no gain. I’m not sure I would have gone with my fourth receiver in that spot, but the biggest problem was going with a vertical run when all you needed was a yard behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

There were a few other suspect calls: a Gainwell carry on third-and-3, and a run play when the Eagles were backed up at their own 1-yard line in which tight end Dallas Goedert was responsible for blocking defensive tackle Daron Payne and Boston Scott was tackled for safety. But the good play-calling outweighed the bad.

Sirianni talks about winning the explosive play battle all the time. And he’s right to. Typically, the team that has more double-digit yard plays will come out ahead. There are other factors, of course, turnovers being one. But explosive plays on offense — aside from gaining chunk yards — limit long drives and more opportunities for mistakes, especially when you have a young quarterback. The Eagles had the No. 1 running attack in the NFL last season, and they didn’t even become a run-heavy unit until the midpoint of the season. Many of their explosive plays came on the ground. But they tilted too much towards the run and when it mattered most in the playoffs, the Buccaneers were able to take away their bread and butter.

Sirianni doesn’t want to be predictable in any way. The Eagles needed to improve their passing offense to offset how defenses would prepare to stop the run game, even with Hurts as a plus-one runner. But they needed to get better in the air for the simple reason that explosive plays are more likely to come from the pass, and that there are more variables with Hurts dropping back to throw. The run-pass option game can tilt the scales towards one based on how the Eagles are defended, but by rule, Sirianni wants to pass to get ahead.

And he now has a quarterback, armed with multiple elite receiving weapons, who is a more consistent thrower. There are ground-and-pound dinosaurs who look back at the Eagles’ 2017 season and point to a relatively balanced run-pass ratio as proof that the offense was a run-first operation. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Doug Pedersonwhom the Eagles will host along with his Jaguars on Sunday, emphasized getting ahead through the air, and because the Eagles were able to build so many leads, they were able to run out the clock with an effective ground game.

Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen have yet to master putting the cherry on top of a large lead, but there could be more opportunities forthcoming with their schedule.

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TJ Edwards, under the radar, helped turn the Eagles around last season. Once defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon figured out that he needed the linebacker at the MIKE and on the field for every down, the defense was more stable. He was a much-needed voice in terms of calling plays and getting the front seven lined up, but he also brought a ferocity to the run defense, and understood Gannon’s coverage concepts for his linebackers.

Edwards may be lacking in elite sideline-to-sideline speed, but he compensates with his mind. Imagine if he had Davion Taylor‘s motor. Nevertheless, he’s even more polished a year later. Gannon, who utilizes Cover 2 and 4 concepts, asks more of his inside linebackers in coverage than Jim Schwartz ever did Edwards has gotten better in seemingly all the disciplines it requires when an inside linebacker drops into coverage: reading the quarterback, leverage, depth, and route recognition.

But perhaps more than anything, and maybe I’m going too old school, he brings a physicality to the position that’s been lacking since Nigel Bradham‘s peak here. Kyzir White was an inspired addition, partly because he had played in a similar scheme with the Chargers, but also because he has similar traits to Edwards. He had a rough second half vs. the Commanders, but White has been, for the most part, an upgrade over whoever played alongside Edwards in the second half of last season.

The Eagles did not seem to suffer any significant injuries, but they did have more players down and out for periods than in their first two games. Left guard Landon Dickerson (left foot), cornerback Darius Slay (cramping), outside linebacker Haasson Reddick (injury unknown), defensive tackle Milton Williams (injury unknown), and Goedert (shin) all left at some point only to return later. Dickerson, who was questionable coming in, was the only one who didn’t finish. He was spotted receiving treatment after the game. It could be just a matter of maintenance for Dickerson, but his replacement Sua Opeta struggled when he had to jump in. … Rookie tight end Grant Calcaterra played in his first NFL game and had his first catch — a 40-yarder — in the third quarter while Goedert was briefly sidelined. He was wide-open over the middle, but Calcaterra flashed the explosiveness the Eagles gambled on when they drafted him in the sixth round. … Britain Covey was called up from the practice squad for the third time and fielded punts. The Eagles would need to sign him to the 53-man roster if they want him up next week, or they would risk having him poached by another team. He’s averaging only 6.1 yards a return and muffed a punt that he eventually recovered on Sunday. Perhaps in preparation for keeping Covey on the practice squad, Smith returned one punt against the Commanders for 12 yards.

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