Eagles fans, get ready for significant improvement from these guys this season.
You never stop learning.
It’s a fallacy that players are finished products once they leave college. We often get caught up in the early-round selections, players who already play at such a high level that it’s hard to think they could get any better. In some cases, many players enter the league having already hit their ceilings, and that’s fine.
But for many others, there is plenty of room for growth. Some players will improve thanks to coaching at the sport’s highest level, some will benefit from playing with an improved roster, and some players will use the experience gathered to sharpen their instincts and make up for a seeming lack of physical gifts with brains and savvy.
Last year, Avonte Maddox responded from a subpar 2021 and emerged as one of the best slot corners in football. As Zach Ertz departed for Arizona in an early-season trade, Dallas Goedert benefited from the extra targets and proved he is a difference-making, high-volume tight end. And undrafted T.J. Edwards used guile, determination and intelligence to emerge as a viable starting linebacker for a playoff team.
For the 2022 Eagles, I’ve selected three players on offense and two on defense who could make similar “leaps” this season.
Maybe this one is too easy, but all eyes will be on the Eagles’ starting quarterback to see if he can improve as a passer. The early returns from OTAs are encouraging, but remember, these are unpadded practices with no real threat of violence on the QB. Still, any improvement is welcome.
Last year, Hurts’ 87.2 passer rating ranked 22nd out of 33 qualified quarterbacks, and his 209.6 yards per game was tied with, ironically, Carson Wentz, for 26th. His 61.3% completion percentage was just 28th, and his 16 TDs was tied for 23rd. He struggled to throw the ball in the middle of the field and was subpar throwing the ball against good defenses. Of course, his No. 2 receiver last year was Jalen Reagor, and his No. 1 wideout, DeVonta Smith, was a rookie (albeit a really good one).
Now, Hurts is armed with one of the best recieving corps in the NFL. The acquisition of A.J. Brown changes everything, giving Hurts a true weapon and YAC man over the middle. Smith will have a year under his belt for his incredible talent to shine, and Quez Watkins will hopefully be a slot receiver who can burn people deep with regularity. Zach Pascal is a quality No. 4 wideout, Goedert is awesome, and the running backs can catch the ball out of the backfield, too.
Hurts has no excuses not to improve in 2022.
Anytime you get anything from a 6th-round draft pick, it’s an incredible success, so seeing Watkins haul in 43 passes for 647 yards, averaging 38.1 yards per catch, was fantastic.
It’s still kind of amazing he didn’t score on this play, and that the Eagles got zero points out of it. Anywho… if you watched any All-22 film of the Birds’ offense last year, you saw a number of instances in which Watkins was wide open sprinting down the field and Hurts couldn’t find him.
If Hurts emerges as a more competent passer in 2022, Watkins’ numbers should improve even more. Yes, there may not be as many targets with Brown now in the mix, but given the fact the Eagles were run-heaviest team in the league and he only saw 3.6 targets per game last year, one can’t help but think that number will jump a bit.
Watkins may never be a Pro Bowler, but he could be an 800-900 yard receiver with a few touchdowns thrown in the mix and one of the best No. 3 receivers in the league. No small feat, given how much Nick Sirianni will likely want to run things out of 13 personnel.
All spring, Eagles officials told the media how excited they were about all the young cornerbacks they have and how much they were looking forward to seeing what they could do. Then, they went and signed James Bradberry to a $10 million contract to play opposite Darius Slay.
Obviously, they weren’t comfortable heading into the season with Zech McPherson high on the depth chart, but they do appear serious about giving Marcus Epps a real shot at free safety. Like Watkins, Epps is a former 6th-round pick taken by Minnesota in the 2019 draft and later claimed off waivers in November of his rookie season.
With Rodney McLeod gone, Eppis is the favorite to start the season as the team’s starting strong safety. Last year, he played 44.85% of his team’s defensive snaps, all of them at free safety. With K’Von Wallace appearing to be no threat to earn playing time, Epps is bound to see his workload increase even more in a re-worked Jonathan Gannon defensive scheme.
And it’s not as if Epps has been unproductive, either.
Marcus Epps (@marcusepps20) in coverage as primary defender last 2 seasons:
1 Pass TD allowed
56.3 passer rating allowed
— RollPhilaRoll (@PhilaRoll21) June 1, 2022
There is still a lot of uncertainty around him, but with three solid corners in Slay, Bradberry and Maddox, the burden on Epps should be lighter and free him up to dramatically improve this season.
The versatile second-year defensive tackle/edge rusher really played well down the stretch as his playing time increased, and optimism is high he’s ready to take the next step in his development. They physical tools are all there.
How damn strong is Milton Williams?! Gets pushed by back a double team but manages to maintain his balance then gets off his block AND makes the tackle! pic.twitter.com/c6w4LC4NHK
— Jonny Page (@JonnyPage9) January 4, 2022
Back-to-back nice plays from Milton Williams to get you excited about his development.
Will have a much bigger role next year. Reminder that his athletic spider chart was of the 99th percentile for defensive tackles. His closest athletic comp was Aaron Donald. pic.twitter.com/hrsiKTYrEI
— Philly Nation (@Philly__Nation) January 9, 2022
Playing in 41% of his team’s defensive snaps, he recorded 2 sacks and 15 solo tackles (30 total) with 6 QB hits and will be part of an even deeper tackle rotation with first round pick Jordan Davis, Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox. As Cox’s role on the team wanes, look for young guys like Williams and Davis to ramp it up. I’m calling for at least five sacks for Williams this season, provided he stays healthy.