By Kevin Cole
One of the most controversial selections of the 2020 NFL draft was the Philadelphia Eagles taking quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round with the 53rd overall selection. The Eagles, however, already have Carson Wentz as their putative franchise quarterback, a 27-year-old who recently signed a $128 million contract.
The problem with the collective assessment of the Hurts pick is how most view the quarterback position outside of a binary lens: You either have a franchise quarterback or you don’t. This philosophy assumes that if you’re lucky enough to have a solid starter, you should be focused on using free agency and draft capital to bolster the roster around him, and nothing else. It ignores the fact that a quarterback like Ryan Tannehill can go from franchise face to trade chip and back to high-paid starter in the course of a few years. There are levels of uncertainty with every quarterback.
Instead of checking a box and assuming the position is filled, teams need to constantly assess what they have at quarterback and how best to increase their chances of having the highest level of play. Far too many front offices are willing to sit and hope that quarterbacks who have shown flashes will turn into consistently elite players, even if the likelihood was never high and decreases every season.
Ultimately, the Hurts acquisition is about optionality at the most important position in football.
Eagles increasing chance of elite QB play
Wentz has been a solid NFL quarterback after being selected with the No. 2 overall pick in 2016. He showed promise as a rookie, was playing at an MVP level before injury in 2017, and has been in the 11-15 range among quarterbacks according to PFF passing grades the past two seasons. His four years of NFL performance give us confidence he’ll be an above-average quarterback, but not necessarily elite.
Hurts is a stronger contender to become an elite quarterback than most think, especially for a prospect available outside the first round. Hurts was highly successful in his final season at Oklahoma, with a 70 percent completion percentage, 12.2 adjusted yards per attempt and a PFF passing grade only lower than No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow among drafted quarterbacks. You can take issue with his late breakout, but quarterbacks like Russell Wilson have shown it’s possible to turn a late breakout into an elite NFL career.
The combination of Hurts’ extensive history as a starter, eye-popping stats and strong grades led a number of different models to conclude Hurts has elite upside. Our college-to-pro forecasts have Hurts as the second-highest projected quarterback, below only Burrow and above Tua Tagovailoa.
Philadelphia sees the potential, too. Head coach Doug Pederson said on the Eagles’ post-draft conference call that they see Lamar Jackson as a fair comp for Hurts — and that senior offensive consultant Marty Mornhinweg, who was with the Ravens when they chose Jackson, was influential in the decision.
The key to understanding the value of adding Hurts is understanding, estimating and the range of outcomes for quarterbacks. Our system projects that Wentz will very likely be at least an average quarterback (92 percent probability) by NFL standards, but they’re less certain he’ll be a top-12 (60 percent) or top-six quarterback (20 percent).
If we assume Hurts is half as likely as Wentz to be a top-12 or top-six quarterback, which is reasonable based on the probabilities in our college-to-pro model and QBASE, adding him to the quarterback room with Wentz raises the chance that the Eagles have a top-six quarterback from 20 percent to 28 percent. In terms of finding a top-12 quarterback, the Eagles’ probability with both quarterbacks rises from 60 percent to 72 percent.
These increases are well worth the investment of the 53rd pick. Top quarterbacks generate one to three more wins than average quarterbacks according to our Wins Above Average metric, whereas the range for the best non-quarterbacks is around 0.3 to 0.7 wins.
The overarching lesson? You shouldn’t lock yourself into anyone but the truly elite at the position. The best way to raise the ceiling for team performance is to attain an elite quarterback, and more teams should be making moves like the Eagles to increase the chances of having one, even if they’ve spent draft capital and significant cap space on the position.
The Hurts acquisition gives the Eagles options for unforeseeable circumstances. If Wentz fails, they have another quarterback with a great chance of success. If Hurts outplays Wentz in practice and they want to make the switch in a year, the Eagles will likely have strong trade offers for Wentz. And if Wentz gets injured, they have a potential high-level backup (the Eagles know a thing or two about that).
Even if Wentz rebounds to 2017 form, becomes an elite quarterback and remains healthy, the Eagles have the option to use Hurts as an enhanced version of another quarterback whose name has been in headlines this week.
Jalen Hurts could be a rich man’s Taysom Hill
The Hurts pick has been compared to spending a mid-second-rounder on Taysom Hill, who only played 41 snaps at quarterback over the last two seasons for the New Orleans Saints but just received a $21 million extension. There is plenty of reason to believe that Hurts brings much more to the table than Hill, in even a limited role.
The former undrafted free agent was competing for snaps mostly with Drew Brees, the second-most efficient passing quarterback by expected points added (EPA) in the NFL the last two seasons. The offense didn’t produce at a Brees-like level with Hill under center, but it wasn’t bad.
For players with at least 100 QB snaps the last two seasons, Hill’s team EPA per play was fourth-highest in the league, while Wentz was 21st. Of course, 104 plays for Hill is a limited sample, but there’s some evidence that the Saints’ offense didn’t suffer much when he was behind center.
The Saints offense with Hill at quarterback was most effective in short-yardage situations and near the goal line, areas where Hurts could also thrive and bring a more effective passing threat. Research has also shown that on 2-point conversions, quarterback rushes have a much higher success rate than any other type of run or pass.
So the Eagles can definitely utilize Hurts in effective ways. And it’s because they had the courage to make a bold move for him.
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