NFL Football

Eagles have a long way to go to compete for championship

(AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

By ROB MAADDI

AP Pro Football Writer

The Philadelphia Eagles have a long way to go to compete for a championship despite reaching the playoffs.

There's a large gap between the Eagles (9-9) and teams that advanced past the wild-card round. That was quite evident when the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (14-4) cruised to a 31-15 victory over Philadelphia that wasn't nearly as close as the score.

The Eagles showed significant improvement under rookie coach Nick Sirianni following a 4-11-1 season in 2020. They started 2-5 but won seven of the next nine to secure a playoff berth.

However, all of Philadelphia's wins except one over New Orleans (9-8) came against teams with losing records. The Eagles finished 0-7 vs. playoff teams.

"The goal is never just to get to the playoffs," Sirianni said. "The goal is to get in and do some damage in there. That was everybody's mindset. We were confident coming in, and that was our mindset that we were going to do that. And whenever it doesn't go as planned and the season ends in the playoffs, it's even harder because then it's just over. ...

"There will be changes. Never does a team look exactly the same as it did the year before. I just think it's a special group of guys and you're sad because the journey is over and hopefully you get as many of those special guys back as you can, because the whole group is special."

Figuring out if Jalen Hurts would be the team's starting quarterback of the future was among the top priorities this season. Following his dismal performance against Tampa, questions still remain.

Hurts threw for 3,166 yards and 16 TDs with nine interceptions, completing 61.3% of his passes in 15 starts in the regular season. He also led the team with 784 yards rushing and 10 TDs.

He improved as a pocket passer, a decision maker, and made many strides in his second year in the league and first as a full-time starter. But he couldn't erase doubts about his ability to win games with his arm.

Sirianni gave Hurts a strong endorsement after the loss to the Buccaneers. He wasn't going to say otherwise.

The Eagles have three first-round picks in April's draft and have shown plenty of interest in Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson in the past.

They have options. They could pursue a proven quarterback or they could select one in the draft. They also have Gardner Minshew under contract and could allow him to compete with Hurts next season. Or, they could build around Hurts and give him another full season to develop.

Since his freshman year at Alabama, Hurts hasn't had the same offensive coordinator two years in a row.

"Every year, I've had a different play caller, every year I've had all these different changes," he said. "I've had so much I have to adjust to. To have some consistency ... would do us a huge benefit in that aspect."

FREE AGENTS

The Eagles have an underwhelming list of potential free agents, including safety Rodney McLeod, cornerback Steven Nelson and defensive end Derek Barnett, a 2017 first-round pick who didn't live up to expectations.

The team could decide to free up more salary cap space by moving on from several veterans, including defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, defensive end Brandon Graham and right guard Brandon Brooks. Graham played two games this season and Brooks played two games over the past two seasons.

Cox, a six-time Pro Bowl pick, had just 3 1/2 sacks. In 2022, Cox will earn a base salary of $1.12 million and a roster bonus of $1 million. Because of multiple restructures along the way, he will be carrying a cap hit of nearly $15 million and a dead cap value of almost $41 million.

"I'm happy where I am right now," Cox said, declining to discuss his contract situation.

Four-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce could decide to retire. He's contemplated retirement several times in recent years.

COACHING CHANGES

Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has interviews with three teams for head coaching vacancies, so the Eagles would have to fill his role if he moves on. His defense had success in the second half of the season against mediocre quarterbacks but struggled against top QBs such as Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr.

Overall, Philadelphia's defense finished 10th in yards allowed and 18th in points allowed.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith fulfilled expectations along with rookie guard Landon Dickerson. The Eagles have young playmakers in Smith, running back Miles Sanders and tight end Dallas Goedert, and youth on the left side of the offensive line with Dickerson and left tackle Jordan Mailata.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi and his work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/robmaaddi

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Updated January 17, 2022

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