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Why the Philadelphia Eagles Should Already Punt on the 2021 NFL Season

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 29, 2021

Philadelphia Eagles Jalen Hurts (2) in action against Washington Football Team during an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Rich Schultz/Associated Press

On Feb. 4, 2018, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Nick Foles stood atop a stage at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and lifted the Lombardi Trophy as the champions of Super Bowl LII. It was the ultimate moment in the history of a franchise that was founded all the back in 1933.

A lot has changed in the three years since that crowning moment. Foles is gone, traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars after that Super Bowl run. The quarterback he replaced that season (Carson Wentz) was also sent packing in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts that resulted in the largest dead salary-cap hit in NFL history. After last year's miserable 4-11-1 campaign, Pederson was fired.

There's a new head coach in Nick Sirianni. A new starter at quarterback in second-year pro Jalen Hurts. It's rebuild time in the City of Brotherly Love.

But you won't hear the Eagles saying that. Coaches and players alike believe the team is capable of a quick turnaround. Of getting right back in the mix in the NFC East in 2021. Of winning the division and maybe even making a postseason run.

It's understandable that professional athletes would have that attitude. There are those who expect to win every game they play in—whether those expectations are reasonable or not. But the reality is that these Eagles are at best the No. 3 team in the NFL's weakest division. The absolute ceiling is maybe nine wins and getting pounded into goo in the Wild Card Round.

That's not going to help Philly—the "Jeff Fisher Zone" that is the middle of the league is the absolute worst place a franchise can be. The best thing for these Eagles in the long term is another painful year in the short term. A bad season would be a good thing.

The wisest course of action for the 2021 Eagles is looking to 2022—and punting on this year.

You won't hear much talk like that inside the building at the NovaCare Complex. As Paul Domowitch reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer, veteran center Jason Kelce admitted that the team is in a "transition period," but he also believes that the Eagles can vie for a division title in 2021.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

"The bottom line is we can be competitive and win games [this year]," Kelce said. "We can win this division. I have no doubt about that if we go out there and go about it the right way. We can improve and continue to get better as a team."

Per Ken Belson of the New York Times, Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman echoed a similar refrain. The Eagles may be retooling, but this isn't a multiyear effort—Philly plans to compete now. Roseman said:

"We're not looking at this like, you know, let's see how long that we can struggle. We're looking to turn this around as quickly as possible, and we feel like we've done that. You talked about the transition from Coach [Andy] Reid and Coach [Chip] Kelly came in, and we won 20 games the next two years. Coach Pederson came, we won seven and then we won 35 the next three years. And so that's our goal, and accumulating assets is a way to make us better quicker—it's not to sit here and just see how long it takes to get back on top."

However, while players, team officials and the Eagles' rabid fanbase may have high hopes in 2021, once you get outside Eastern Pennsylvania, they fade rapidly.

In his post-draft NFL power rankings at NBC Sports, Peter King ranked the Eagles at No. 28, writing that "this season falls under the category of a classic rebuilding year."

The NFL Nation reporters at ESPN slotted the Eagles at No. 27. The NFL analysts here at Bleacher Report agreed with King, ranking Philly 28th in the NFL.

"Three years ago, confetti was raining down on the Eagles after a win in Super Bowl LII," they wrote. "But the 2021 iteration of the team is more likely to finish last in the NFC (L)East than first."

All three sets of power rankings (and the vast majority of those elsewhere) have the Eagles last in the division.

Last year, Philadelphia fielded the 24th-ranked offense in the league. That offense is now led by a second-year quarterback who completed 52 percent of his passes as a rookie. Even with first-round pick DeVonta Smith in the fold, the team has the weakest receiving corps in the division. The offensive line features two starters in Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson returning from major injuries.

Rich Schultz/Associated Press

In 2020, the Eagles ranked 19th in the league defensively. Said defense features an aging front, a so-so (at best) group of linebackers and a secondary with one proven cornerback (Darius Slay) who is coming off arguably the worst season of his NFL career.

For this Eagles team to win the NFC East, the Dallas offense needs to falter and the defense needs to fall apart (again). The Washington offense needs to implode while the defense regresses. All the new additions with Big Blue need to fail to make an impact. And Philadelphia needs to stay healthy and improve markedly on offense.

Could one of those dominoes fall? Sure. Will all of them? No, and even if they did, all it would earn the Eagles is the right to get blasted in the Wild Card Round at Lincoln Financial Field by an 11- or 12-win NFC West runner-up.

However, the clouds could clear in Philly relatively quickly. If Wentz plays 75 percent of the offensive snaps in Indianapolis this year, the Colts first-rounder in 2022 belongs to the Eagles. Miami's first-rounder next year belongs to Philadelphia after the Eagles traded down from No. 6 to No. 12 this year.

Both of those picks will more likely than not fall in the second half of the first round—quite possibly outside the top 20. The real draft-day difference-maker for the Eagles on April 28, 2022, will be their own pick—provided the team doesn't win seven or eight meaningless games that drops them outside the top 10.

By the end of the 2021 season, the Eagles will know if Hurts is a long-term answer under center. If he is, the team will have a boatload of draft capital to use to add impact players around him. If he isn't, Philadelphia will be well positioned to select his successor, whether it's with its own pick, or by packaging it and one of the other firsts.

After spending the 2021 offseason in salary-cap hell due to the Wentz trade, the Eagles will also be in much better shape in free agency next year. Per Over the Cap, the Eagles presently sit $20.7 million under the projected cap in 2022. That number could easily bloom to over $50 million by cutting some aging veterans like Slay and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and/or reworking some deals. Safety Anthony Harris and tight end Dallas Goedert are the only prominent free agents the team should actively try to bring back.

Al Drago/Associated Press

In other words, it's not difficult to imagine a scenario where the 2022 Eagles could realistically be in position to compete for a division title—as opposed to this year's fantasy.

This isn't to say that the Eagles should go into full-on tank mode, because of course no NFL team would ever do that. Or that Roseman should conduct a veteran fire sale a la the 2019 Dolphins (although if some team comes along with a Laremy Tunsil-esque offer for a guy like Andre Dillard, it's at least worth considering).

But the best thing the Eagles can do in 2021 is shift the focus toward 2022. Look to the future, even if it means a sacrifice or two in the present.

The 2021 season in Philadelphia is going to be a wash. The sooner the Eagles admit that, the better off they will be.

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