How Jalen Hurts went from question mark to potential MVP

The Monday after Week 1 of the 2022 NFL regular season was my first day as a full-time employee here at SB Nation.

And yes, I was pretty nervous.

As a morning filled with meetings and orientation events wound down, it was time to start working. I figured I would ease into the day, and the season, with some low-hanging fruit:

Arguing why his debut against the Detroit Lions showed that Jalen Hurts was ready to make the third-year leap.

The piece received, well, some mixed reviews. Some Philadelphia Eagles fans appreciated it, while others were not as convinced.

But here we are, on the week of the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, and Hurts is ready to start his second playoff game, this time as the quarterback — and MVP candidate — of the top seed in the NFC.

Just how did we get here?

There are myriad reasons for the growth of Hurts, and the Eagles, this season. General manager Howie Roseman deserves a ton of credit, and our own Mookie Alexander will be diving into that aspect of the Eagles’ season shortly. But let’s focus on Hurts. Despite guiding the Eagles to a playoff berth in his first season as the starting quarterback, Hurts was one of the biggest question marks facing the team as 2022 loomed.

With everything Roseman put in place around the quarterback, would Hurts take the leap?

It would seem that he has.

Hurts’ 2022 regular season put him among the NFL’s best in several passing metrics, and with the Eagles finishing the regular season with a 14-3 record – and the top seed in the NFC – the QB vaulted into the MVP discussion. Hurts finished fifth in the league with an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.31, fifth in the league in Expected Points Added per Dropback, fifth in the league in Completion Percentage over Expectation, and third among passers in EPA/CPOE composite.

When you find yourself clustered with the likes of Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen, you are in good company:

Data compiled by RBSDM.com.

There are two big areas where Hurts grew this year that served as foundations for his development and rise into the MVP debate.

Let’s break them down.

Attacking the middle of the field

As a means of background, last season I co-hosted a podcast on Bleeding Green Radio with the incredibly talented Raichelle Privette, titled “The QB Factory.” Each week, Raichelle and I would dive into Hurts, breaking down in detail how he performed, what he did well, and where he needed to improve.

Coming into the 2022 season, one of the areas where Hurts needed to show growth was in attacking the middle of the field.

Whether due to scheme, comfort with the offense, his pocket management – more on that in a second – or some other reason, Hurts struggled attacking defenses over the middle.

For reference, here is his 2021 passing grid from Next Gen Stats. Not that NFL Passer Rating is the best of metrics, but it does provide a starting point for this discussion:

Looking at this chart, you can see how his numbers in the middle of the field – an NFL Passer Rating of 99.7 between 10 and 20 yards downfield – were still above-average, but lagged behind some of his success in other areas of the field. When you consider the two-high world we are living in, finding success in attacking that area of the field is critical for an offense.

Now let’s take a look at Hurts’ 2022 passing grid:

As you can see, Hurts has certainly improved when attacking this area of the field. Now the Eagles are in a position to truly stress a defense, and force them to defend “every blade of grass.”

Plays like this completion from Week 15 show Hurts’ growth and comfort in attacking the middle of the field this season:

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On this completion against the Chicago Bears, Hurts targets DeVonta Smith on a dig route in the middle of the field. The first thing that stands out is the timing on this throw, as Hurts lets this pass fly as Smith is coming out of his break. But Hurts also needs to layer this throw, dropping it over the underneath defenders, and in front of the cornerback breaking on the route. The timing, plus the trajectory of the throw, lead to a big gain for the Eagles.

Here against the Tennessee Titans in Week 13, Hurts provides another example of his growth and comfort in attacking the middle of the field. Tennessee drops into Cover 2 on this play, and the Eagles attack the coverage with four vertical routes. But take note of the middle linebacker, who is the “runner” between the safeties, to help protect the middle of the field. That defender slides to the right side of the offense, away from tight end Jack Stoll, who is running a vertical route out of the left slot.

Hurts sees this, and makes an anticipation throw over the other linebacker to Stoll:

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The anticipation Hurts shows on this throw illustrates how comfortable he is attacking defenses over the middle. Hurts showed flashes of this during 2021 but has grown comfortable stressing defenses in this area of the field, forcing defenders to account for every route, every receiver, and every blade of grass.

Of course, the addition of A.J. Brown has also been a boost in this area. Brown is an elite receiver, and his combination of size, strength, and fearlessness makes him a dangerous target when working over the middle.

As you see here on a dig route against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8:

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Hurts’ comfort in attacking the middle of the field, combined with the presence of Brown working that area, has been huge for the Eagles this season.

Pocket Management

For many Eagles fans, how Hurts handled life in the pocket was the biggest area of concern heading into 2022. Hurts, like many athletic passers, faces a quandary in the NFL. For the bulk of his football life, Hurts has been one of – if not the best – athletes on the field every time he laced up the cleats.

Meaning, if a concept broke down, or he did not like the look in the secondary, tucking and running often resulted in a big play.

However, the more you progress in the game, the better and better the athletes on the other side of the ball are, and the more dangerous life outside the pocket becomes. For Hurts to take that next step as a quarterback, he had to balance that athleticism, and his ability to create, with a willingness to stay in the pocket at times, give concepts a chance to develop, and fight rather than flee.

This is another area where he has improved, and while the process began last year, particularly down the stretch, it continued into 2022. You can see that willingness to stay and fight in the pocket on plays like this one from Week 10, against the Washington Commanders:

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Hurts opens up to the left side of the formation, to read out a two-receiver concept. But with those options covered, he gets his eyes to the middle of the field, picking up Quez Watkins on the backside dig route. As this is happening, the Commanders are blitzing both linebackers. While the Hurts of 2020, or even early 2021, might have pulled this down and looked for an escape route, this year’s version of the passer hung in the pocket, got to his third option on the concept, and made a throw to move the chains on third down.

Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4, Hurts again showed the kind of pocket poise Philadelphia fans have been clamoring for. With the Eagles facing a 3rd and 12, Hurts opens to the left to read out another two-receiver concept, with DeVonta Smith on a curl route and Kenneth Gainwell on a route to the flat. Seeing this covered, Hurts flips his eyes to the middle of the field, picking up Dallas Goedert on a sit route over the middle.

Again, Hurts does this in the face of pressure, as the Cardinals bring a blitz off the left edge:

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The poise from Hurts on this play leads to another third-down conversion.

Again, moments like this were part of that debut piece here at SB Nation referenced earlier. Hurts began the year displaying the kind of poise in the pocket Eagles fans were hoping to see this year. That continued in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, on this third-down conversion early in the game:

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This was another third-and-long situation, with the Eagles facing 3rd and 13. Hurts hangs in the pocket, giving the curl route from Brown to break open near the first-down marker. Rather than pull the football down, he gives the concept the time to develop, and the offense picks up a big first down early in the game.

Hurts showed great strides down the stretch last year in handling life in the pocket. While it remained a question mark surrounding his game as 2022 began, it is a question that he put to bed early this year.

Last year, Hurts and the Eagles were big underdogs as the playoffs began, and they were outmatched in the Wild Card round against the defending Super Bowl champions.

This year, however, is a much different story. The Eagles are the top seed in the NFC and are considered by many to be one of the most complete teams in the NFL.

Hurts, and the strides he made this season, are big reasons why.

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