Jalen Hurts being a late scratch Thursday night was disappointing for all, but it certainly seemed as if the youngster's absence only strengthened his grip on the Eagles' starting job.
The second-year quarterback was scheduled for duty, and even warmed up normally, but did not face the Patriots due to an illness. It was nothing major, but enough to keep him out, and given the Eagles' struggles on the offensive line -- snapping and blocking -- having the potential franchise QB sit this out was prudent. Life was difficult for Joe Flacco all around, getting pummeled on the first drive trying to make a play on a bad snap that led to a turnover, throwing an interception and being a part of a hodge-podge unit that was overwhelmed by New England's starting defense.
From what I saw of Hurts earlier in the week, in the joint practices with the Patriots leading up to this exhibition game, he looks up to the task. Hurts was the most consistently effective quarterback on display in those sessions, excelling in special situations as well as between the 20s, and his athleticism and unpredictable style was a problem for the Patriots. Particularly on designed boots and roll-outs, when Hurts went to his right, bad things happened to the opposing defense.
Hurts could make plays flipping the ball to running back Miles Sanders, or by keeping it himself, and he is at ease throwing on the run, making pretty passes in intermediate quadrants and deep down the sideline as well. Yeah, it does cut the field off, somewhat, but Hurts is not averse to firing across his body to the opposite side if need be, and the energy he brought to the huddle and the way his teammates responded to him (both offense and defense from the sidelines) was infectious.
Oh, and some of the Patriots noticed, too.
"Jalen is a person I followed all through college," Patriots quarterback Cam Newton said, "and hearing so much about him really in high school from the Houston area ... For me to see him out there today it's always love, and it's always going to be love."
Hurts looked like the leader of this offense, and his ability to force defenses to account for the quarterback position in a way that Flacco, at age 36 and coming off several injury-marred seasons, just can't at this stage. They complement each other well, and rookie head coach Nick Sirianni seems able to toggle the offense to their strengths. At this point it remains to be seen if Hurts plays in the final preseason game next week, but the Eagles have another week of joint practices, and he can probably get the best controlled work there, anyway, and at some point this staff will declare him the Week 1 starter.
Sure, it would have been great to see Hurts get a chance to connect with first-round pick DeVonta Smith, who made his debut after fighting through some health stuff. Especially on a night when Smith got a lot of run. But the Heisman winner has already flashed enough in practices to look the part, and the excitement about him is very real.
"He is such a polished young receiver," Sirianni told me. "I haven't seen a young receiver this precise since being in San Diego with Kennan Allen in 2013."
High praise. He and Hurts will make for some very entertaining watches.
Of course, the evaluation of the quarterback will continue. I wouldn't anticipate any proclamations just yet. Philly's aggressive general manager Howie Roseman is always up for a blockbuster should there be a trade to be made for a proven young starter -- which seems a stretch at this point. But Hurts is displaying more than sufficient promise to indicate he can win games at this level, and is clearly their best option.
Pats appear improved at skill positions
Newton looked more at ease and on target carving up the Eagles in the first half Thursday than frankly I had seen earlier in the week. Against mainly backups he had tremendous pass protection, was able to step into throws and pushed the ball downfield better than what we saw for most of 2020. This also stands to be a much more diverse and impactful group of skill players from a year ago. Nelson Agholor looks like the real deal from everything I saw, and could give New England a bona fide deep threat it has long been lacking. Jakobi Meyers continues to flash and, honestly, the player who most took me by surprise on the New England offense was former top pick N'Keal Harry, who looked more active and faster than I had ever seen before. Wouldn't hold my breath on that trade request.
The Patriots are very deep at running back, though I get the sense from a fantasy perspective that despite the rotation (which can lead to more workshare than most would like) Damien Harris is going to see plenty of the ball and be given opportunities to feature. Whether it's Newton or rookie Mac Jones at QB, there is going to be ample volume in this run game; Bill Belichick will be espousing physical, fundamental football and that's part of why they wanted Newton back.
Urban continues to baffle
Urban Meyer continues to draw sideways looks from execs, coaches and cap gurus around the league. Giving away accomplished linebacker Joe Schobert to the Steelers and eating salary in the process is a head scratcher, the Time Tebow thing was always nutty and the charade with declaring a starting quarterback is more trouble than it is worth.
There were concerns among some on that roster that Tebow was there to be a locker room spy, they continue to make unconventional (to say the least) transactions and pretending that Gardner Minshew might unseat Lawrence -- even if it's to attempt to boost the veteran's trade value -- is baffling to many. Sacrificing starting reps for the first overall pick -- long seen as a generation talent -- to split it with Minshew is beyond odd. It has the feel of a college coach trying to do too much and this transition is challenging enough on the surface. Another week, another sign of potential concern.