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NFL Draft

How Eagles Might Use Jalen Hurts

  • The Draft Network
  • April 28, 2020
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Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to justify the Eagles selecting quarterback Jalen Hurts at 53rd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Go!

That's been the game on the internet in the last few days: figuring out why the Eagles took Hurts where they did. Plenty of good players remained just outside of the top 50, and with Jeremy Chinn and J.K. Dobbins rumored still on the board at that point, Hurts will be measured against the alternatives eschewed in order to bring this controversial prospect to Philadelphia.

The next step, after debating, is settling into acceptance and anticipating the realization of the pick come the 2020 season. The Eagles have foreshadowed the utilization of Hurts in their Carson Wentz-led offense, citing two more controversial playmakers in the NFL.

“With Jalen Hurts, he has a unique skill set,” coach Doug Pederson said Friday following Hurts’ selection. “You see what Taysom Hill has done in New Orleans and now he and Drew Brees have a connection there and a bond there, and you even look at [Joe] Flacco and Lamar [Jackson] in Baltimore for the short period of time, how they gelled together. It’s just something we’re going to explore. 

“I want to make a point here first and foremost that Jalen Hurts is a good quarterback, and he was drafted as a quarterback and he’s a quarterback first, but he has a unique skill set that he’s a great runner. Obviously, he throws well on the run. He has a unique set of skills that we’re going to take a look at as we keep developing this off-season and this advancement, so to speak, as we get ready for training camp.”

That's an easy statement to breeze over, but we should give it the moment it deserves. What has Hill done in New Orleans? What did Jackson do when Flacco was the starting quarterback in Baltimore?

In anticipating Philadelphia’s plan for Hurts, we have to first start by answering a more fundamental question: Why did Jackson and Hill get on the field in the first place?

What A Running QB Does

In the midst of the college football season, I asked this question:

https://twitter.com/BenjaminSolak/status/1191388753937522690

The returns were as even as I expected them to be, but I disagreed with the distribution. Kyler Murray is a good scrambler and natural athlete who can take a designed run, make a defender miss and scoot his way to a healthy pick up; Hurts is on a different level. Hurts scrambled on 13% of his dropbacks, compared to 8% for Murray, and attempted 30% of his chartable passes from outside the pocket, which is twice as frequently as Murray did. In terms of early-drafted quarterbacks, or QBs with NFL-caliber passing ability, Hurts is second only to Jackson in terms of dual threats in the last five years — maybe since Robert Griffin III.

None of this is revolutionary, and even if you disagree with the rankings, there's no doubting that Hurts can run.

Mobile passers are extremely valuable at all levels, but the edge hasn't been exploited in the NFL nearly as aggressively as it has been in college and high school. There's a great wealth of talented quarterbacks to work with in the NFL, and it's more important than ever to protect them from injury. The value that running QBs bring is reflected in the numbers game of the defense.

With a stationary quarterback, the defense is playing 11-on-10 in the running game. The quarterback won't block, they won't keep and teams don’t have to account for them structurally. As such, all that matters is having a defender in the box for every blocker, plus one to tackle the running back, and teams are accordingly gap sound. This is where the term "plus one in the box" comes from; it refers to the necessary arithmetic of having one more run defender than the offense has blockers and runners in the box.

With a running quarterback, the offense has added an additional threat in the box without removing a wide receiver from his flexed-out position. The defense now needs to find a way to put another defender in the box to again be plus one in run defense and prevent themselves from being out-gapped while still covering the receiving threats down the field.

Most base defenses are built to play 11-on-10, especially in the NFL. Introduce the running quarterback and teams get to play 11-on-11 again.

Learning From Lamar Jackson

The premier dual-threat quarterback is Jackson, and the premier rushing attack belongs to the Ravens, accordingly. With multiple back sets and an electrifying runner at QB, Baltimore can consistently get a numbers advantage in the running game and rip off chunk gains.

When Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman discussed the Hurts pick with media, they've brought up Jackson but not the 2019 version that won the MVP. Rather, the 2018 version of Jackson, who split time with the incumbent Flacco for nine weeks before taking over the starting job. In that 2018 Baltimore offense, which current Philadelphia senior offensive assistant Marty Mornhinweg coordinated, Jackson rotated in for a couple of snaps at a time, often sharing the field with Flacco, as the Ravens looked to pitch curveballs and keep opposing defenses on their toes.

Jackson’s 2018 performance was a basic class in the expression of the 11-on-11 idea. He kept the ball on designed running plays more often than he did anything else, but in the quick moments of a hurry-up offense or a sudden line change from the sideline, linebackers and safeties scrambled to get into their fits pre-snap, and Jackson regularly found running lanes.

https://youtu.be/FY3YlwH-V0Y

This is a pretty standard look for a triple-option team: the inverted wishbone, diamond pistol or whatever you want to call it. Before the snap, there was a clear running strength, the two tight end side, and a natural likelihood of potential running concepts. The defense had conditioned rules and responses to a look like this.

But suddenly, they didn't. Once the tight ends motioned into the inverted wishbone, there's no longer a clear running strength because the formation is relatively balanced in the box (one of the upbacks is off-set); with lead blockers to either side, the variety of concepts available to the offense is overwhelming. Teams could reasonably get three blockers in motion on this play (two upbacks plus a puller), and still have two players who could run with the ball (a quarterback or halfback). That's confounding!

Jackson keeps on a pretty basic option read and rips off an explosive gain.

During his nine-game stint as Flacco's cooler, more athletic younger brother, Jackson only attempted 12 passes, completing seven for 87 yards. Most of those attempts came in garbage time drives against Buffalo and Carolina, during which Jackson wasn't subbed off the field for Flacco. There was potential for Jackson to be more as a passer than he elected to be; many of his runs were tagged with optional passes, and many of his eventual passes came on designed rollouts that would have offered him a running lane. The line is blurred between running and passing plays when teams introduce an athlete like Jackson into the offense in spurts. The entire idea is deception and optionality.

https://youtu.be/NQVFb0Izy0o

This is effectually a triple-option play; we might call it a run/run/pass option. The catch-all term is a packaged play, and here we have a read-option run packaged with a post-wheel route on the front side. Jackson has the option to give the ball to the running back but elects to pull it and begins to run a fairly typical read-option path. Developing downfield is a wheel route from Willie Snead as the underneath coverage defenders have been suckered in by Jackson's threat to run and the tight end coming across the flat.

Jackson misses this throw badly, but the theory still holds. He could have thrown to Snead, thrown to the TE in the flat or kept the ball; it all depended on the actions of the underneath defenders to the play side. The defense does not have enough bodies to account for all of this action, especially as the movement of the offensive line took them the other direction. This play created space, but it was conditional on Jackson being a legitimate threat to tuck and run with the football.

The best part? Look at Flacco at the top of the screen. He doesn't need to do anything. Jackson's gravity is so powerful, it lets Flacco remain inert and uninvolved while the offense still retains their advantage.

The Taysom Hill Model

If we are to believe the Eagles' impassioned assertions that Hurts is a quarterback first and playmaker second, there is no reason to give credence to the idea that the Eagles envision Hurts in a Hill mold. Hill is not a running quarterback because he is not a quarterback at all.

Hill is not a reasonable threat to throw the football at any given time in the backfield. He has only 15 passing attempts in the last 35 games in the regular and postseason against 71 career rushes and 32 targets. With his role on special teams considered, Hill is truly a gadget player more so than he is a dual-threat quarterback. Even in his most gadget-y days, Jackson had 28 rushing attempts to 12 passing attempts and not a target to his name.

https://youtu.be/ClO8gCs_Cxo

But the same basic tenant of rushing quarterbacks applies. Hill takes the snap and wears a single-digit number, but what really matters is he's an extra player with wheels in the backfield. Accordingly, his designed runs can bust gap soundness and create explosive chunk gains. His ability to line up as a receiver is extra valuable because it allows the Saints to keep him and Brees on the field together for longer stretches and actually send Hill into the concept.

Hill is the exception that proves the rule. Even though he effectually isn't a quarterback, he's enough of a passer to take advantage of passing options on those packaged plays that Jackson enjoyed so much. Hill is a high-quality runner because of the win he gives the offense in the numbers game.

What Do The Eagles Do With Jalen Hurts?

The model of rotating a second quarterback into and out of the game is already finicky. Taking your starter off of the field for a couple of snaps can disrupt the rhythm and flow; putting both on the field can lead to an unnecessary hit to either. The only time there's really room for two quarterbacks is when both are a threat to run and pass as was the case with the infamous Louisiana-Monroe two QB offense.

Is that offense a legitimate candidate for even a page of Philadelphia's playbook? Passing game coordinator Press Taylor's comments have been floating around since the Eagles shocked with the Hurts pick; for as long as the Eagles are concerned with Wentz's health, it's extremely unlikely they put Wentz into a frequent running situation.

Philadelphia used to be able to do that, and it looked like this.

https://youtu.be/Jh6ATljPDyw 

This play may seem like forever ago. Carson was healthy, Alshon Jeffery loved his job and the Eagles were dominant. Aqib Talib was also still on the Broncos.

It was in 2017, and while it was simple and forgettable, it bears the same core value of running quarterbacks: optionality.

Wentz never kept the ball much on read option even when he was healthy in Philadelphia, only ever tucking on the occasional third down when he had a clear runway. Wentz was enough of a scrambling threat to tuck and run here for a moderate gain. He had the defense's respect.

Wentz also had another option in the backfield: He could throw downfield to Jeffery in an isolated, one-on-one matchup. Wentz read the decision of the cornerback; this is the post-snap optionality afforded by a scrambling passer — a manipulation of numbers and space to force one defender to have two responsibilities and always make them wrong.

This isn't the same route distribution or blocking scheme, but it is the same concept as Jackson’s play above, with the post-wheel combination. There's an option to run or to pass.

That same potential can be illusory, which something Lincoln Riley has been toying with in Oklahoma long before Hurts got there -- but Hurts' elite running ability made it all the more dangerous. Watch this two-play sequence:

https://youtu.be/Pbf2Tj1rC-0

On the first play, Hurts tucks and runs on a staple of the Oklahoma running game: the GT counter bash. On the second, he looks to do so again but takes a patient path, pops the ball back up and delivers an explosive strike to an open receiver in the middle of the field. It never was a running play -- watch the offensive linemen carefully stay behind the line of scrimmage -- but it sure looked like it for a while there, didn't it?

This figures to be the pillar around which Hurts’ package is built. Whether it's two or 20 snaps a game, with or without Wentz on the field, Hurts' value is born from his ability to put defenses in binds with his legs. Hurts evens the scales and opens the playbook in a way the Eagles haven't been able to since Wentz's first injury. This is space, speed and deception. While there are 100 different ways it might not work, there's a handful of ways it turns out spectacular.

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