Friday, December 9, 2022

Fantasy Football: Jalen Hurts’ practice performances cement him as a top-five Fantasy quarterback

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. — Jalen Hurts‘ first seven games last year were fantastic (26.4 Fantasy points per game), but then he finished his final nine with a thud (16.1 points per game). He went from 34.6 pass attempts per game and a 4.1% touchdown rate to 23.8 pass attempts per game and a 3.2% touchdown rate. The reason? Philadelphia went exceptionally and borderline irrationally run-heavy with a 59% rush rate from Week 8 on.

The fear was real back in March that Hurts and the Eagles would stick to their run-forever approach. That would mean not trusting Hurts to throw a lot and to win games by grinding down defenses with the run. Offseason ankle surgery for Hurts didn’t help things.

And then draft night happened when wideout A.J. Brown went to Philadelphia via trade.

And then the Eagles spent absolutely no draft capital on a quarterback.

And then training camp started, and reports of Hurts improving as a passer were plentiful. Glowing, even.

Perhaps the ultimate August test happened this week in Miami. Hurts and the Eagles had one joint practice with the Dolphins and full-pads, intra-squad practices on consecutive scorching-hot South Florida mornings. Hurts impressed with his ability to read defenses and handle pressure. 

“I thought Jalen was outstanding,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said in reference to Hurts’ practice against the Dolphins. “To me, [it] was the best practice he’s had as an Eagle since I’ve been here. … Being able to go through reads and the progressions that fast and getting the ball to where it needed to go, I thought, was unbelievable.”

That part was true, at least against the Dolphins on Wednesday. He made a number of successful second reads when his first read was covered and did a good job consistently getting rid of the ball (be it a check-down or a throwaway) whenever there was pressure. And there was a lot of pressure from the Dolphins’ defensive front. Despite that, Hurts was credited by with 16 of 24 completions including two throwaways against Miami. That 66.7% completion rate is really good.

Hurts didn’t run the ball against the Dolphins, which figured to be more about self-preservation in a scrimmage. That was not the case in a friendly red-zone scrimmage against his mates on Thursday when he ran on the first, fourth, seventh and final two plays of in 11-on-11 drills, including two for touchdowns. 

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But Hurts’ passing was a little more up-and-down against his own defense on Thursday. Without A.J. Brown on the field, Hurts was intercepted twice, both times when he was pressured and one pick coming on a bad decision to throw a jump ball on a fade to DeVonta Smith in the end zone. He was also a little off-target, throwing a little too high for Smith on one play and a little short of him in the end zone on another, plus a high pass for Dallas Goedert in tight coverage was knocked away and a short-middle pass was thrown behind Quez Watkins.

Against the Eagles defense, which sported all three starting cornerbacks (Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox had the interceptions), and without his top wideout, Hurts completed just 4 of 10 passes in red-zone team drill work, per our accounting.

Is it just the result from one practice? Yep. Could he have done better with Brown out there? Of course. Might he do better against a lesser defense (like the Lions in Week 1, for instance)? The Eagles have the second-easiest Projected Strength of Schedule for quarterbacks, so most definitely.

Which is why Fantasy managers should believe in Hurts like never before.

His downside no longer includes him getting benched, which means aside from injury, the only bad outcome for his stats would be if his passing doesn’t improve and the Eagles revert to being extremely run-heavy at midseason. That would be nightmarish for not just Hurts, but for Brown, Smith and Goedert too.

This means there is a very realistic chance for Hurts to hit 4,000 passing yards and at least 25 passing touchdowns. That’s pretty close to the thresholds that would qualify him as a top 12 Fantasy passer.

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Tack on whatever he does as a rusher and we could be talking about a top-five quarterback, which is what he was on-pace for through the first seven weeks of last year when the Eagles were not as run-heavy — and without A.J. Brown on the team.

If the difference between Hurts and the top pocket passers is 1,000 passing yards and 15 passing touchdowns, then the minimum he must rush for to make up for it is 800 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Hurts had 784 rush yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in 2021.

There’s too much potential to ignore with Hurts. Seeing him miss throws in red-zone drills against his own team without his best receiver stings a little bit, but seeing him read defenses and accurately throw in non-red-zone drills against another defense with his best receiver is probably more indicative of the player we’ll watch on Sundays. Fantasy managers should feel comfortable taking Hurts among the first five quarterbacks in Fantasy drafts.

At the time of this story, Hurts was outside the top five among quarterbacks on ADP, FantasyPros ADP and NFC high-stakes ADP for the last week. He should be in there. 

Round 5 is an acceptable time to get him in a one-QB format, and fifth overall is an acceptable time to get him in a two-QB format.

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