How Jalen Hurts became the highest-paid player in NFL history

A year ago, the Philadelphia Eagles pulled off a pre-draft trade with the New Orleans Saints, with the Eagles sending New Orleans a pair of 2022 first-round selections (as well as a late-round pick) in exchange for a package of picks including the Saints’ 2023 first-round selection.

At the time, the move was viewed at least in part as a hedge on quarterback Jalen Hurts. While the quarterback took a step forward in 2021, there were still lingering questions whether Hurts was going to be the team’s long-term answer at the position.

A year later? The Eagles are coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and Hurts is now the highest-paid player in NFL history.

What a difference a year makes.

The Eagles agreed to a new five-year deal with Hurts on Monday, worth $255 million and potentially up to nearly $275 million. The contract includes $179.304 million in guaranteed money, and a no-trade clause. That is the first time in franchise history that Philadelphia has signed a player to a deal with a no-trade clause:

How did Hurts make the leap from question mark to franchise cornerstone?

It starts inside the pocket.

Perhaps the biggest improvement to Hurts’ game last season came within the confines of the pocket.

While Hurts took a step forward during 2021, one of the lingering questions that remained was how he handled life inside the pocket. As an athletic quarterback, Hurts struggled with balancing his athleticism and ability to create with his legs, with the need to sometimes stay inside the pocket and make a throw under pressure.

But all the way back in Week 1, in the Eagles’ win over the Detroit Lions, the signs were there that Hurts was becoming much more comfortable within the confines of the pocket. Take this completion from the third quarter:

This play is a good example of Hurts taking information before the snap, and using it to his advantage as the play unfolds. Prior to the snap, Brown aligns on the left side of the field and comes in motion across the formation. With no defender trailing him, that is an indicator to the quarterback that the Lions might be in zone coverage. While this is not a guarantee, as defenses have done a great job in recent years at disguising their intentions, this is a data point for the QB to decipher before the snap.

Hurts has a few other zone indicators to work with, primarily the alignments of the cornerbacks. Both defenders are playing off their receivers, and have their feet and hips open toward the middle of the field. Again, indications that zone coverage is at play.

But the job is not done, as Hurts has to decipher the pressure look upfront from Detroit. The Lions have a pair of defenders mugging the A-Gaps, and with seven men down on the line of scrimmage, there is a chance Detroit brings pressure and rotates into man coverage behind this pressure front.

The Lions bring just four and indeed drop into zone coverage. But they still manage to get interior pressure on Hurts, thanks to a read blitz from the mugged-up defenders. On this play, the two mugged-up linebackers start to blitz and will read the movement of the center, Jason Kelce. If the center turns to one side, that defender will then drop into coverage, and the other will continue on his blitz path. Kelce opens to his right and spots linebacker Chris Board. Once he does this, Board drops back into coverage and his cohort, Alex Anzalone, continues his blitz. Kelce tries to double-back and help on Anzalone, and running back Kenneth Gainwell steps up into the A-Gap to take on the linebacker, but Anzalone still manages to get into the pocket.

Yet Hurts hangs in the pocket, and knowing that Brown is running an out route, he makes an anticipation throw against the soft coverage to convert the third down.

This is the kind of moment Eagles fans were hoping to see this season from Hurts. At times last year, these were the plays where Hurts would pull the football down in response to pressure and look to create with his legs, rather than make a throw from the pocket. Hurts’ athleticism is a true weapon, and he delivered some athletic moments on Sunday in Detroit, but here he takes advantage of the information gained presnap and makes a read and throw from the pocket, moving the chains.

Philadelphia would finish the drive with a touchdown.

Or take this play against the Houston Texans from Week 9:

The Eagles run a vertical concept here off of play-action, with Brown attacking downfield on the left side of the formation and DeVonta Smith running the deep crossing route from right-to-left. Houston brings pressure, and linebacker Christian Kirksey has a free run at the quarterback. But Hurts hangs in the pocket in the face of this free pressure — knowing that it is coming — and hits Smith working across the field for a huge gain.

We even saw examples of Hurts delivering from a collapsing pocket — rather than bailing from it — in the playoffs. In Philadelphia’s win over the New York Giants, Hurts and Smith connected on a touchdown early in the second quarter on a throw along the right side of the field. While yes, the safety took a poor angle, you also have to credit the QB for hanging in the pocket as it collapsed around him, giving this play a chance to develop:

We saw other examples of Hurts balancing that “fight or flight” instinct in the pocket during the 2022 campaign. Take this play against the Washington Commanders in Week 10:

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 and he has some free runners in his face.

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.

This is high-level quarterback play.

But perhaps my favorite example of Hurts pushing aside the demons of the past and learning to fight in the pocket came from early in Week 2. Against the Minnesota Vikings, the Eagles face an early third-down situation. Facing 3rd and 13, watch as Hurts fights the urge to pull the ball down and escape to the left — where there is a lot of green grass — and instead hangs in the pocket, giving Brown’s deep curl route time to develop:

The Hurts of 2020 or 2021 probably pulls this down.

The Hurts of 2022, however, makes a much different decision.

There are, of course, other reasons why the Eagles made the decision to ink Hurts to a long-term deal. Winning certainly helps, and with the Eagles holding yet two more first-round selections in the 2023 NFL Draft, there is every expectation that Philadelphia will make another deep playoff run in 2023.

Then there is the athleticism Hurts brings to the table. In today’s NFL, with defenses relying on two-high safety looks and light boxes up front, the ability of the quarterback to be a dynamic force in the running game is a huge asset for an NFL offense. Take this run from Hurts against the Green Bay Packers:

The play begins with Green Bay aligned with two deep safeties, and just five defenders in the box. With the tight end aligned in-line next to the left tackle, the Eagles are +1 in the box, at least in terms of bodies.

But watch how quickly +1 for the offense becomes +2 — or more — when you involve the QB as a run threat. The Eagles run GT Counter Bash, pulling the backside guard and tackle in front of Hurts. Hurts can give the football to the running back aiming for the right side, but when he sees that defensive end stay home, he pulls the football and keeps it, following the two-man convoy to the left side.

The guard picks up the playside defensive end, the tackle climbs to one of the deep safeties, and the Eagles have a huge gain in the running game.

Hurts’ presence — and ability — as a threat in the running game is a huge plus for the Philadelphia offense.

There is also a leadership factor. Quarterback is one of the ultimate “leadership” positions in sports, and having someone who can inspire the other ten players in the huddle — and even the rest of the roster — is a massive boost for a team. This is something both head coach Nick Sirianni and owner Jeffrey Lurie talked about during the playoffs and the offseason:

But it is his growth as a passer, particularly from the pocket, that led to today, with him becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pull my son and daughter out of school for the day. They need to work on their pocket footwork.