Eagles observations: Upcoming games critical for Reed Blankenship's future
Roob's observations: Upcoming games critical for Blankenship's future originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The Eagles’ future at safety, rising concerns about turnovers and Brandon Graham’s performance in his 13th season.
We’re heading into Week 13 with the Eagles on top of the NFL world, and here’s this weekend’s 10 Random Eagles Observations to help tide you over until kickoff against the Titans Sunday.
1. Consider these next few games a tryout for Reed Blankenship, whose performance could impact Howie Roseman’s decision on who to try and re-sign this offseason. Both Eagles starting safeties – Chauncy Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps – are unsigned beyond this year, and Blankenship – as a rookie free agent – comes with bargain base salaries of $870,000 next year and $985,000 in 2024 with the Eagles also holding his rights in 2025. Because his initial signing bonus was just $5,000, his cap figures are just a few bucks higher than his base salaries. Gardner-Johnson has been terrific this year and leads the NFL with six interceptions, and at just 24 years old he’s going to be in position for a massive free agency contract. Spotrac projects something in the $14 million per year range. You'd love to keep him, but will it be possible? When you sign a quarterback to a deal like Jalen Hurts is about to get, you lose the flexibility to re-sign all the free agents you want, and you’ve got to build with some cheap rookie deals. It's not going to be easy for the Eagles to keep Gardner-Johnson, although with Howie you never say never. If Blankenship plays as well these next two or three weeks in CJGJ’s place as he did Sunday against the Packers, he becomes a viable – and drastically cheaper – alternative. You’d rather have Gardner-Johnson, but if you’re working under a salary cap you’d rather have Blankenship on a minimum cost-controlled salary than Gardner-Johnson at $14 million. I know one thing. I'd rather have Howie trying to figure all this out than any other GM.
2. How consistent has Miles Sanders been? His lowest rushing total this year was 46 yards in the first Washington game. Sanders is the only running back in the NFL who’s gained at least 45 yards in every game he’s played. He’s also the first player in Eagles history to rush for 45 yards or more in each of the first 11 games of the season. Brian Westbrook in 2007 and LeSean McCoy in 2014 did it 10 times. The huge games are awesome, but Sanders has been a model of consistency as well, and barring disaster he's going to become the Eagles’ ninth 1,000-yard rusher, finish with one of the highest rushing totals in franchise history and quite possibly earn his first Pro Bowl honor.
3. Jalen Hurts has had five games this year with at least 15 rushing attempts. Only four other quarterbacks have had more than one 15-carry game in a season (Tobin Rote in 1951, Billy Kilmer in 1961, Justin Fields this year and Lamar Jackson four times). Hurts already has the second-most 15-carry games in a career by a QB with seven. Jackson has had 14. Nobody else has had more than three.
4. The biggest reason things haven’t come so easy for the Eagles the last few weeks – a loss and three games that were too close for comfort – is their skyrocketing turnover numbers. The Eagles had three turnovers in their first eight games and seven in their last four leading to 20 points. You just make it so much harder on yourself when you don’t protect the ball, and that’s been obvious the last few weeks. The Eagles are still 3rd-best in the NFL with 10 turnovers – the Raiders and Bucs have nine – and they’re still No. 1 in takeaways with 22 and turnover margin at plus-12. That’s a big reason they’re 10-1. But if you want to beat teams like the Titans, Giants and Cowboys, you’ve got to take care of the ball, and the last few weeks they haven’t done that.
5. One thing I really appreciate about Shane Steichen is that he doesn’t over-think things and doesn’t try to get too fancy. The running game was crushing it Sunday, and instead of outsmarting himself like a lot of play callers would and start throwing the ball to try and catch the Packers by surprise or something, he just kept pounding the rock. Just keep doing it until they can stop it. And they never did stop it. The Eagles ran 22 plays in the fourth quarter Sunday, and 18 of them were runs. Jalen Hurts, Miles Sanders, Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell each had at least one 10-yard run in the fourth quarter alone, and the Eagles finished with 92 rushing yards and one passing yard in the final period. The Eagles’ ability to run even when the Packers knew they were going to run helped them lock up a big win. Sometimes the simple thing is the best thing.
6. With Jalen Hurts making a run at MVP, it’s crazy to note that no Eagle has ever been named MVP, which the AP has been giving out since 1938. What I don’t get is how Joe Montana got it in 1990 over Randall Cunningham. Joe is Joe, but Randall had a higher passer rating (91.6 to 89.0), more passing touchdowns (30 to 26), more total touchdowns (35 to 27), fewer interceptions (13 to 16) and a slight edge in rushing yards (942 to 162). Plus, Montana was throwing to Jerry Rice and John Taylor, and Randall was throwing to Keith Byars and Fred Barnett. Montana was the pre-Brady GOAT, but in 1990, Randall was better.
7. One leftover Jalen Hurts note on his crazy rushing performance against the Packers: His 9.2 per-carry rushing average – 17-for-157 – is 2nd-highest by an Eagle in the last 50 years behind Bryce Brown’s 9.4 on 19-for-178 vs. the Panthers in 2012. But Hurts was at 9.9 before his kneel down on the last play of the game, and if it wasn’t for that, he would have had the highest average by an Eagle since Timmy Brown’s 10.0 vs. the Cards in 1956 on 18-for-180. Dang kneel down!
8. One wild thing about the Eagles’ 363 rushing yards Sunday is that they didn’t have a run longer than 42 yards. They’re the first team to rush for 360 yards without a 50-yard run since the 49ers ran for 369 in a 38-21 win over the L.A. Dons at L.A. Coliseum on Dec. 5, 1948. Yep, the ol' L.A. Dons. The Dons - who were partially owned by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby - played in the old All-America Football Conference from 1946 through 1949 before merging with the cross-town rival Rams. The NFL adopted all the AAFC's stats and results when it absorbed three AAFC teams in 1950.
9. With his 30-yard touchdown Sunday, Quez Watkins surpassed 1,000 career receiving yards, which made him the first wide receiver the Eagles have drafted in the sixth round or later to reach that milestone since Hall of Famer, Harold Carmichael, the Eagles’ 7th-round pick in 1971. The only other active WR drafted in the sixth round or later with 1,000 receiving yards in his first 34 career games is Donovan Peoples-Jones, who was taken 13 picks before Watkins by the Browns.
10. A reduction in snaps has worked wonders for Brandon Graham, who is the Eagles’ highest-rated defensive player according to Pro Football Focus with a remarkable 89.6 grade. That’s B.G.'s highest since a 90.4 during the 2017 Super Bowl season and puts him No. 6 among all edge rushers, behind only Myles Garrett, Micah Parsons, Bryce Huff, Maxx Crosby and Nick Bosa. It also ranks him 12th among all defensive players league-wide. Pretty amazing for a 34-year-old veteran in his 13th season coming off a blown-out Achilles. B.G. is making a huge impact with just 26 snaps per game, his fewest since 2013. I don’t know what the future holds for Graham, but he can still play.