Are the Philadelphia Eagles legit title contenders? Questions start with QB Jalen Hurts

PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles are becoming a trendy pick to make a deep playoff run. And if there's one thing offensive linemen don't do, it's trendy.

"I know everybody expects us to be Super Bowl champions in Philadelphia right now," center Jason Kelce said earlier this week. "I think that can definitely happen, but it’s definitely not going to happen being comfortable. I can guarantee you that.

“Expectations are just that. They’re f---ing nothing. We gotta go out there and play. The moment you’re comfortable in this league, somebody’s coming for you."

So the tone internally is set, but outside the walls, the hype train continues to gain steam. The Dallas Cowboys have been the favorites to win the NFC East almost all offseason until recently. After moving from +150 to +130 this past Sunday, the Eagles have officially overtaken the Cowboys (+135) as division favorites, per Caesars Sportsbook. They are fourth in the NFC in ESPN's Football Power Index behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, with a 65% chance to make the playoffs and a 7.5% chance to reach the Super Bowl -- same as the Kansas City Chiefs.

Offseason additions like receiver A.J. Brown, edge rusher Haason Reddick, cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Kyzir White have solidified an Eagles roster that, on paper, looks to be top-shelf. And they happen to be playing in a conference that appears pretty weak overall. Add those two things together and it's understandable why the Eagles' stock is on a bull run ahead of Sunday's season opener against the Detroit Lions (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

But are they really legitimate title contenders? The answer to these five questions will decide:

Can Jalen Hurts improve his accuracy?

Hurts is a strong leader. He's a playmaker. He led all quarterbacks last year in rushing yards (784) and rushing touchdowns (10). He showed in his first full year as a starter that he's capable of taking a team to the playoffs. But he needs to improve as a passer for Philadelphia to elevate into the upper echelon.

Hurts finished 26th in completion percentage in 2021 (61.3%). He completed 53.7% of his throws on third down, also 26th in the league. Escaping would-be tacklers and creating on the move is Hurts' "superpower" as his coaches like to call it. But the offense lacked rhythm throws. Hurts was tops in average time before the pass (3.12 seconds) and average time in the pocket (2.66 seconds), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Hurts, 24, spent part of the summer in Southern California working with quarterback gurus to improve his fundamentals. And the belief is that familiarity with the offense -- this is the first time he's been in the same system since his father was his coach back in high school -- will lead to him getting the ball out faster.

"I think what we have seen in practice over and over again is him being able to get through reads quicker, him being more accurate with his throws," coach Nick Sirianni said. "Guys that are competitive, guys that are tough and guys that love football have the ability to reach their ceiling, and I can see him continuing to grow."

Will defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon be more aggressive?

Gannon is well-regarded across the NFL and even got some head coach interviews this offseason, but he was arguably too conservative in his first year as a defensive coordinator.

The Eagles dialed up the second-fewest blitzes (122) and, with his safeties often playing ultra-deep, allowed quarterbacks to complete 69.4% of their throws, tied for the highest mark in the league.

That approach had something to do with personnel -- Gannon didn't have all the pieces he needed in Year 1 to fit his hybrid scheme -- but it was largely about philosophy. He's a big believer that limiting explosive plays leads to wins, so he avoided calls that might lead to a big gainer over the top.

But it didn't allow enough for playmakers to make plays. The Eagles finished second-to-last in sacks (29), 27th in QB contacts (132) and 28th in takeaways (16).

Asked what improvements he'd like to see in Year 2 from his defense, Gannon said: "Probably take the ball away a little bit more, affect the quarterback a little bit more and be consistent."

"I think letting them play a little bit more, and not to say that we didn't let them play last year, but I told those guys, we have to problem-solve and you guys have to think on your feet and get me out of trouble when a call is not ideal," Gannon said. "That's what I think that our defense, the guys that we have right now have shown that through camp, and I just honestly trust the whole room a little bit better."

Will Chauncey Gardner-Johnson settle their safety issue?

The biggest question on the roster this offseason has been the safety position. General manager Howie Roseman alleviated much of the public concern by acquiring Gardner-Johnson from the New Orleans Saints on Aug. 30.

Gardner-Johnson fits the mold of a "modern-day safety," Gannon suggested -- someone with "coverage ability, being able to play in the box, having range, playing post closed, post open, covering, tackling, communicating, being smart."

Only one problem: He hasn't played much safety since graduating from the University of Florida in 2018.

Gardner-Johnson isn't sweating it. “I’m a ballplayer,” he said. “It’s just football. I’ve been playing it since I was 6 years old." And there are enough similarities between slot corner and safety in Gannon's scheme to soften the transition. But it is a new position on a new defense, and Gardner-Johnson has had less than two weeks to get acclimated.

Can Fletcher Cox get out of his 'own way'?

When assessing the strength of the Eagles' defensive line, it's easy to bake in Cox's high level of production as a given. It's probably time to adjust.

His last dominant season was 2018 (10.5 sacks, 34 QB hits, 12 tackles for loss). There's been regression since then for the 31-year-old defensive tackle. He posted 3.5 sacks and 12 QB hits last season. Cox made it publicly known that he was not fond of how Gannon was using him. He was the subject of trade talks prior to the November deadline and was released in March in a money-saving move before being brought back on a one-year deal two days later.

“I think last year, I got in my own way,” Cox said, explaining that he was "getting in my head" in 2021. “And that’s been my goal: Just don’t get in my own way this year. I’ve been having a lot of fun doing it.”

The Eagles have a lot going for them along the defensive front, including Reddick, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham (back from an Achilles injury), Javon Hargrave, Milton Williams and rookie Jordan Davis. Cox doesn't need to be a superstar, but he needs to ratchet it up for the defense to realize its potential.

Is Nick Sirianni a championship-caliber coach?

It wasn't too long ago that the Eagles were 2-5 and fans were ready to send Sirianni and his flower analogies packing. Then Philly rattled off seven wins over its final 10 games -- starting with a 44-6 drubbing of this week's opponent, the Lions -- to snag the final wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs and cool Sirianni's seat off.

Things have stabilized for Sirianni as he enters his second year as head coach. He's gotten more comfortable in the spotlight and has endeared himself to Philly a bit with his sideline fire and everyman demeanor.

But as he learned through a turbulent Year 1, the bottom can drop out pretty quickly. And this time around, the stakes are raised. It won't be enough to squeak into the playoffs by beating a bunch of mediocre teams and quarterbacks down the stretch this time around. There needs to be significant progress.

Sirianni has proved to be an effective connector. His players did not bail on him when the going got tough last season, and the locker room, as things stand, appears to have bought in entering 2022. But the sample size remains small. How will he respond to the added pressure? Can he stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Sean McVays of the coaching world? Is he the man to guide a talented team to the top of the mountain?

We'll start getting answers soon.