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Eagles' success in 2021 depends on how they answer these 6 questions in training camp


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It might appear as if the Eagles are a boring team heading into training camp. They're coming off a 4-11-1 season, and expectations aren't much higher than that for the upcoming season.

But there are plenty of questions that will determine whether they can improve on last season, or avoid finishing last in the NFC East. 

Here are the top six, beginning with the head coach, Nick Sirianni:

1. Can Sirianni coach?

We're about to find out if the good will among the Eagles' veterans from the spring practices will carry over into training camp now that the Eagles will be conducting 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team drills.

The veterans were grateful to Sirianni for working with them on a compromise in conducting the spring practices. Will that continue if some of the veterans say, for example, they need a day to scale back?

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Former coach Doug Pederson would often give some veterans days off during camp, something that goes back to Andy Reid's days as Eagles head coach.

Sirianni will also have to prove that his schemes on offense are good enough to win games. That's also the case on defense, which he is turning over to coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who has never been a coordinator at the NFL level before.

If Sirianni can work out the give-and-take between coaches and players, that can at least get him off to a good start with the Eagles. That could begin with live hitting periods during training camp.

"When we're able to have the pads on, we're going to have the pads on, because that's how football is played," Sirianni said. "I'm sure there will be a period here and there where we're going live to the ground."

2. Is Hurts the franchise QB?

Technically, Jalen Hurts has not been named the starting quarterback for this season, but that is a formality. Sirianni has said ever since he got the job that there will be competition at every position, including quarterback.

But really, the Eagles will have serious issues if Hurts can't win the job from veteran Joe Flacco or Nick Mullens. Really, the question that will begin to get answered in training camp is whether Hurts can be the Eagles' franchise quarterback beyond this season.

And that, too, will determine Sirianni's ability as a coach. After all, Hurts completed only 52% of his passes last season in the 4 1/2 games in which he replaced Carson Wentz. But Hurts did run for 301 yards, which projected over a full season would come out to more than 1,000.

So Hurts isn't competing against Flacco and Mullens as much as he is competing against Deshaun Watson or a top-five draft pick in 2022. 

3. Who's the left tackle?

This will bear watching up until the start of the season as Andre Dillard, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2019, will compete against Jordan Mailata, the former Australian rugby player who asserted himself well when he played last season.

Dillard, meanwhile, missed all of 2020 after tearing his biceps muscle last August. The Eagles drafted Dillard specifically to replace Jason Peters in 2020. But Dillard's injury forced the Eagles to bring back Peters, who at 38 years old didn't come close to his Hall of Fame level.

If either Dillard or Mailata can't establish themselves as legitimate starters coming out of training camp, then the Eagles will be looking for a new left tackle in 2022.

4. What's the deal with Ertz?

It's expected that disgruntled tight end Zach Ertz will report to training camp on Tuesday.

But it's not expected that he'll actually be a member of the Eagles for much longer. The Eagles could wait until sometime in August to either trade or release Ertz. He is currently on the payroll for $8.5 million entering the final year of his contract.

The Eagles are determined to turn the top tight end spot over to Dallas Goedert, with Richard Rodgers and a third tight end backing him up. So even if Ertz does stay with the Eagles this season, it won't be as the top tight end. 

It could also create an awkward situation if Ertz, who ranks second in Eagles' history in receptions, remains in limbo for much longer. 

5. How good are the Eagles' cornerbacks?

Just like that, the Eagles' cornerback position went from a weakness to a strength with the signing of free agent Steven Nelson on Sunday.

Nelson's signing gives the Eagles a bona-fide starter opposite Darius Slay, something they did not have last season with the combination of Avonte Maddox, Michael Jacquet, Kevon Seymour and departed corners Cre'Von LeBlanc and Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Nelson was the Steelers' prized free-agent signing in 2019 with a three-year, $25.5 million deal. He started all 30 games he played in for the Steelers, who decided to release him in March rather than pay him for his third and final season.

Still, Nelson and Slay as a pair are a significant upgrade from what the Eagles had at cornerback in more than a decade. 

6. How good is DeVonta Smith?

All eyes will be on Smith, the No. 10 overall pick in the draft. He weighed 166 pounds at his predraft workout, and there will be questions about whether he can hold up physically over the course of a 17-game season against cornerbacks weighing about 30-40 pounds more than he does.

It didn't stop Smith at Alabama, but the NFL, obviously, is another level. 

The Eagles desperately need Smith to develop into a go-to receiver, and right away, if they're going to have any success.

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Contact Martin Frank at mfrank@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.