Averion Hurts Jr. is seated on the armrest of the family couch. Actually, it's a leather love seat, but no one's focused on that right now. It's the second night of the 2020 NFL Draft, and America is watching this particular living room -- tucked somewhere in Houston, Texas -- for something other than furniture. A stationary ESPN camera, positioned in the corner of the room, provides the view. Averion, along with six others packed around him, gets the same view from his own TV.
That is until the broadcast cuts back to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Standing in his New York basement, live from the league's first-ever virtual draft, the figurehead of pro football looks down to one of his NFL-branded index cards.
"With the 53rd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft," Goodell begins, "the Philadelphia Eagles select ... "
Jalen Hurts. Quarterback. Oklahoma.
The announcement is straightforward and monotonously delivered. But back in Houston, where the broadcast quickly returns to the Hurts home, almost no one is quiet. Two people leap up, as if ejected from their leather cockpits. Two others scream. Others clap almost violently, yanking their hands apart so that they can jam them back together with the force this moment demands. Averion, meanwhile, still on the armrest, grabs the man directly to his side. Clutching his friend's biceps, he shakes the man back and forth, then pounds on his arms like an overly excited older sibling.
The man, it turns out, is indeed Averion's sibling: a younger brother. Outfitted in the same white tee Averion is wearing, he is also the only person in the room who's absolutely straight-faced -- so resolute in his seriousness that you may have guessed his life depended on being unfazed by the celebration. He puts his head down and gives a few subtle nods, but he refuses to let a smile slip out. He comes across unusually and intentionally disaffected and, at first glance, maybe even disinterested.
His name? Jalen Hurts.
An unusual arrival
One year later, it's hard to say which is more stunning: Hurts' entry into the NFL, or his current place in it.
Let's start with the former. No one doubted he would go pro. He lacked the size or big arm of consensus first-rounders like Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love, but everything else guaranteed him a shot in the NFL: The heap of offers from major programs like Minnesota, Mississippi State, Purdue and Texas A&M; the perfect record as Alabama's first true-freshman starting QB under Nick Saban; the Heisman Trophy candidacy after transferring to Oklahoma. Some speculated he could sneak into the first round, but even after the opening night came and went, he figured to be a solid Day Two flyer for a team without a clear-cut long-term answer under center. The Colts, Jaguars, Patriots, Raiders, Saints and Steelers all made sense.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone -- fans, coaches, rival execs, Hurts himself -- who had the Eagles on that list. On the night Goodell called Jalen's name, marking Philadelphia as the starting point for the young man's career, the Eagles were 15 weeks removed from Carson Wentz, their former No. 2 overall pick, guiding the team to an NFC East title and a playoff appearance. They were 10 months removed from signing Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension. Even those who couldn't help but see the promise in Hurts' profile scratched their heads and echoed the question across the football landscape: What are the Eagles doing?
Philly justified the surprise investment by reminding everyone how important QB insurance can be, alluding to the magical anomaly that was the 2017 season, when backup Nick Foles replaced an injured MVP-caliber Wentz to bring the City of Brotherly Love its first Super Bowl victory. What the Eagles didn't foresee was total dysfunction -- not another freak injury -- paving the way for Hurts to take over. With Hurts first deployed mostly as a gimmick, Wentz proceeded to regress at a historic rate, flailing through a 3-8-1 slump before taking a tired coach Doug Pederson down with him. Once general manager Howie Roseman acquiesced to Wentz's preference for a fresh start, shipping the one-time star to Indianapolis this February, Hurts suddenly went from enticing No. 2 to likely No. 1.
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This is not how the Eagles envisioned rolling out Hurts. It's like a worst-case scenario, repurposed for a new regime. And certainly not the ideal draft-and-develop blueprint. Even now, having passed on top QB prospects this spring and adding 36-year-old Joe Flacco as "competition" (i.e. the new backup), the Eagles are treading lightly as they prepare for Hurts' big debut as the guy. Neither Roseman nor new coach Nick Sirianni has crowned or committed to Jalen. Heck, even the social media team has been light on QB1 promos; Sam Bradford may have gotten more photo shoots and Twitter teases upon his abrupt arrival back in 2015.
Given Hurts' short resume and the speed with which the Wentz era deteriorated, this shouldn't be totally surprising, but for all intents and purposes, the Eagles' newest QB is a guinea pig. Just as almost no one saw this coming, almost no one -- including decision-makers inside the building -- is counting on Jalen Hurts keeping this job.
But that's exactly the kind of situation in which Hurts has always thrived. This is a man unmoved by the moment. One of the true cold-blooded competitors in the sport. A guy who will seize the responsibility you're not sure he deserves. His draft-night display of stone-faced spirit may have hinted at it, but it's a mentality that's both shaken and inspired teammates, stirred and transformed locker rooms, and manufactured improbable victories for years.
'He owned the building'
Hurts was 17 when he first stepped onto Alabama's campus as a freshman. He carried himself like a noted alumnus.
"We came in in the same class," says Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr., a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2019. "He actually had early-enrolled. But once I got there and got to meet him, it was just a blessing. I knew I chose the right school at that point. He knew when to turn it on, both as a quarterback and as a leader, especially for a freshman."
From the beginning, former Crimson Tide QB Josh Palet says, he had a confidence to him that was unique.
"He acted like he owned the building when he walked in. It rubbed some people the wrong way and he didn't care. He wasn't really concerned about making friends, he was concerned about doing his job and winning."
On the surface, it sounds like the ideal description of any Alabama QB recruit. Do your job; that's all that matters. But this manifested in every exchange Hurts had, both on and off the field. Once, according to a source, teammates whispered about a young Hurts taking the seat of another QB during meetings, much to the other QB's chagrin.
"(And he) was not prepared to surrender that seat back to its original occupant," says the source, who requested anonymity so as not to overplay his relationship with certain players. "I took that to mean, 'I'm here to stay.' As the story was relayed to me, he was taking the seat -- a seat in the front of the room -- to send a message. He, I believe the same week, also took lead in the lines for individual drills; a way of asserting himself."
Lane Kiffin, the QBs coach and offensive coordinator at the time, didn't mind the unusual confidence, nor the hurt feelings, per the source. If anything, he seemed to enjoy the friction. But in Tuscaloosa, this was all but tantamount to a rookie swiping Tom Brady's chair in front of Bill Belichick during the Patriots' glory days. Nick Saban had shepherded the program to four national championships in the seven years prior to Hurts' arrival, propping up QBs like Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron for NFL stints. And then in came this kid from Houston, complete with blonde-streaked dreadlocks from his high school days, demanding authority without even opening his mouth.
Hurts is fiercely competitive, but you wouldn't know it by the way he speaks. The dictionary entry for "soft-spoken" could include his name. Oftentimes, at least publicly, he's barely above a whisper. Coupled with the same even-keeled expressions of draft night, it's no wonder some see him as a "mellow" character. Just don't mistake any of it for passivity.
There's a reason Saban made Hurts the first freshman QB to start for his college football powerhouse in more than 30 years: The young man backed it all up. He performed like someone who should be talking. What he lacked in jaw-dropping arm strength he made up for with poise, patience and shifty legs to extend plays. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Hurts also proved much tougher than anticipated, aided by a power-lifting background.
"Even in the offseason, in workouts, he would put on a show," says Palet. "I remember one time he had a midterm at, like, 7 in the morning, so he had to come in early and just hang-cleaned 260 without stretching. This kid was a freak of nature."
It helped that his life quite literally revolved around football. Lots of guys play football -- in high school, in college, in the NFL. But not all of them live it like he does. Palet and other former teammates, when asked whether they can recall Hurts having any hobbies outside of the game, struggle to give an answer.
"His dad was the head football coach at his high school, his brother was a college football quarterback, so he came in knowing that this is a job," Palet says. "This isn't playtime. He didn't go out and party, he wasn't hanging out with girls in the wee hours of the morning. He was super serious. ... This dude (was) more mature than the majority of the seniors. One time I asked him, 'Is this, like, an act, or are you like this all the time?' He is just so locked in. So serious about football. I've never met someone so serious."
Raiders guard Lester Cotton Sr., who played with Hurts for all three of the QB's seasons at Alabama, also attributes Jalen's unmatched work ethic to his family, which has been lauded as "football royalty" for its multi-generational presence in Channelview, of East Texas. (Hurts' dad, Averion Sr., pursued an NFL career before hitting the sidelines, and his first son, Averion Jr., once said his parents let him follow Dad through weight rooms and football fields instead of going to daycare.) All that inherited time around the game helped refine Jalen more than most.
"It was like he had a starter's mentality, no matter if he was the starter," says Cotton. "Whenever they named the starter for the week, he always sat right beside Nick Saban. The meetings before the games, going over plays, he sat right beside Saban. Every day."
Ask anyone what they remember most about Hurts' college career, though, and there's a good chance they'll point to Jan. 8, 2018, when Saban benched the ascending QB at halftime of the national championship -- when the backup, Tua Tagovailoa, played victorious hero as Hurts watched from the sideline. Never mind that Hurts led Alabama to a previous national title game, scoring 36 touchdowns, guiding a 12-0 finish and going blow for blow with Deshaun Watson on the big stage as a freshman. Never mind that he led the biggest comeback in SEC title-game history replacing an injured Tagovailoa a year later. Never mind that he exploded for 50-plus touchdowns and 5,000-plus total yards, including more than 1,200 on the ground, in his lone season with the Sooners.
Yet even the defining "misstep" of Hurts' journey to the NFL, when Tua sealed a championship in his place, is proof to his peers that he's got what it takes to do it at the next level.
"If Tua wasn't our quarterback at the time," says Smith, "Jalen probably would've taken us to the natty again and won."
Palet had already graduated by the time confetti rained on Tagovailoa amid Hurts' demotion. He recalls texting Jalen soon afterward: Dude, I'm really proud of you. Moments later, his phone was ringing with a FaceTime call. It was Hurts.
"He was telling me that he's not done, saying Tua's great but that it's still his team," Palet says. "This dude was so optimistic."
And everyone will attest to it. Cotton says Hurts is "never fazed ... never down and out about a situation ... and never gonna stop leading," adding that he "doesn't really care how he gets it done, as long as he gets it done." Patriots running back Damien Harris, another ex-Alabama standout, once said Hurts "never shakes" and "never flinches." The QB's four-game sample size as an NFL starter suggests as much; the Eagles went 1-3 after Wentz took a seat in 2020, but they rarely looked more energized and at ease than when Mr. Cool himself was under center.
"I'm like, 'Watch him take Carson's spot,'" Palet says. "(They) were probably civil with each other, but I'm sure they didn't like each other ... (Jalen) walks in like he's the starting quarterback and people look at him like he's nuts, but he owns every room he walks in."
'I love Jalen Hurts'
Shouldn't we assume, with all his stringent practices, his almost-emotionless attitude, his persistently pesky maneuvers to win, win, win, that Hurts is also ... cold? Impersonal? A robot straight out of the Saban Factory, like something custom built to uphold the "Patriot Way" under Bill Belichick? There's plenty of evidence -- some of it behind the scenes -- that's not the case. Far from it.
Palet remembers trading "Dodgeball" and "Dumb and Dumber" quotes with Jalen. (And let's be real: Only fun people do that.) Smith recalls him hitting the dance floor.
"I'm from New Orleans and he's from Texas, so we got some similar blood, in that sense," Smith says. "If we were in the locker room or went out somewhere and they played Louisiana music, we was jigging for sure. I had to teach him a couple little moves."
But Hurts is also, as The Oklahoman's Joe Mussatto put it, an "old soul." Not just because he drives a used car, wears hoop earrings, collects throwback Chicago Bulls T-shirts and prefers '80s and '90s R&B music. But because of the way he communicates. The way he quietly affects others. Hurts may have preferred writing to speaking in the classroom (he majored in public relations), but he often raised his voice as a volunteer motivational speaker at Alabama's Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Center, where he "taught the kids the importance of shaking hands and looking someone in the eye." Terry Saban, Nick's wife, told Mussatto that Hurts "always managed to stretch himself and his schedule to help others."
Cotton recalls students running across the University of Alabama quad to meet or take pictures with the star QB, who would always do "extra" for the fans, even if "we had five minutes 'till class started." Palet cherishes a time when Hurts did him a special favor: "I had a buddy, his kid was turning, like, 4 and having an Alabama-themed birthday party, so I asked Jalen if he could do a little video for the kid even though he never met him. He did this really cool video, they played it at the kids' party, and everyone lost their minds. He didn't have to do that."
It mirrors an episode that occurred this offseason, smack dab in the middle of Hurts' prep to take over the Eagles' job. In April, 13-year-old Giovanni Hamilton, a Philly fan with a rare muscular disorder, asked the QB if he'd be willing to come on his podcast for a few minutes. Hamilton has long been a Carson Wentz superfan, dating back to 2017 when Wentz, Nick Foles and other Eagles paid him personal attention during the team's Super Bowl run. But he considers himself equally a Hurts fan now. Days after his request, Jalen's agent was in touch with Giovanni, and Hurts appeared as a special guest on the podcast -- his first one-on-one as QB1.
What's going on, baby?! Hurts says as he introduces himself.
"He actually talked to me for a good 20 minutes even before we started," says Hamilton. "He wants to get matching hoop earrings ... I remember being so scared and nervous and then, as soon as he came on and started talking, that all went away, because he's a super nice guy, a normal guy."
Giovanni's mom, Shannon, is even more impressed by the man who spoke with her son: "Afterward, he told Giovanni, 'I'll come on anytime you want, just hit me up. I'll always be there for you.' It's really nice to have players who do this sort of thing. And it was good that he was so calm and almost mellow, because Giovanni immediately calmed down. ... It meant everything, and Giovanni is still glowing from it, I think. It's a big deal for a little boy to have such a great role model. I love him. I love Jalen Hurts."
So does a particular family in Nottingham, Pennsylvania: This January, after reaching out to Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, Hurts discovered that a 7-year-old named Erick was battling cancer while living with four siblings in a two-bedroom trailer. So he showed up unannounced at their home with $30,000 from his own pocket -- a gift to help ease their situation.
Hurts himself has repeated a "coffee bean" illustration to describe his reserved but intentional approach to relationships. It's a message he picked up from Damon West, a former drug addict and burglar-turned-Christian speaker, who in turn heard the idea while in county jail: A fellow inmate once told him that prison is like a pot of boiling water. Whatever's in the pot is changed by the temperature and pressure of the water. A carrot, the saying goes, turns soft in the boiling water. An egg turns hard. A coffee bean, however, turns the water itself into something else -- coffee -- and the entire pot is affected. Hurts prefers to be the coffee bean. Not passive. Not aggressive. Just quietly affecting in his own way.
If you think none of this matters on the field, or for the 2021 Eagles, think again.
"The way people see (Jalen) on TV is the same person you get off TV and in the locker room," says Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford, an Alabama transfer. "He is a person who practices what he preaches."
In Philly, teammates have already lined up to deem him a "natural-born leader." At 22 years old, in his first unabridged NFL offseason, he's become something of a teacher for an entirely new regime, with everyone from rookies to longtime veterans highlighting his "cool, calm and collected" instruction. Third-year running back Miles Sanders told reporters that part of what makes Hurts stand out, much like peppy first-time coach Nick Sirianni, is the attention he gives everyone in the building.
"(He's) just trying to get everybody involved," Sanders said. "He's the quarterback for a reason. So some quarterbacks might just focus on offensive players. Some quarterbacks won't even think about defense or special teams. When I'm walking with him through the hallway, he's saying what's up to everybody, dapping everybody up. He has everybody's phone number. Just really taking that strong approach to being that guy, and I respect him for that."
The key to Philly
None of this, of course, will resonate in Philly and around the NFL nearly as much if Hurts doesn't pan out as a QB -- the QB. There are plenty of cool stories, good guys and hard workers at the QB position. But not all of them are franchise passers. Very few are elite. So where does this leave us? Is Hurts just an inevitable flash in the pan? Or does he have a legitimate path to a long-term job? Fans are buying up his new jersey, now featuring No. 1 after a rookie season with No. 2, but will they be wearing it a year or two from now?
Internally, the Eagles are in the same boat as everyone else: They don't know. On one hand, they saw enough potential to spend a premium pick on him right after Wentz had seemingly re-staked his claim as "the guy." On the other, there's a reason Hurts lasted 53 picks, and history says the Eagles won't be shy about hunting for an upgrade, if necessary. (Think 2009, when they signed Michael Vick despite already penciling in Kevin Kolb as Donovan McNabb's successor; or 2016, when they traded up to draft Wentz despite just extending Sam Bradford and signing Chase Daniel; or 2020, when Hurts was the luxury gamble.)
There are doubters, to be sure. While Hurts has always been confident, nimble and deceptively strong, his perceived lack of big-time arm talent has led to critiques of leaning too much on his legs. One former college teammate says he can recall offensive skill players "complaining about him not seeing the field well and being too quick to tuck it." The player also believes former Alabama OC Lane Kiffin, who "preferred to 'win now' however he could as opposed to investing time" in Hurts' development, worked around his limitations as a passer. Lincoln Riley "did him well" by opening things up at Oklahoma, but even still, the source thinks Hurts "lives and dies with the system he occupies," adding that "he looked significantly better in the Big 12 because ... well, watch their defenses."
Others are quick to defend him. They point to the fact that he enters this new Eagles season with his sixth offensive coordinator in six years, dating back to his freshman year of college. They shrug off concerns of his "system-specific" style; don't we, to different degrees, do the same thing for Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield or Ryan Tannehill? They see Hurts' eager and adaptable new coach in Sirianni, who successfully oversaw every type of starting QB with the Colts: Mobile (Jacoby Brissett), immobile (Philip Rivers) and the perfect in-between (Andrew Luck). They downplay concerns of his smaller size; he's no Wentz (6-5, 235), but at a compact, chiseled 6-foot-1 and 223 pounds, he's right in the ballpark of guys like Mayfield (6-1, 215) and Tagovailoa (6-0, 217).
Most of all, Jalen's supporters see all the intangibles already in his toolbox.
"At first when I saw him throw, I was kinda skeptical," Palet says. "But he has the arm strength. The thing is, he knows where guys are gonna cut and be at. There's plenty of quarterbacks who don't have huge arms that are just smarter. There's no reason for me not to be confident he'll be the guy. He's won at every level. There's nothing that should say Jalen can't do it."
His personality and pedigree, it seems, cannot be untangled from the equation. The Eagles said as much the night they drafted him, with personnel executive Andy Weidl calling Hurts "part of the new guard" of QBs who "can win throwing it or running it," but making sure to also call out his "uncanny toughness, poise" and resume as a "natural leader" for two major programs.
"If you were building a quarterback," says John Kincade, of 97.5 The Fanatic, "there's so many attributes that he brings to the table that you would want. I just wonder whether the arm is one of them. But so many of the other things are so intriguing. I believe that Jalen Hurts has the energy -- the personality -- to engage this community into believing in him."
In the end, the Eagles hope he's more Russell Wilson than Tim Tebow, even if the history of NFL quarterbacking suggests the reverse order is more likely. Those closest to him, however, don't just hope for that. They darn near expect it.
Brandon Graham, an elder and lively Eagles statesman if there is one, has been busy telling fans in Cameo videos "that boy Jalen is definitely about to take us to the promised land." (Graham knows a thing or two about winning a championship.) Smith, who reconnected with the QB in January at the national championship, says Hurts will "bet on himself always," thinks the Eagles will "feel the same way" and predicts that if Jalen is confident (seems like a given), he'll be "one of the best." Cotton, having already blocked for plenty of QBs in his young NFL career, says Jalen's "gonna be in the league for a long time," adding that "the Eagles have a diamond in the rough."
One thing, above all, is for sure: You can tell all this to Jalen Hurts, and he will not blink.