NASHVILLE — It was a long, wet evening for Andre Dillard, in the tent complex the NFL built along the west bank of the Cumberland River for its 84th entry draft, framed by the glow of Lower Broadway’s honky-tonk neon lights.
The storms descended on the crowd of 200,000 or so just as commissioner Roger Goodell stepped to the microphone to open the proceedings. Torrents of rain and wind waxed and waned as the picks paraded across the stage.
Many analysts had pegged Dillard, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound left tackle from Washington State, as a top-15 or top-10 prospect, but the draft chugged right on past those mileposts, into the general neighborhood of where the Eagles were scheduled to draft, 25th overall.
Dillard traveled across the country from Woodlinville, in Washington’s wine country, with his parents, Jennifer Bollinger and Mitchell Dillard; his brother; his sisters; his grandparents; his girlfriend; a few high school coaches and his college offensive-line coach, in anticipation of being a first-round pick. But the hours crawled past and the setting maybe wasn’t exactly everything he’d ever dreamed about.
“We had two spots that were dripping, right in our area where we were sitting,” Dillard said after the Eagles traded up to 22nd overall to draft him as Jason Peters’ successor. “None of us actually got wet, but we had to steer clear of those spots.”
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Dillard didn’t expect to get to the Eagles, he said. His feeling was that he’d go to the Houston Texans, 23rd overall. They had shown the most interest, during the predraft process. In fact, after the Eagles traded fourth- and sixth-round picks, 127th and 197th overall, to the Ravens so they could move from 25th to 22nd, NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport tweeted that the Texans had been prepared to take Dillard. They shifted gears to another OT, Alabama State’s Tytus Howard.
He said he still isn’t sure who called him from the Eagles to tell him he’d been drafted; his phone was cutting in and out, and he couldn’t really hear, Dillard said, until offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland and head coach Doug Pederson came on the line.
He said he was surprised to be headed to Philadelphia, a city he has never seen. He was not one of the 30 prospects the Eagles brought in for visits. Dillard said he interviewed with them at the Senior Bowl in January, and spoke with Stoutland on the phone a few weeks back.
“It was such a nice surprise,” Dillard said.
Draft reports touted his athleticism and pass-blocking ability but noted that Dillard always lined up in a two-point stance in head coach Mike Leach’s air-raid offense. He also didn’t get much work as a run blocker.
“At the end of the day, it’s football. It’s not going to be a huge deal,” Dillard said. “The run blocking will come. I’ve showcased that I can do it, at the Senior Bowl. When I got down in a three-point and drove people off the ball, it felt natural to me, even though I had never been in a three-point stance in my entire life.”
NFL.com gave Dillard a 6.20 grade, indicating an “instant starter,” but if Peters stays healthy this year at age 37, that probably won’t be the case. Dillard, who said he grew up watching Peters, indicated this would not be a problem. (At any rate, drafting Dillard surely means this will be Peters’ final go-round.)
“They’re a great, veteran group of players. … Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m going to do,” Dillard said. “Starting would be cool, but being drafted is cool. I’m going to do whatever they want me to do. I’m ready to roll.”
He said he has always played left tackle but is willing to learn the other side; the Eagles prioritized teaching Halapoulivaati Vaitai, their top tackle reserve the past two seasons, how to back up both Peters and right tackle Lane Johnson.
Dillard said he was starving as he smiled through his postdraft media appearances.
“I couldn’t eat today, but now that the tension is a little bit relieved, the hunger is starting to kick in,” he said.
Dillard also hadn’t slept much the night before, he said.
“I went to bed at a decent hour, but I was restless. How could you not be, when you’ve got something this exciting coming on?”
Overall, the path to the draft was “long, strenuous, stressful, but also just extremely exciting.,” Dillard said. “It lets me sit back and be grateful for everything that has been blessed upon us.”