A left tackle was traded Tuesday. He was drafted just two years ago. The team that made the selection traded up for him. But he would struggle once in the NFL. He failed to meet expectations and rarely played. Injuries were a problem. And he could only play one position on the offensive line.
If said left tackle sounds familiar to Eagles observers, it’s because Andre Dillard’s entrance and brief tenure in the NFL has been similar to that of Greg Little. But there is one significant difference between the two and the respective teams that drafted them, and the likely reason the former won’t meet the same fate as the latter:
The general manager who drafted Dillard is still with the Eagles, while the GM who chose Little is no longer with the Carolina Panthers.
There are other deviations between the players and possible reasons why each may be viewed differently by their initial teams. Dillard was a first-round pick and is still competing for a starting spot, while Little went in the second and had fallen on Carolina’s depth chart.
But it is far easier to move on from failed picks when there is a new regime than it is for a front office that has invested significantly in a homegrown prospect. The Eagles, for the record, haven’t publicly expressed disappointment with Dillard. Even though a knee injury will likely sideline him until the season opener, coach Nick Sirianni recently declined to award the left tackle job to his competitor, Jordan Mailata.
“Not there yet,” Sirianni said Saturday. “Just want to continue to see Jordan get better every single day.”
But even before Dillard strained his right knee last week, it was clear that Mailata had a firm grasp on the position. The word had increasingly gotten out around the NFL as teams, directly or not, inquired about Dillard’s availability, per league sources.
Left tackle is a premium position, after all, and while Dillard’s value has plummeted, a team’s desperation should never be underestimated. The Eagles weren’t the only team to give the Washington State product high marks out of college. His athleticism is still evident. And Dillard wouldn’t be the first to benefit from a change of scenery.
The knee injury alone wouldn’t necessarily make a trade difficult. It’s unlikely that any team would acquire him with the expectation that he could start immediately. Dillard hasn’t lined up at tackle in a game in 21 months.
The Bears had a need when it became apparent that rookie Teven Jenkins’ back issues would prevent him from being ready for the season. But rather than gamble on an unproven youngster, they signed 39-year-old Jason Peters on Saturday.
The Dolphins are unsettled at both their tackle spots. But they surrendered little for Little — a seventh-rounder — and will toss him into the mix. With GM Scott Fitterer in his first year in Carolina, and coach Matt Rhule only one year ahead, the Panthers took whatever they could for a player who would be eventually released.
Eagles GM Howie Roseman is unlikely to accept as much, even if he were to entertain offers. Beyond the bad optics of giving up so soon on a first-rounder, Mailata isn’t exactly a proven commodity, and the o-line might be a position in which depth is needed most.
Roseman understands the market for o-linemen as well as any GM, and with two preseason games remaining, injuries could force teams into action before final roster cuts on Aug. 31.
But Dillard has now suffered injuries in his last two training camps that required extended absences: a season-ending biceps tear last August and a strained ligament in his right knee, which has required the wearing of a brace.
“The injury issues,” an NFL executive said, “are a major obstacle.”
So, too, are concerns about his playing strength. If there was an on-field unknown about how Dillard would transfer to the NFL, it mostly had to do with his run blocking. He did comparatively little of it in Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense.
But teams that rated Dillard high on their boards were fascinated by his athleticism and quick feet. The Eagles’ scouting department had him among their top tackles, but Roseman became fixated on him about a week before the draft as it became apparent he might drop, sources close to the situation said.
He moved up three spots from No. 25 and leapfrogged the Texans, who were reportedly poised to take Dillard. Houston, which drafted right tackle Tytus Howard instead at No. 23, are still unsettled at the position. The Colts, Raiders, and Seahawks could also be teams with interest.
Interested GMs might have to depend on their initial evaluations since Dillard has only four starts, the last a disastrous turn at right tackle that led to a halftime benching.
“I saw him as a get-you-by-type starter. Someone that you’ll be looking to replace,” an NFC senior scout said of his predraft grade. “I liked the athlete. Just had an issue with his lack of physicality and strength. Didn’t think he set a secure pocket.”
Dillard added about 20 pounds to his frame before his second season, but anchoring against power moves was still an issue as of a week ago. Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat, when utilizing a bull rush, won more than his share in camp matchups, as did others.
Just days in, Dillard suffered an apparent hand injury. Sirianni said that he had been “playing through some bumps and bruises,” but the bandaging on Dillard’s hand seemingly expanded each day until it was a giant ball.
In June, Dillard spoke about how sitting out last season “lit a huge fire in me.” He said that he was “a completely different person” than he was as a rookie, and while he had said something similar last summer, the words sounded more genuine this time around.
“I see a hungrier guy,” offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said in June. “I see a guy who is more serious.”
Mailata’s ascension might have been the spark more than the injury., though Dillard entered 2020 as the heir apparent and took every first-team repetition in camp, even though his shaky performance suggested it was only a matter of time before Peters returned to left tackle.
But he tore his biceps, just one of the many injuries the Eagles’ O-line endured last season. If there was a bright spot, it was Mailata, the former rugby player who had been afforded the opportunity to drift under the radar in his first two seasons.
He had his inconsistencies in 10 starts, and when Sirianni was first asked about his assessment of left tackle, he said there would be an open competition. Even though his status had been downgraded in a year, Dillard seemed to welcome the challenge.
For someone whose mental state had been questioned internally by some Eagles staffers -- dating back to his rookie camp when he had an on-field emotional release following an intense practice -- his June declaration that he had gone cold turkey on social media was seen as a positive.
He has spoken at length before about the hardships involved with moving 3,000 miles from home, performing under the scrutiny of a rabid fan base and media, and subsequent struggles to assimilate to the Eagles’ locker room and local culture.
But whatever gains he made in personal growth off the field haven’t appeared to improve his play on it. It’s fair to question whether he’ll even be active on game days should he lose out to Mailata.
The Eagles’ preference would be to have just one tackle dress who can swing to either side. Jack Driscoll, Matt Pryor, and Brett Toth could fill that role, although each has his flaws, as well. And none of them was drafted in the first round, let alone in the first four rounds.
Sirianni, asked if Dillard’s draft status would have any influence on his final decision at left tackle, said that he would rule by meritocracy.
“We’re in the business of winning football games,” Sirianni said, “and whoever gives us the best chance to win the football game will be here.”
While that thinking might apply to Sirianni’s depth chart, Roseman has final say over the roster.