This coming Sunday night is why Andre Dillard was summoned to the stage by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on a rainy April night in Nashville nearly six months ago, to be announced as the Eagles’ first-round draft pick, 22nd overall.
The Eagles had just traded up three slots to get ahead of the Houston Texans. The Eagles could have addressed plenty of other needs that night, needs they still grapple with, as they head into Dallas for Sunday Night Football, but the chance to grab a left tackle with Pro Bowl potential, to understudy and eventually succeed 37-year-old Jason Peters, took precedence.
Now, Peters, a future Hall of Famer who has been up and down and in and out through this 3-3 Eagles start, is “week-to-week” with a knee injury, according to head coach Doug Pederson, and Dillard is preparing for his first NFL start, against the Cowboys’ two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher, Robert Quinn.
“That’s why we drafted him,” Pederson said Wednesday. “He is a tremendous athlete. He's smart. We have a lot of confidence in Andre. The guys around him, he's not on an island obviously, he'll get a lot of help from the guys, starting with [center] Jason Kelce, and we go from there.”
Dillard was projected to go higher in the draft, maybe top 10. A heavy load of defensive talent pushed the offensive-line group down. His NFL.com draft grade was in the “instant starter” range, but it is a very rare left tackle, indeed, who arrives as a rookie ready to dominate, and we have seen little evidence that Dillard is that exceptional.
His first extensive action could have gone better, Dillard matched mostly against the formidable Everson Griffen last Sunday in the Minnesota loss, after Peters couldn’t continue. Dillard gave up a sack, and Pro Football Focus counted nine “hurries,” the most allowed by anyone in Week 6.
His teammates and coaches thought Dillard fought the good fight, usually kept Hunter in front of him, and wasn’t overwhelmed. And that’s probably the best we can expect this week, in another tough road matchup. The most important thing for an offensive tackle is getting off the ball quickly. Working in a noisy, hostile stadium off a silent count makes that much more difficult.
Right guard Brandon Brooks, asked whether that was a tough way for Dillard to start out, basically said the job is the job -- the rookie will have to deal.
“It happens. Robert Quinn ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Brooks said.
Brooks also said: “We’ve got all the faith and confidence in the world in Andre,” who has been getting some first-team practice reps each week.
Brooks said he warmed to Dillard in training camp, when Dillard got into a fight with defensive end Derek Barnett and was so fired up afterward, Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman had to talk him down, Dillard listening to them with tears in his eyes.
“The dude just cares. He wants to be great,” Brooks said. “When things don’t go well, it bothers him … Just the passion and want-to is one thing that stands out, especially from a younger guy. He’s always trying to perfect his craft.”
But Brooks and Kelce also acknowledged that nobody jumps into an NFL offensive line and performs flawlessly.
“I would say, coming into the league as a rookie, it’s going to take a solid year” for any offensive lineman to really feel comfortable, Brooks said.
“In college, you can just be better than somebody. In the pros, everybody’s good, everybody’s strong. Technique and knowing what you have to do becomes so critical all the time. A solid year just to learn the playbook, learn how to be a professional, learn how to play offensive line.”
Kelce said the speed of the action – the defensive line “games,” the movement of the other offensive linemen – takes time to sort out.
“Probably within the first two or three weeks, things start slowing down, but it doesn’t really start slowing down until your second or third year,” he said. “You’ll get used to individual speed right away. Everybody’s played against great players in college that have speed. Getting used to the speed at which the entire thing happens, the entire play, it’s not just one guy being faster; now, all 11 guys are faster.”
Dillard, 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, was not available to reporters Wednesday. He possesses smooth footwork and a wide, powerful base. His Washington State Cougars rarely ran, so he is more polished as a pass-blocker than as a ground-game bulldozer.
There again, the only way to learn is through doing it. Kelce said offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will be an important resource.
“He’s gotta get the reps," Kelce said. "Luckily, we’ve got a coach who, in my opinion, is tremendous in teaching how to run block.”
Right tackle Lane Johnson said his plan to help Dillard this week is to “stay out of his way, because everybody’s gonna be in his ear.”
Johnson started all 16 games as a rookie, after being drafted fourth overall in 2013.
“You gotta get off the ball and try to control the things you can control," Johnson said. "Low hips, and that’ll solve a lot of problems.”
Johnson noted that Quinn’s first step is “tremendous, that’s how he gets a lot of his plays made.”
When he was a rookie, the hardest thing was “the road games, trying to get off the snap," Johnson said. "I was always late off the snap, and it put me in bad positions right away. The more times I played, the better I got.
"A lot of it goes down to timing – you time stuff up in practice, it starts correlating to games. It’s just a progression.”