Andre Dillard wasn’t always a willing interview subject during his first season with the Eagles. But the day after the season ended, the rookie tackle stood at his stall and answered question after question as waves of reporters approached him.
Whether or not he intended it to be a symbolic acknowledgment of his future as the franchise’s likely starting left tackle, Dillard had already come to understand that Philadelphia, if anything, expects its professional athletes to be held accountable.
It was an adjustment, coming from a relatively small pocket of the Northwest, where football isn’t a religion to most.
“A lot of the biggest differences I noticed were the people,” Dillard said in January. “When you’re at Washington State in Pullman, Wash., you’re in the countryside and the middle of nowhere. You kind of know everybody and everybody is nice to each other and just super friendly, and then you come here, and your own fans say just foul things to you.
“Everybody — fans, media -- they’ll hate you one minute and then love you the next.”
Dillard received his baptism just two games into his NFL career when some incorrectly blamed the first-round draft pick for allowing a quarterback hit in the Eagles’ second preseason game. But he mostly drifted under the radar in his first season playing behind Jason Peters.
He started three games at left tackle without catastrophe. He had an unfortunate first half against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12 when the Eagles played him on the right side for the first time ever. But all in all, Dillard’s rookie season was viewed as a promising appetizer before the entrée of starting next season with Peters expected to leave.
Peters, though, had other ideas. He told reporters after the Eagles lost to Seattle in a playoff rematch that he had no intention of retiring. A day later, Dillard was asked if he viewed a Peters return as standing in his way.
“I wouldn’t really call it ‘in my way.’ You know what I’m saying?” Dillard said. “They brought me along so that there’s no drop-off when he decides to step away from the game. Until that time, my job is to back up the tackle spots, play tight end, whatever they want me to do.
“I don’t blame him for wanting to play another year. It’s hard to step away from the game, especially if you’ve been around it that long. I support him fully no matter what he wants to do. I love the guy.”
Peters’ legacy is intact. Eagles fans never took for granted having one of the league’s best left tackles for more than a decade. But there is a growing sentiment that the 38-year-old is past his prime and that a parting would signal the Eagles’ commitment to getting younger.
Peters has been written off before only to return. Just last week, general manager Howie Roseman said that the Eagles had yet to make a decision on the pending free agent. While he might have just been buying time before the team sends Peters off in style, there is significant in-house support for another go-around, per team and league sources.
If Peters returns, it will be because the Eagles believe he can still perform at a high level. But it would also confirm the evaluation that Dillard isn’t quite ready.
“We’re very confident in his ability to be a really good player,” Roseman said of Dillard. “But it’s a good problem for us to have, that we have a lot of these offensive linemen that we think are good players and that can play.”
Dillard wouldn’t be the first first-round offensive lineman in recent history to sit heading into his second season. But it’s extremely rare. Of course, most teams haven’t had someone of Peters’ caliber.
Peters didn’t dominate last season like he often did during most of his 11 seasons in Philly, but he was better than he was in 2018, after returning from knee surgery, and better as the year progressed. The Eagles thought as much.
Pro Football Focus’s player gradings should be taken with a heavy dose of salt, but its statistical tallies at least provide a means for comparison. Peters allowed 21 pressures in 562 pass-blocking attempts last season, which placed him ninth among 57 qualifying tackles.
In 2018, he allowed 34 pressures in 526 attempts and finished 32nd out of 58 tackles. In 2017, before a season-ending torn ACL, he allowed seven pressures in 237 attempts and finished second out of 70 tackles who had 20% or more of 659 possible snaps. In 2016, he allowed 25 pressures in 650 snaps and finished seventh out of 61 tackles.
“I still can get it done,” Peters said in January. “If I couldn’t get it done, I’d just walk away. But I can still go.”
Pass protection might be the most important part of a tackle’s job, but there’s also run blocking and Peters hasn’t been as consistent in that regard. He also committed nine penalties in 13 games last season — five of them false starts — but his per-game average (0.69) wasn’t far off from his Eagles career average (0.58).
Dillard had a far smaller sample of plays. But he allowed 25 pressures in 170 attempts, which was last out of 84 tackles who had 20% or more of 753 snaps. He understandably struggled stepping in for Peters midgame at Minnesota in Week 6 but showed improvement in his next three starts, vs. the Cowboys, Bills, and Bears.
His quick feet benefited him in his vertical sets, and his overall athleticism didn’t restrict the Eagles from using him in space.
He had expected issues with technique. But he sometimes couldn’t compensate because he lacked the necessary strength. He had trouble anchoring against the bull rush or would lose his feet if he overset. A full offseason of NFL strength training will clearly help.
The Eagles went 2-1 during his three starts at left tackle, but when Lane Johnson was forced to miss the Seattle game in November, Dillard was tabbed to start in his place on the right. Two days before the game, he equated the change to learning how to write with your opposite hand.
He was thrown into a difficult spot, and when anxiety-riddled right guard Brandon Brooks left — partly because of Johnson’s absence — Dillard took a nosedive and was subsequently benched.
Dillard wouldn’t get another opportunity to rebound from his setback. Eagles coaches weren’t concerned as much with the physical part of his failure as they were with the mental part, according to sources. He had seemingly conceded defeat even before kickoff.
He said in January that his rookie season had been the biggest one-year leap of his career and that his knowledge of blocking technique and reading defenses had increased exponentially. But he also said that he had grown as much in the mental game.
“I just learned a lot about being comfortable in your own mind,” Dillard said. “Having a good attitude and a lot of mental strength.”
Dillard had been tested almost immediately during training camp. He got into an altercation with defensive end Derek Barnett during what was supposed to be a light practice. As he spoke with coach Doug Pederson and Roseman afterward, he got visibly upset and appeared to cry.
Photographers captured the scene. Dillard, however, declined to speak immediately afterward, and when he finally did meet with reporters several days later, he didn’t want to address the incident. Philly is among the more difficult sports cities in which to play, and it can sometimes eat its own, especially the chosen.
“It was just something I kind of just noticed at first. And I was just like, ‘Man, that’s kind of lame,’ ” Dillard said. “But it is what it is. You know, it’s not something that I typically pay much attention to, but it is something that I noticed big-time. And people talk about it all the time, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s how it is around here.’ ”
But Dillard also struggled to assimilate in the locker room, per team sources. Quiet by nature, he often kept to himself. Some teammates didn’t know what to make of him.
A full offseason, though, should help Dillard with more than just football. He didn’t name anything specific when asked for areas in which he could improve, but after a hectic year that involved the end of college, the predraft process, and his first NFL season, it was clear that he was looking forward to some time off.
“Breathe. Just take a minute to reflect for a little bit longer,” Dillard said when asked his offseason plans. “You know, everything that’s happened since my senior year, I haven’t really gotten to do that.
“So it’ll be nice to just sit there and think about it and be proud of myself for what I’ve done and things that I’ve learned and what I’m going to work to be.”