When Jason Peters was Andre Dillard’s current age, Dillard was 10 years old. When Peters took the field for the first time as the man responsible for protecting the blind side of Eagles quarterbacks, Dillard was 13 years old. Those two simple facts underscore two significant truths. The first is the primary reason that the Eagles have managed to bridge the gaps between three coaching eras without any of the extended bouts of losing that often accompany such transitions. The second is the enormity of the challenge that will confront the franchise as soon as next season.
From that perspective, the first half of the Eagles’ preseason opener against the Titans on Thursday was a mile marker of sorts. With Peters standing in street clothes and watching from the sideline, Doug Pederson and Jeff Stoutland and Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie got their first look at a player they hope will continue their unprecedented run of continuity at the left tackle position. And while it is far too early to declare that the future rests in capable hands, there were none of those ignominious moments that might have made you fear the day that Peters finally initiates his countdown to Canton.
On a night when Peters watched the game from the protective cocoon of the bench, Dillard, the 22nd overall pick in the 2019 draft, started and spent the first two quarters protecting Nate Sudfeld’s rear. It was an uneventful evening, and that is almost always a good thing at a position where the job is to allow everyone else to focus on the ball. For much of his debut, the former Washington State star was matched up against Titans backup edge rusher Kamalei Correa, who, at least for the moment, ranks toward the bottom of the list of names that makes left tackle one of the most difficult positions in the sport. But, again, Correa is an NFL player, and Dillard mostly kept him in front.
“I think I did pretty well," the rookie said afterward. "A couple of things I wish I did better, but that happens.”
He should get plenty more opportunities. While Pederson has not detailed his usage plans for his starters in the next three exhibition games, it’s safe to say that Peters will not finish the preseason among the Eagles’ leaders in snaps. From a development perspective, the loss of Sudfeld to a broken wrist will not help, judging by the disjointed showing of the offense under the direction of veteran Cody Kessler and fifth-round rookie Clayton Thorston. But reps are reps, and Dillard will continue to get plenty of them.
“I’ve probably made the biggest jump as a football player between the end of college and now," Dillard said. “Things are starting to come together for me a little bit. I’m not nearly where I want to be, I’m not anywhere close, but each day I try to stack the days.”
Stacking those days is a challenge that has bedeviled plenty of young linemen who have previously occupied the position where Dillard now stands. At this point last summer, the Eagles were hoping they might have found a diamond in the rough in converted rugby player Jordan Mailata. Two years earlier, the project was converted tight end Dillon Gordon. Now, Gordon is out of the league, and Mailata is on the opposite side of the line, his star having dimmed a bit in his second NFL training camp.
“I remember last year, my first play, it was like watching Formula 1,” said Mailata, who started at right tackle against the Titans and had an uneven night, giving up a couple of pressures in the first half.
At this point, there’s some reason to wonder whether Mailata even makes the team. In addition to Dillard, the Eagles have seven other linemen who appear to be locks to make the team (Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, Jason Peters, Brandon Brooks, Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski). They kept 10 linemen last season, but only eight in 2017. Matt Pryor, a sixth-round pick in 2018, is also competing for one of the final spots.
A lot depends on how the Eagles feel about their depth at other positions. With the eight offensive lineman, the Eagles have somewhere in the neighborhood of 48 roster spots accounted for. That could leave Mailata in a competition for one of the final spots on the squad with players like Mack Hollins or Marken Michel at wide receiver, and Josh Perkins or Richard Rodgers at tight end, and Cre’Von LeBlanc, Jeremiah McKinnon, or Josh Hawkins (or Jalen Mills if he doesn’t get healthy) at defensive back, or one of a group of running backs that includes Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams, and Boston Scott.