Andy Weidl’s education on the value of interior offensive linemen started early.
If the former Villanova center even needed a lesson on the importance of his old position group to begin with, he got it during his first year as a scout with the Steelers. Pittsburgh used its first-round pick on Alan Faneca, an athletic guard out of LSU who 23 years later would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Eagles’ vice president of player personnel got another lesson while on Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome’s staff in 2007. Baltimore took Marshal Yanda, arguably the best guard of his era, and a long-term starter in Ben Grubbs in the first three rounds.
By the time Weidl joined the Eagles in 2016, with Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce already established as two of the best in their respective position groups, Weidl already understood the importance they’d eventually have in the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run.
“Those guys are invaluable the way that they can insulate a pocket,” Weidl said. “The way that they can displace people off the line of scrimmage in the run game, it allows your quarterback a chance to step up and deliver the ball.”
For the first time in Weidl’s career, though, he and general manager Howie Roseman are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the Eagles stay strong from the inside out even after Kelce, 33, and Brooks, 31, decline, retire, or move to other teams.
Kelce has contemplated retirement after each of the last few seasons, and Brooks is coming off his second Achilles tear, although it’s worth noting he returned from the first and quickly established himself as one of the best linemen in the NFL.
Enter Landon Dickerson.
The Tide coming
When the Eagles took the Alabama center with the 37th pick in April’s NFL draft, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said he didn’t waste time telling his newest charge the biggest area for improvement.
“I want to see this guy accelerate his feet on contact,” Stoutland said, pounding a fist into his other hand. “When contact is made, I want to see his feet going. You know what I mean? I think that’s something. He and I talked about that immediately, as soon as we drafted him.”
Stoutland is coming off a season defined by injuries across an aging offensive line. The Eagles had 14 offensive-line combinations in 16 games and lost several starters for extended time. Brooks missed the entire season. Lane Johnson battled an ankle injury that eventually ended his season, and right guard Isaac Seumalo missed seven games with a knee injury.
The constant turnover led to the emergence of promising young linemen Jordan Mailata, Nate Herbig, and Jack Driscoll. It also illustrated how much the Eagles enjoyed elite play from the interior spots during their three consecutive postseason runs from 2017-19.
Considered a first-round talent with a late-round injury history, Dickerson fits the mold as a difference maker to step in for whichever interior lineman exits first. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said Dickerson was the most physically gifted lineman in the draft class.
“Physically, nobody is close to him in this whole draft,” Baldinger said. “Nobody can just dump 320-pound, 350-pound defensive linemen into the ground the way he can and do it with such glee, like it’s the most fun thing in the world to do. He’s big, and he’s powerful, and he plays hard, and he wants to be great.
“He’s a cultural guy. He’ll change the culture anywhere he goes. That guy will start the fight, and he finishes the fight. Every day in practice, he’ll set the tone.”
Stoutland, who detailed the two biggest abilities he looks for when scouting interior linemen, said Dickerson checked all the team’s boxes.
“For [guards] to have as much value to any organization, No. 1, he has to displace interior players,” Stoutland said. “These guys are big now, and he has to be able to move those types of players, which is really hard to do. And then you also have to be able to anchor and keep the pocket extremely firm in protection. Those are two really important factors.
“Landon can do that. I saw that on film. I saw him do that as a center at Alabama. I watched all his guard play. I think he has the capability. I don’t think — I know he has the ability to do those two things.”
Weidl has yet to commit to whether the Eagles plan to play Dickerson at center or guard. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, he’d be a significant departure from the agile, undersized Kelce.
Dickerson played center for most of his two seasons with Alabama, but he played tackle and guard during his college career as well. Kelce said Dickerson has been “as advertised” during offseason training.
“He’s a big, fun guy, loves the game of football,” Kelce said. “You can tell that right away. He loves talking about football. He’s got a great personality. I think this kid is going to offer a lot to our room. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s strong. He’s smart. He’s got all the tools.”
Dickerson is dealing with a torn left ACL — he tore his right ACL in 2016 — and wasn’t a full participant in the team’s offseason workouts because of his recovery. Roseman said he doesn’t expect this season to be a “redshirt year” for the second-round pick, meaning there’s a chance he’ll play this season.
“I’m not saying Kelce or Brandon Brooks are going to get beat out, but they’ll have a hard time keeping him off the field on the sideline,” Baldinger said. “He’s not going to take long. Everybody will see it.”
An evolving position
Prioritizing guards and centers might not be new to the Eagles’ front office, but the evolution of the game changed the way other personnel executives viewed the positions in recent years.
As defensive tackles transitioned from primarily big-bodied, powerful players toward those capable of combining strength with quickness and finesse, guards have been forced to adjust.
Brooks said the requisite skills to counter athletic three-techniques — defensive linemen who line up on the outside shoulder of a guard — changed his position.
“It’s usually the defense that changes first and then the offense,” Brooks said. “I think it started probably, maybe with like Warren Sapp. He was the first three-technique, where he really would come off the ball almost like a D-end. He’s quick. He’s fast. He’s powerful. All of a sudden you have to change your interior. Your guards have to match that. Otherwise, there’d be a mismatch all the time.
“Guys like Warren Sapp, and [Fletcher Cox], and Aaron Donald. Guys like that, where it’s like you don’t need 6-3, 350, 360 [pound] guys anymore,” Brooks said. “You need guys with speed. It’s really turned into a passing league, where you got guys who can play the run very well. But it’s also about getting sacks, too, and they’re going to throw the ball all the time.”
The athleticism of three-techniques isn’t the only reason the league has gravitated toward treating guard as a premium position. With the increasing frequency of passing, preserving the pocket’s integrity up the middle has become paramount.
“The great quarterbacks really know how to avoid edge pressure,” Baldinger said. “The thing that bothers them the most is if they can’t step up, if the pocket is getting collapsed. ... If you just have undersized centers or guards or whatever, they can’t keep the pocket clean up front where [quarterbacks] can step up, then that’s really a problem. Most of these guys can avoid edge pressure and get outside of the pocket.”
The Eagles have taken an interior lineman in the first two rounds only three times in the last 20 years, with mixed results. They got All-Pro guard Shawn Andrews in 2004 but whiffed big on Danny Watkins seven years later. Luckily, they secured Jason Kelce in the sixth round of 2011, the same year they took Watkins, and found Brandon Brooks in free agency in 2016. Seumalo was a third-round pick in 2016, and has become a reliable starter the last two seasons.
As proven by Kelce’s three All-Pro nods in 10 years, it’s possible to find elite talent at center and guard even in the later rounds. It might even be necessary, Baldinger says.
“I think you have to find [draft] Day 3 offensive linemen. It helps your whole salary-cap structure,” Baldinger said. “I don’t think you can cut corners. You can put a free agent in there. You can put a sixth-round pick in there, but he better be able to play. He can’t just be a sixth-round-pick weak link because the whole thing will collapse.”
Weidl had a similar sentiment, saying it’s possible to find potential starters late in the draft, although there are chances, like with Dickerson, to add difference makers earlier.
“You want guys that are smart, tough, physical, strong, and can play multiple positions,” Weidl said. “If you can do that, if you can find those guys, kudos to you. You can get some real value. ... In my experience being where I’ve been, if you have an opportunity to take two of them high like we did in 2007 with Grubbs and Yanda, Ozzie did a great job with those guys.”