The Eagles aren’t required by law or by NFL rule to move Jason Peters from right guard back to left tackle. Especially since league sources say Peters, 38, wants more money to return to his old spot than the $3 million for one year he got when he signed up to play right guard, after Brandon Brooks went down in June.
At first glance, sure, having a nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle on hand would seem to make the decision about what to do about Andre Dillard’s season-ending bicep strain pretty simple. But the Eagles bid farewell to Peters in free agency last spring because they wanted to get off the treadmill of relying on him at the most important offensive line position, through assorted injuries that meant he missed more than one of every five snaps over the past two seasons.
The offseason directive, if you recall, was speed and youth. So, the team is exploring its options, even if betting large sums of cash against Peters eventually starting at left tackle would seem unwise.
Matt Pryor, the versatile sixth-round pick from 2018, practiced in Dillard’s spot Sunday. And with right tackle Lane Johnson still recovering from a lower leg injury, 2018 seventh-round pick Jordan Mailata practiced at right tackle. They would be two interesting alternatives at left tackle for a team that, in the past, has preferred to make one change on the offensive line, instead of shuffling a starter over and then having to replace him as well.
Pederson confirmed before Sunday’s practice that Dillard’s injury, suffered in a Thursday one-on-one pass-rush drill, will lead to injured reserve eventually, and probably a lost season for the team’s 2019 first-round pick.
“It’s unfortunate. He had a tremendous offseason, he was having a really good camp for us,” Pederson said of Dillard, 24, “Jason Peters is obviously in the conversation. We do have some young players, Jordan Mailata, Matt Pryor. Jack Driscoll, who’s a [fourth-round] rookie, obviously, but has been playing some tackle for us.
“JP’s done an outstanding job, coming in and playing the right guard spot. We’re going to continue to look at him there, as well. But we have some options, we’ve got a couple of days here before roster cuts and getting into the regular season,” Pederson said.
NFL teams must cut to 53 players by 4 p.m. EDT on Sept. 5, this upcoming Saturday. The Eagles open at Washington on Sept. 13.
Can an untested player convince the coaching staff that he’s capable of protecting Carson Wentz’s blindside within that time frame, and without preseason games?
“I want to make a name for myself. I’m very confident this year in the player that I know I can be,” Mailata told reporters on Saturday.
Observers at practice haven’t been quite sure how to grade the Australian rugby player who is in his third NFL training camp but still hasn’t played a regular-season snap. He has had dominant moments, and moments when you still see a guy who had never worn football pads three years ago. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said as camp opened that he thought Mailata’s knowledge and understanding were much improved.
“Now, will that carry over to the field? Every morning when I come here, I pray that will happen,” Stoutland said. “Do I think that will happen? Absolutely. But I can’t guarantee that. We’re going to find out, though. That’s what this is all about. And if it does carry over … we’re going to be in good shape.”
Mailata said he thinks he’s ready.
“It’s my third year in the league, and I’m feeling very confident this year in my playbook, my skills, and my ability. So I feel I am very prepared to take on the task ahead,” he said.
Pryor, meanwhile, is the only reserve lineman on the team who has played in an NFL game. He notched 79 snaps last season and another 69 as the starting right guard in the playoff loss to Seattle, after Brooks suffered a shoulder injury in the regular-season finale at the Giants.
The team had a chance to make Pryor the 2020 starter at right guard when Brooks tore his left Achilles, and it reached for Peters instead. Now the coaches would rather see Pryor at left tackle than Peters? Seems unlikely.
“Right now, they haven’t really made a decision” on who will play left tackle, Pryor said. “I’m comfortable wherever the coaches put me.”
He seemed to be aware of the contract situation with Peters: “Whatever business they’ve got going on, that’s between them. Me, whatever opportunity I get, I’m about to take.”
Pryor was a TCU teammate of Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who left the Eagles in free agency this year for an opportunity to start -- and to be paid starter money, five years, $45 million -- in Detroit. Vaitai was never an exceptional starter in his four seasons with the Eagles, but he could fill in at either tackle or either guard spot and not look lost. Until now, that has been the general view of Pryor’s upside -- a valuable utility player, maybe not a long-term starter. True versatility is valuable, and rare.
“Once your body gets a certain amount of reps [at each spot,] your body kind of gets used to jumping around,” Pryor said.
Did he think he was going to be the 2020 starting right guard when Brooks was injured?
“At first, I thought it was [my job]. But of course, you’re going to want to get a vet in there, especially Jason Peters. That dude can pretty much do anything,” Pryor said. “So it wasn’t really a surprise. But I’m just here to fill in where I fit in.”
Pryor, 6-foot-7, 332 pounds, turns 26 in December. Mailata, 6-8, 346, arrived in the same draft, but just turned 23 in March. He has been sidelined by back problems in both of his previous NFL seasons. He said Saturday that he doubted himself last year, when Stoutland moved him from his natural left side to the right, and then he had to go on injured reserve on Sept. 21. Mailata said he ultimately figured out how to play on the right and realized it helped his overall knowledge of the offense and the game.
“I had moments … when I was like, ‘Man, is this really what I want to do?’ " Mailata said. “And, hell yeah. Coming back this year, this is what I want to do, This is where I want to be. Anything I can do for this team, I’ll do it. They’ve given me an opportunity of a lifetime.”