Jalen Hurts’ biggest weapon this season isn’t going to be either of his first-round wide receivers, DeVonta Smith or Jalen Reagor. Or his two talented tight ends, Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz. Or even second-year receiver Quez Watkins, the summer sensation.
It’s going to be an offensive line that, if it can manage to stay healthy, could be a 2021 game-changer for both Hurts and an Eagles offense that isn’t getting much respect after last season’s 4-11-1 finish.
Injuries decimated the line last season. The unit had a total of 65 missed games due to injury, including 48 by starters.
They used an NFL-record 14 line combinations during the season. Needless to say, that played a major role in both the implosion of Carson Wentz and why the Eagles finished 26th in scoring (20.9 points per game), 28th in passing yards (207.9), 28th in third-down conversions (37.3%) and gave up the league’s most sacks (65).
But with the start of the season less than a month away, the line is as healthy as it has been in a long time.
Andre Dillard, who missed the entire 2020 season with a biceps injury and was supposed to compete with Jordan Mailata for the starting left tackle job this year, is out indefinitely with a knee injury. But even before he got hurt, he gave no indication that he was going to be able to beat out Mailata, who started 10 games last year.
“Jordan’s a freak of nature,” right tackle Lane Johnson said Monday after the Eagles’ joint workout with the New England Patriots. “He’s 380 pounds. Once he figures it out, he’s going to be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, how he wants.”
Johnson is one of three Pro Bowlers on the line along with right guard Brandon Brooks and two-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce. Left guard Isaac Seumalo has 40 career starts, and Mailata, a former Australian rugby player who was a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, could end up being better than all of them at some point.
“I don’t try to figure out how close I am,” the 24-year-old Mailata said Monday. “That will never change. With Stout [offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland] as my coach, it definitely will never change.
“But I will say that I’m a lot more confident with the tools I have in my bag. And right now, I’m just trying to sharpen those techniques down and master that before wondering if I’m ever going to reach the potential that Lane is talking about.”
The one consolation from last year’s injury-riddled season was that young offensive linemen like 2020 fourth-round pick Jack Driscoll, Nate Herbig, Sua Opeta, and Matt Pryor got a chance to play. A lot.
Driscoll, Herbig, Opeta, and Pryor combined for 28 starts and 2,138 offensive snaps in 2020. Add rookie second-round pick Landon Dickerson, who is recovering from an ACL injury but should be ready to play by October or early November, and you’ve got a unit that can go 10-deep and gives general manager Howie Roseman and first-year coach Nick Sirianni some insurance if something does happen to a couple of his starters.
Kelce is 33. Brooks turns 32 this week. And Johnson is 31. The odds of all three of them being able to answer the bell for 17 games this season aren’t high. But who knows?
This much is clear: They looked good in Monday’s practice against the Patriots defense.
“We felt good today,” Johnson said. “But we have to maintain the continuity. Stay healthy. Keep the same group around. We do that and we’ll be the best we can be.”
After going up against their own defense every day in practice, Johnson and his linemates welcomed facing the Patriots and their multiple fronts.
“Today was a good test because a lot of times, maybe our defense isn’t running a lot of blitzes,” he said. “This was a good defensive line we went up against today. They run a lot of stunts, a lot of games. They do send a lot of blitzes.”
Seumalo returned to practice Saturday after being sidelined for much of the early portion of training camp with a hamstring injury. His return gives him a chance to get in a lot of work with Mailata leading up to the Sept. 12 season opener against Atlanta. The two played seven games alongside each other last season.
“Every single snap I can get next to Isaac is important for me,” Mailata said. “Just building that rapport and building the fundamentals of being on the same level and hitting run-blocks together.”
Like most of the Eagles’ starters, Mailata played just 10 snaps last week in the first preseason game against Pittsburgh. That’s a far cry from the 53 he played in the Eagles’ first preseason game two years ago (there were no preseason games last season because of COVID-19).
Back then, Mailata still was learning how to play football and he needed as many reps as he could get.
“It was kind of weird for me,” he said about playing just two series. “I had to ask some of the guys, ‘OK, do I take my pads off at halftime?’ It felt like a weird thing to do.
“After the second drive, when we came out, I didn’t want to get off the field. I asked Stout. I said, ‘Stout, you sure you only want me to play two drives?’ He said yes. I said, ‘[expletive].’”
Earlier this year, Pro Football Focus rated the Eagles’ offensive line as only the 17th best in the NFL. That was with the knowledge that both Johnson and Brooks would be back from their injuries. Seventeenth!
“When we’re healthy, you’ve seen what we can do,” Johnson said. “But I like that. I like having something to prove. It is what it is. You just want to try to leave no doubt at the end of the year and keep stacking days.
“In this profession, you’re always looking for any motivation you can find to push and motivate yourself.”