In the short run, it figures to be chaotic, and Carson Wentz is going to have to spin, dip, and dodge his way out of sacks, as he did so well Sunday night in the Eagles' 25-20 victory over the host San Francisco 49ers. The quarterback will take some hits, and he might need a bit of injury luck, something he has seen very little of since he entered the NFL in 2016.
But in the long run, breaking in a bunch of new offensive linemen could be important to the Eagles' future.
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Fans who are tired of watching 38-year-old Jason Peters limp off the field ought to embrace the attempt to develop Jordan Mailata, the rugby player from Australia who held his own against the 49ers in his first NFL start. Having Nate Herbig, Matt Pryor and Jack Driscoll face the fire and not go up in flames isn’t a bad thing, either, for a team that doesn’t know how 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard will fare after missing this season with a biceps tear.
Looking to 2021, Dillard and Isaac Seumalo, currently sidelined with a knee injury, project as the Eagles' only under-30 offensive line starters, assuming Mailata hasn’t nailed down the left tackle job by the end of this season. Brandon Brooks will be 32, with an extensive injury history. Jason Kelce will turn 34 during the 2021 season. Lane Johnson will be 31.
If you can get away with the inevitable mistakes caused by inexperience, developing a young guy is way better (and cheaper) than bringing in some stopgap vet. At first glance, Mailata, Herbig, Pryor, and Driscoll all seem to have physical tools. Herbig still could end up being Kelce’s successor.
“They played well. You know, wasn’t perfect. … There were a few games on third down that we could do a little bit better, we could recognize a little bit better,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “That just comes from playing, right? That just comes from getting reps and being comfortable in there, but I thought overall, they hung in there. They played tough. They played physical against a really good, active defensive line.”
By “games,” Pederson was referring to the D-line’s stunts and loops, which often were not handed off correctly. Wentz was sacked three times and probably should have been dropped on two or three more occasions. With Johnson (ankle) in and out, it was hard to expect such an inexperienced group to mesh for complex tasks, on the fly. Remember, until Saturday, the Eagles thought they’d have Peters at left tackle against the 49ers, and they entered Sunday night’s game assuming Johnson would take all the right tackle snaps.
In simple, one-on-one blocking situations, no one was overwhelmed. It might be worth noting that the 49ers were missing Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, premier members of their strong, deep defensive line rotation.
Mailata, 23 years old and 6-foot-8, 346, proclaimed after Sunday night’s game that he wasn’t trying to fill Peters' “boots,” that he was “here to make my own boots.” His grasp of American idioms wasn’t perfect, but his meaning came across just fine.
Pederson said that when Mailata arrived as a seventh-round 2018 draft pick who had never played football, "every day that he came into the building here was a new day for him. He was kind of relearning the things he learned from the day before, and he has grown -- in three years, he has grown so much with just understanding the game of football and how to play the game of football, let alone executing the offense, right?
"Just learning how to play, just learning how to take a big body and move it around differently than what he was used to. … I thought there were some really good things [Sunday] by him. You know, he’s a big man, obviously. He’s strong, and when he’s 100% accurate on what he’s doing on that particular play, it’s hard for defenders to get around him, whether it’s a pass block or a run block, when he’s right.
“So he’s still a work in progress. He’s still like a ball of clay that we are shaping and molding and making into a left tackle.”
This coming Sunday, the Eagles visit a 3-0 Steelers team coming off an unplanned bye week, thanks to the Tennessee Titans' coronavirus struggles. Pittsburgh has a fast, physical defense with 15 sacks, and a league-leading sacks per pass attempt rate, 14.02%, heading into Monday night action. (The Eagles -- who led the league with 17 sacks heading into Monday night, in one more game than the Steelers have played -- had the second-best sack rate, 11.56%.)
Pederson said that Johnson, who underwent an ankle procedure in June, will be battling the injury all season, which probably means more relief work for fourth-round rookie Driscoll.
“It takes time [for Johnson’s ankle] to kind of loosen up and get warm,” Pederson said. "There were just a couple plays early in the game where it didn’t feel right to him, so we wanted to make sure and get it loose and keep it loose, and he eventually came back and played well in the second half.
“Listen, it’s going to linger. We’re to that point where everybody’s body is sore and the injuries that we have, they are going to continue. You’re not going to get 100% healthy, there’s no way. We just don’t have time to get everybody 100%. It’s just the nature of the game.
He’s a tough kid. He plays through it, and he’s going to have to continue to play through it the rest of the year.”
Johnson ended up playing 37 snaps against San Francisco, Driscoll 27.