Neither Jordan Mailata nor Andre Dillard has the upper hand going into their training-camp competition to determine the Eagles’ starter at left tackle, Jeff Stoutland said.
“They’re going to both be given an opportunity. ... I think any time there is competition like that, and it’s that close, it brings the best out of both players. Both players will have to be on, every day,” the offensive line coach said Wednesday.
That was interesting framing, the emphasis on “be on, every day.” Dillard’s intensity and mental toughness have been questioned in the past. Mailata, an Australian rugby player who started learning football with the Eagles in 2018, did wilt under an intense camp load two years ago; he admitted he was beaten down by the workload, and he ended up starting that season on injured reserve with a back problem.
Stoutland is the longest-tenured Eagles coach, having arrived with Chip Kelly in 2013. Mailata said last week that he “almost had a heart attack” when reports in January indicated Stoutland might return to Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. Stoutland’s word carries a lot of clout at NovaCare.
Stoutland said first-year head coach Nick Sirianni “ultimately will be the one that will approve or disapprove of — you know, he’ll make that final decision [on who starts], along with the input that I provide him.”
The stakes are huge. Left tackle is a premier position, usually the home of a team’s highest-paid offensive lineman, the guy who protects a righthanded quarterback’s blind side. If the Eagles, who gave up a league-high 65 sacks in 2020, don’t stabilize that spot, second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts stands little chance of establishing himself. This is the Eagles’ marquee training camp competition.
Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata welcome a competition for the starting spot
Dillard was a first-round draft pick in 2019, 22nd overall, someone whose acquisition was trumpeted as a triumph for Eagles general manager Howie Roseman at the time. Dillard is among a handful of recent high-draft investments who haven’t yet paid off. His inability to pick up the torch from Jason Peters would figure into any narrative of how the Eagles went from Super Bowl champions to 4-11-1 in three years.
Mailata was a seventh-round pick in 2018, but he, too represents an investment — he was in his third season before he actually got into a game. Once he finally played, Mailata showed the extraordinary strength and agility, at 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds, that enticed the Eagles to undertake such an experiment. But Mailata still will enter camp having played only 15 football games in his life, and having started only 10. There are times when he gets fooled by an opponent who does something he wasn’t expecting.
“I expect that player to fit right in with the rest of those [offensive line starters], be accountable to all the things that are going on,” Stoutland said when asked how he envisions his left tackle. “Because when you watch the synchronization, you watch how synchronized the group is, I want the player to be just like that.”
Dillard, 25, said last week that he is “a completely different person” physically and mentally than the soft-looking rookie who struggled through 2019. He got stronger last offseason, but Dillard’s season-ending biceps tear in August opened the door for Mailata, 24, to make his case as the successor to Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowl player who is now a free agent.
Stoutland expanded on Dillard’s point Wednesday after noting that Dillard was one of seven Eagles offensive linemen to go on injured reserve last season.
“This guy was in every single position meeting,” he said. “Andre Dillard sat in [the] front of the room with a notebook and took notes on every single thing I said.”
Dillard had no hope of healing in time to play again in 2020.
“And so, I would hit him with questions during the meeting, game-planning questions,” Stoutland said. “I said, ‘Andre, if you’re going to be here, then I’m going to make it like you’re playing.’ “
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Stoutland said he told Dillard this might keep him from getting rusty, at least mentally.
“I see a hungrier guy. I see a guy who is more serious,” Stoutland said. “Him and [left guard Isaac Seumalo], they move like they’re identical, the way they move together. They’re pretty quick, those guys. And he’s thicker and he’s stronger. ... I really do like what he’s done in the offseason.”
Stoutland said it was “very important” for both Dillard and Mailata to report to camp July 27 in the best shape of their lives, so they can endure a mentally and physically draining process.
Ultimately, one will start, and the other will back up. If Dillard starts, Mailata has shown that he can fill in at other spots and would have value as a swing sub. Dillard might not have that value; a major debacle ensued in his rookie season when the Eagles tried to start him at right tackle against Seattle. Dillard, overwhelmed, was benched at halftime.
Maybe the “new Dillard” will be more adaptable. But given Stoutland’s praise Wednesday for 2020 rookie tackle Jack Driscoll, there’s a chance the Eagles might opt to trade Dillard should he not beat out Mailata. There were other teams that liked Dillard in the draft, including Houston, which would have drafted Dillard 23rd overall had the Eagles not traded up from 25th to move in front of the Texans.
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If there was anything good about the Eagles having to field 14 different starting offensive line combinations in 2020, it was that some young players got a lot of playing time. Stoutland believes his line is well-stocked now, especially with the team adding guard/center Landon Dickerson in the second round of the draft. Right guard Brandon Brooks (Achilles’) and right tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) look really good, Stoutland said, even if both are over 30 with injury histories.
He said line depth is a priority now throughout the NFL.
“We have some good depth right now across the board,” Stoutland said. “After what happened last year, I think both sides of the ball, up front, everyone’s making sure that there’s enough depth, so that if things don’t go right up front, they’re covered.”