The Philadelphia Eagles are in an unfamiliar place as we venture deeper into 2020.
For the first time since before the start of the current century, the Eagles are entering a season without a known commodity at left tackle.
Andre Dillard returns for his second professional season with the hopes he can become Philadelphia's answer at the most important position on the offensive line. He was drafted 22nd overall in 2019 with the hopes he'd eventually grow into the team's next franchise player at the position, but when thrown into the fire as a rookie, he understandably struggled. With Jason Peters currently floating at sea as a free agent, it seems as if this is the beginning of Dillard's time.
Hopefully, his time begins with improved play. Dillard got a quick lesson in the speed and power of the NFL during his on-field experience last season, going from planned replacement (inserted in case of emergency in 2019) to benched rookie who needed more work before he could be relied on to block for a playoff-contending team. If he wants to fulfill the expectations set for him, Dillard is going to need to add some muscle to his frame -- and make the most of his practice reps.
"The biggest thing for returning guys ... is going to be the training camp, and going against somebody in pads," Eagles center Jason Kelce said, via the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He's going to be able to go out there (during quarantining) and work on sets on (five-yard) squares, he's going to be able to go out and work on little things. You don't improve that much physically in OTAs and minicamps. It's more of a mental improvement.
"You're not putting shoulder pads on, and that's where Andre needs to continue to get reps ... continue to get one-on-ones and play in preseason games and live games and whatnot."
The Eagles turned back to Halapoulivaati Vaitai in their time of need before Peters returned in 2019, but that's no longer possible, as Big V moved northwest to join the Detroit Lions. Dillard will need to get better by getting beaten around a bit by teammates in one-on-ones, the true test of a lineman's ability and will to succeed, and step into a role the Eagles undoubtedly need him to fill. After more than two decades of reliability at the position, Dillard has a chance to become the third cornerstone of this century's Eagles.
He got a crash course in doing so from Peters last season. Kelce was very clear that he'd love to continue playing with Peters, but he hopes a year together was enough to get Dillard going for these win-now Eagles.
"He had the fortune to learn from a guy that played forever and has every trick in the book in Jason Peters," Kelce said. "But there's no way you're going to get that amount of knowledge, that amount of repertoire this year, next year, the year after that. That takes a lifetime to acquire. That's something that will constantly be improving as he goes and as he gets reps."
There's no doubt that there's nothing better for an offensive lineman than in-game reps. It's one of the brutal realities of this game, which doesn't give a youngster much time to learn and develop before rushing to label him a gem or a bust. Need four years to grow into an effective player? It's more likely you won't be afforded the time.
The good thing for Dillard is he already owns the uncommon athleticism that many NFL linemen absolutely need to succeed in this era. Kelce raved about this ability, lauding his "quick-twitch," his intelligence, his light feet and his athleticism. Now it's just time to hit the weights to get ready to battle with the grown men he'll be facing off the edge.
"Now he gets a whole offseason to ... get in the weight room, add some weight, add some muscle, add power," Kelce said, via NBC Sports Philadelphia. "He can get better at that, whether it's from playing with better technique, adding some weight, adding strength, that will all get better.
"He already has the things that you can't necessarily get better at. You want to make a guy quicker? It's hard to do that. You want to make a guy faster? It's hard to do that. As long as he's got a big frame -- and Andre's got a frame to add plenty of weight --he'll be able to correct on those little weaknesses from a year ago, and the other stuff is just more experience."
If he can do enough to earn the starting job and not force the Eagles to panic and sprint in another direction, Dillard get that experience. It's just a matter of reps -- both in the weight room and on the field.