In the despair of the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles offensive line picture, one rife with crippling injuries, the hope was that all of those players who were promoted to the lineup would benefit in the long term with the in-game reps they were taking. The silver lining of the painful season, the thinking went, was that young players would emerge for the better and the Eagles would see the payoff in 2021.
Well, here we are.
As the Eagles wind down their offseason program, the pains of 2020 may just be turning into the gains of 2021. At no position is that more crystal clear than at left tackle, where 2019 No. 1 draft pick Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata, who went from a really cool Australia-to-the-NFL story to a young offensive lineman who responded well to playing time in his third season.
As a result, the Eagles have what they wanted: A good, old-fashioned battle for the starting job at left tackle between two quality young talents.
"I welcome all competition. I never shy away from it. I'm glad that it's happening and it makes sense that it's happening," said Dillard, who was penciled in to be the starter last season before suffering a torn biceps muscle prior to the start of the regular season, ending his campaign. "Jordan came in and filled in last year. He played most of the season and he did really well, so it only makes sense for the coaches to give it a little competition and not just give somebody a spot when I come back from the injury. We're really good friends, sit next to each other in the locker room, and we always pal around. Out on the field, we're always pushing each other to get better, so I really welcome it and it's fun competing with him."
Dillard spent his 2020 taking mental reps in the meeting rooms and on the practice field, mimicking footwork that he observed on the field. He watched from his living room when the Eagles were on the road, taking cues from the television broadcast and imagining himself taking the game repetitions. As soon as he was able – only weeks after the injury – Dillard dedicated himself to the weight room and built his head-to-toe body strength, and he feels the improvement now.
In fact, Dillard feels great – invigorated, focused, and changed for the better by sitting out an entire season.
"I definitely learned a lot about myself and how much the game really means to me and how serious I am about this," Dillard said. "Losing a season to an injury definitely makes you see it in a different perspective, a different light. It kind of lit this huge fire in me, a different kind of fire than I felt before because something like this has never happened.
"I'm back even stronger. I'm cleared to go, 100 percent. I feel good as new. I'm a lot stronger than before I got hurt."
That's great to hear, extremely encouraging, and it means that Dillard understands the situation: Mailata improved by leaps and bounds in his third season as an Eagle and his first actually taking regular-season reps. This is a true, best-man-wins-the-job competition. The two have split reps with the starting offensive line through these Organized Team Activities, and they'll likely begin Training Camp that way into the preseason schedule. And then we will see who wins the starting position.
Two young and talented players will battle for the starting left tackle spot, as important as any position on the field after the quarterback position. For a franchise that has prided itself on having answers in the trenches and, particularly, long-term plans at left tackle, this is good stuff. This is what the Eagles hoped would happen as they squinted through the tough times of 2020 into the future of their offensive line.
"The big thing with me is confidence and improving every day I'm out there," Mailata said. "I'm going to keep progressing and challenging myself every day. It doesn't matter how good of a year I've had, or how bad a year I had, I always come back and challenge myself in that way. It always comes down to who is the best man for the job. My mantra is to get better every day. I said that from the day I stepped in, to the day I leave. That's my number one thing to do every day, to get one percent better every day. Hard work always takes care of hard work. If I focus on that, the rest will take care of itself.
"I'm not really interested in, based on my playing last year, have I earned it (the starting job). No, it's not about who earned it. It's always, who is the best man for the job? If that's me or Dillard, so be it."
There is a lot to be determined as the Eagles keep an open mind at left tackle, but for a team that enjoyed the long tenures of Tra Thomas (1998-2008) followed by Jason Peters (2008-20), the next generation is here. This is about as positive a situation as the Eagles could hope for at a position that takes some teams years and even decades to solve. The Eagles selected Jordan Mailata in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft and then traded up in the first round a year later to take Dillard. When Training Camp opens as the players report on July 27 to the NovaCare Complex, both will push each other to excellence and the long-term future at left tackle will be in focus once again.