I'm looking at both the immediate future and the long-term picture here at one of the most critical position groups in the game of football, one that has long been a staple of excellence for the Eagles. It's the offensive line, and at the quarter pole of this 2020 season the line seems to be gaining some semblance of stability after an unprecedented series of injuries and change. This is worth a conversation and a peek into the future, for we all know this long-standing NFL maxim: An offense goes as its offensive line goes, and there is almost no leeway to that premise.
The truth is, for much of these opening four games, the offensive line hasn't flourished – at least to the level the Eagles are accustomed. Injuries have decimated the plans the team put in place for 2020, and they haven't been of the day-to-day or week-to-week variety of injuries. They've been devastating – a torn Achilles tendon suffered by Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks in the spring, a torn biceps that sidelined second-year left tackle Andre Dillard in Training Camp, a knee injury that felled solid and sturdy and perhaps underrated left guard Isaac Seumalo in the Week 2 loss and could keep him on the sidelines for another handful of weeks, and, most recently, a foot injury that forced Jason Peters, re-signed to replace Brooks and then moved to the left side to take Dillard's starting spot, to Injured Reserve for at least the next two games.
Oh, and standout right tackle Lane Johnson missed the first game of the season with an ankle injury that required surgery in August and who has battled the injury ever since – he was in and out of the lineup on Sunday night managing the intensity of the pain.
So, yeah, the offensive line has been ridiculously banged up. Maybe even historically injured, if there was such a category. Certainly, in the many years looking back on the Eagles – dating to the 1980s – there has never been an instance in which the Eagles have encountered so many players hurt in such a short period of time along the offensive line. When you combine that with the fact that there was no on-field football in the spring, a time when the offensive line coaches – Jeff Stoutland and Roy Istvan – lead the linemen through daily choreography to make sure every step is synced, every hand placement is perfect, every line of communication is, well, communicated – and you better understand the enormity of the concern with what was happening up front.
"Communication is everything and if you don't have time to establish that, it's hard to get everybody on the same page," Head Coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "You need to have everyone on the same page to have success on the offensive line."
The Eagles are getting there. Week by week, you see the improvement. Certainly, there were holes in the performance on Sunday night as San Francisco used a series of twists and stunts – "games," in football talk – to create chaos and confusion in the blocking schemes and open up lanes through which defensive players could penetrate the line of scrimmage. The Eagles were far from perfect up front, so when Stoutland and Istvan gather their players together over the next couple of days to review the film, they are going to have a lot of teaching points to discuss. That's how you improve. Those are good moments.
What's encouraging is that, from amid the rubble of all the injuries, the Eagles are developing some young talent, and that is a huge positive here. The years of continuity here, the years of developing Pro Bowl and All-Pro talent, gives the Eagles a bit of deserved reputation as an offensive lineman's breeding ground, with Stoutland leading the way. Really, since the days of Andy Reid, the offensive line has been a priority – both in the usage of assets (first-round draft picks, free agent signings) – and all of that attention has paid off. But the Eagles are aging up front. Peters is 38, in his 17th NFL season. Center Jason Kelce, the toughest of the tough guys and one of the best centers in the NFL in the last decade, is in his 10th season and turns 33 on November 5. Brooks will be 31 when the 2021 season begins. Johnson is 30 and in his eighth season.
It is imperative, then, that the next wave of Eagles offensive linemen are in the pipeline. That just may be the case.
While it is still early, the progress of, for example, guard Nate Herbig is encouraging. The Eagles signed him following the 2019 NFL Draft and kept him on the 53-man roster last season, spoon-feeding him the offense and making sure he built strength and learned technique. Herbig has started all four games – two at right guard and now two at left guard. He is growing into the job. He has power and athleticism and smarts and every rep he takes is making him a better football player. Matt Pryor stepped in for Brooks late in 2019 at right guard and acquitted himself well, and now he's back in that spot and is settling in promisingly. He's a massive guy who has power and is improving the nuances of his game each week.
Driscoll has advanced skills after playing for two seasons at Auburn and he's done well as an emergency tackle – first starting when Johnson was sidelined against Washington and then pitching in against the 49ers when Johnson left the game with the ankle injury. Driscoll is a keeper. He has to become stronger and more powerful, so that is part of his rookie regimen. He's learning on the fly after having exactly zero preseason game reps, and he does not appear to be in any way flummoxed by the moment.
Then there's Jordan Mailata, The Great Experiment who is finally finding out about the NFL on-field life. A former Australian rugby star, Mailata came to the United States in 2017 to learn the NFL game and the Eagles worked him out and fell in love with his exceptional athletic ability and then, in a shocker, used a seventh-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to bring him to Philadelphia. Mailata wowed everybody in that first preseason with his skill set, but he truly didn't know a lick about the game. Was the football pumped up, or stuffed, for example? I mean, that's how unknown the game of football was to Mailata, who spent his first two seasons on Injured Reserve.
Clearly, he also studied the playbook and listened to his coaches on technique tips and made his first start on Sunday night and held up well. He was far from perfect, of course. But Mailata was OK. He recognized some of the games the 49ers tried on him. He adjusted. His technique held.
And as Mailata – a "work in progress" said Pederson – prepares for another start with Peters on IR, the Eagles are excited about seeing his next step. Heck, they're excited about all of them – Herbig, Pryor, Driscoll, Mailata, and guard Sua Opeta, who is in the playing-time mix as well. The Next Wave is coming for the offensive line. There are bound to be bumps in the road, but the development is critical both in the short term with Sunday's game against an attacking Pittsburgh defense is next on the docket, and for the seasons ahead. If it isn't working up front, it isn't working for the offense. Even with all of the injuries – and they have been significant – the Eagles are seeing signs that progress is being made. That is encouraging stuff and something to keep an eye on for the road ahead.