I looked through the film on Friday to give you my thoughts about the young backups along the Eagles' defensive line, so today I thought I'd flip the script and look into the trenches on offense. It all starts with Andre Dillard, the first-round pick from this spring.
In an ideal world, Dillard does not see the field this fall (at least in meaningful action). The team is solidified with Lane Johnson and Jason Peters as the two tackles, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been a very effective swing backup for the last three seasons (and has now proven himself at guard as well). At this time a year ago, Dillard was a little-known tackle out West, but after a strong senior season and a phenomenal postseason (which we chronicled on the Journey to the Draft podcast), he worked himself into being one of the top prospects in the country. He's athletic and has great feet in pass protection. How would he react to the speed of the NFL game? He did not disappoint on Thursday night.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
Dillard checked the box from a play strength standpoint? He was mostly against the Titans' backups, but he looked like he belonged in the NFL with his ability to anchor on contact and withstand a bull rush.
My favorite part of Dillard's play, however, was how he used his hands. It's not often that we see tackles with his physical gifts who use their hands as well as he showed on Thursday. Why? Those guys are so gifted in college that they typically don't NEED to be technicians, so it takes time for them to get there in the NFL. That does not seem to be the case through one game with Dillard. As soon as some of those veteran pass rushers tried to wipe away his hands in pass protection, he was extremely quick to replace them, putting them back on the opponent's breastplate and regain control of the block. This happened a few times in this game, namely on Nate Sudfeld's touchdown throw to Marken Michel.
Dillard has outstanding feet, that's easy to see. He's got great balance and body control. But how quickly would he recognize stunts and twists and handle the complexities of NFL defenses? He didn't really see that in the Pac-12 over his career. Great feet don't move like great feet if your mind is slow. What would his reaction quickness look like? Dillard passed that test as well, namely on the stunt in that final clip, where he saved a big hit on Sudfeld with his reaction to a looper coming from multiple gaps away.
Was there stuff to work on from Dillard? Of course. But this was a great first game for a rookie still learning how to be a pro, and a huge positive sign in his development.
Speaking of development, what does 2018 seventh-round choice Jordan Mailata look like? One of the bright stars from last year's preseason, Mailata basically redshirted the 2018 season and ended the year on Injured Reserve with a back injury. What would he look like in his first live game action in about a year? Let's take a look at a couple of plays I pulled.
The first couple of plays really impressed me because they show Mailata protecting against a pair of inside moves, something he's had some issues with here in Training Camp, based off some reps I've seen. On the first snap, which is actually the second play of the game, Mailata showed off his foot quickness and lateral athleticism, mirroring and matching the rusher and showing off his powerful hands with a really strong punch. Look at the separation on contact with the punch in pass protection. That's impressive to show off that play strength when most young tackles would be a bit off balance after that little shimmy from the pass rusher.
On the next rep, Mailata sees an inside jab step from the pass rusher, but Mailata shuts it down immediately with another really strong punch with his inside hand. Some young tackles may be a bit soft with their post hand against a move like that, but Mailata, at his size, is able to withstand the rush, punch with one hand, and stop the rusher dead in his tracks.
On the final snap, it's not a perfect rep, but I like what we see there from Mailata. When he shoots his hands, his feet slow up a bit, which would typically result in a tackle either being thrown completely off balance, or lunging and holding onto the pass rusher, drawing a penalty flag. What I like here, however, is how he recovers. So much of an offensive tackle's success comes from their recovery. It's like a cornerback in a lot of ways. Here, Mailata is in an awkward position with his hands well outside of the framework of his body to the outside, but he's got light enough feet to get them out of the ground and return to balance, locking his arms out in the process to control the block.
People who were expecting Mailata to look like Jonathan Ogden in Year 2 may be in for a disappointment. Remember that this is a kid playing just his second year of football, ever. Jason Peters was a converted tight end who went undrafted as a developmental project coming out of college and he didn't start a game until his third season in the league. Peters played in the SEC at Arkansas and grew up playing football. Mailata has a lot of ground to make up, and is still working out the kinks as a professional tackle. Patience is needed!
Let's now look at another second-year offensive lineman in Matt Pryor, who was selected a round ahead of Mailata in last year's draft. Pryor was known for a couple of things coming into the league a year ago, his versatility (he played both tackle and guard spots in college) and his size/strength combination. Those continue to be traits that he can hang his hat on today.
Pryor lined up at left guard to start this game, and he did a great job of picking up this stunt early, working with veteran Stefen Wisniewski to pass off the tackle across from him before picking up another rusher from a handful of gaps over to keep Sudfeld clean. That was a heads-up play from the young lineman.
Let's talk about the difference between strength and power, because Pryor has both. My definition of strength for an offensive lineman is a display of his ability to hold his ground. He takes on a bullrusher on the second rep and gives up no yardage at all in the pocket. Sudfeld has plenty of room to step up and deliver this touchdown throw downfield to Michel.
Then, there's power, and that's a player's ability to move another person against his will. He moved a defender one-on-one in the run game on the third snap and pushed a defensive tackle completely out of the way to create a hole up the middle.
I love the ice/water relationship analogy that highlights the difference between strength and power. Think of fast-flowing water, like a rushing river rising after a flood. It moves all objects in its path. That's power. Then you have a giant block of ice. That stops all objects cold and is an immovable object. That's strength. Again, Pryor has both.
Then you have his versatility. Versatility is key for backup offensive linemen (and starters, to be honest). Injuries happen in the trenches. You have five players playing a tough, physical game. Guys are going to go down mid-drive or midseason, and adjustments have to be made. Can you play both left and right sides? Can you play multiple positions? Versatility is the name of the game, and Pryor has that (as do Vaitai, Isaac Seumalo, Stefen Wisniewski, and others in that group).
We saw a lot of great things from the offensive line as a whole against Tennessee. One of the things you love to see, however, is when a group of backups steps onto the field and everything looks like it does with the starters. There was one specific aspect in the run game that stood out to me in that fashion.
When the Eagles run the ball at their best, one of the consistent themes for them is the effectiveness of their backside double teams in the zone run game. If a run is going to the right initially, a double-team of the backside (left) defensive tackle that moves him up to the linebacker level helps create a natural cutback lane for the runner and also helps eliminate a pursuing defender. Look at some of those shots above, and then some of these shots from years past.
A lot of similarities there, right? Loved seeing that from this group. This is one of the deepest offensive lines in the entire NFL, and watching these young guys work was a lot of fun.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.