Through The Fire: Can Rekindled Dillard Unseat Mailata
Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata entered the professional ranks with practically opposite expectations, yet both offensive linemen find themselves in a highly anticipated training camp battle against each other.
Though the age of players vying for starting jobs amid the dog days of summer has become old hat, competition promises to be a core value under first-year Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni.
The battle at left tackle is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface.
When the Eagles traded up to select Andre Dillard with the No. 22 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Washington State stalwart left tackle was tabbed to be mainstay Jason Peters' successor. The pick was universally praised, as Dillard was touted as a pro-ready prospect with tremendous athleticism and upside.
But Dillard left the team with more questions than answers following an uneven rookie campaign.
Appearing in all 16 games, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Dillard made four starts – three at left tackle and a disastrous experiment at right tackle in which he was benched midway through – and logged 337 offensive snaps. His play at left tackle was moderately encouraging, but confidence concerns, in addition to insufficient play strength and grit, were evident early on.
The spotlight remained on Dillard throughout the offseason, but his sophomore campaign never got off the ground, as he suffered a torn biceps in training camp and was shelved for the season.
Nearly two years removed from his last NFL snap, a rejuvenated Dillard appears primed and ready for the opportunity in front of him.
“I definitely learned a lot about myself, how much the game means to me, how serious I am about this,” Dillard said. “Losing a season to an injury definitely makes you see it in a different perspective. It kind of put this new fire in me, a different kind of fire than I felt before."
While Dillard was on the mend last season, the Eagles witnessed exponential growth from third-year pro Jordan Mailata, who registered 10 starts at left tackle – a pleasant surprise who now presents a conundrum headed into training camp.
Mailata, a former pro rugby standout for the South Sydney Rabbitohs who became the 233rd overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, was the prototypical shot-in-the-dark candidate with intriguing intangibles. He’d never even played the game of football prior to being drafted and was considered a long-term project, at best.
Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland deserves heaping praise for unlocking Mailata’s potential and developing his skill set, but don’t discredit the constant on-field work and hours of film study that Mailata logged – behind-the-scenes work that enabled him to seize his opportunity.
Still relatively green to the game of professional football, Mailata incredibly represents the other half of the two-man race to become Jalen Hurts’ blindside protector. While many believe Mailata to be the odds-on favorite to earn the job, the 6-foot-8, 346-pound mauler remains as grounded as he was as a first-year player.
"It may seem like I’ve done an awful lot, but I haven’t done zip, and that’s the truth," Mailata said. "Thank God that I have Stout as a coach because he reminds me every day that I haven’t done anything yet. I think that’s a great way to approach everything and that’s why my mentality is set on still getting better every day."
Mailata appears to have found his footing, and his resume trumps Dillard's for now, but Dillard doesn't sound like he's ready to concede the fight. This is the same player the Eagles traded up to secure just two years ago; but now with a developed physique and fresh perspective. The former first-round pick will be given every opportunity to earn his spot atop the depth chart.
And what becomes of the loser of this battle?
Neither player boasts guard versatility, though Mailata offers swing tackle versatility – which could ultimately hurt his chances. Should Dillard come up short in his training camp bout, however, his draft pedigree and raw tools should still yield attention from an offensive line-needy team late in the summer, a conceivable scenario due to Mailata’s age advantage and objectively higher upside.
Both players have said all the right things and are embracing the competition. Soon, the ultra-competitive Sirianni will be faced one of his first potentially difficult decisions as head coach.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.