Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata have been teammates for the last two years. They sit next to each other in the Eagles’ locker room. They’re friends.
Only one of them is going to start at left tackle in Atlanta on Sept. 12.
Let the battle begin.
“I welcome all competition,” Dillard said on Wednesday. “I never shy away from it. I’m glad that it’s happening. It makes sense that it’s happening. Jordan came in and filled in last year, played most of the season and he did really well. It only makes sense for the coaches to give it a little competition and not just give somebody the spot when I come back from the injury.”
Dillard is right. This competition makes sense.
Because on one hand, the Eagles drafted Dillard in the first round in 2019 to become the starter of the future, the replacement for Jason Peters, who was the replacement for Tra Thomas. The Eagles even expected that future to get underway last season until Dillard’s biceps had a different idea, tearing late in the summer and ending his second NFL season before it began.
The Eagles moved Peters back to left tackle but when his body began to break down, they eventually put third-year man and former rugby player Jordan Mailata out there in his place.
And that’s when something crazy happened. Still a relative newcomer to the sport, Mailata played well. Really well. Well enough to think that maybe he’s the guy who will hold down that left tackle spot for the next decade, not Dillard.
That’s an intriguing part of this competition. Because Dillard and Mailata might not simply be competing for playing time or a starting role this season; this might be an all-out competition to be the next left tackle of the Philadelphia Eagles.
And both are embracing that battle.
“Jordan and Andre, they came in blazing,” said starting left guard Isaac Seumalo, who will be lining up next to the winner of this competition on opening day. “Obviously, with Andre being out last year, he’s looking to do as much as he possibly can to prove who he is. Jordan, getting some playing time last year, gave him some confidence.
“I think they both look really good. The biggest thing is, with the new coaching staff, everybody is trying to make a good first impression. Obviously it’s a different story when the pads come on, but right now, I think they’re both firing on all cylinders. I think it’ll be fun to keep watching both of them improve over these next two months and go into training camp and battle it out.”
Mailata revealed on Thursday that he and Dillard have been rotating this spring with the first team offense. At the only full-team spring practice open to reporters, it was Mailata lining up to protect Jalen Hurts’ blindside.
Had Mailata played poorly last season, there wouldn’t be a competition right now. The Eagles would have simply put Mailata back on their bench and gone forward with their initial plan with Dillard at left tackle. But Mailata showed flashes and consistently got better as the 2020 season went on. He ended up being ProFootballFocus’s No. 43 tackle last season, only a few spots behind Lane Johnson at No. 37.
It wasn’t perfect and he’s got a long way to go, but Mailata looked good and his upside is still huge because of how raw he was just a few years ago when he came to Philly as a seventh-round project.
Does Mailata think he did enough last year to earn this starting job?
“I don’t think the matter is if I’ve earned it or not,” Mailata answered. “It always comes down to who the best man for the job is.”
Maybe it’s Mailata. But maybe it’s Dillard.
Some fans are still down on Dillard after an up-and-down rookie season but the first-round pick reported to camp last summer noticeably beefier. He worked hard in the offseason to add muscle and strength, which was his biggest weakness in 2019. So, sure, we’ve seen Dillard play before … but maybe we haven’t seen him at his best.
Just a few short years ago, the Eagles thought they had drafted their left tackle of the future.
“I do feel like they (still) view it that way but I have to earn it,” Dillard said. “I can’t just be given it. I’m all about this competition. I got a fire in me, I got a chip on my shoulder and I’m really serious about this. Bring it all on.”
Training camp should be fun.
In one corner, we have the former first-round pick, coming off injury, trying to prove doubters wrong. In the other, a damn-near literal giant who was a long shot to ever even step foot in the NFL as a seventh-round rugby player.
“If I’m not the starter, I would just do everything that I can to earn it back,” Dillard said. “I’m not just going to back down if the job isn’t given to me. I’m going to keep fighting for what I want.”
Both Dillard and Mailata on Wednesday talked about how they’d be willing to play a different position or come off the bench if they didn’t win the job. And that’s important, especially after we watched the Eagles’ offensive line get completely ravaged by injuries last season. So maybe both will end up playing important roles in 2021.
But only one of them will be starting at left tackle on opening day. And they’re both going to fight like hell to win that job.
“I have no idea what camp’s going to look like,” Mailata said, “but it’s going to be fun.”
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