When Eagles left tackle Andre Dillard makes his first NFL start in Dallas this Sunday night, the rookie won’t merely face off against a disruptive Cowboys pass rush.
Keeping quarterback Carson Wentz upright will be as much about the mental aspect of the game as it is performance for Dillard.
“I was nervous as hell,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said reminiscing about his own professional debut.
With Jason Peters described as "week to week" with a knee injury, Eagles coach Doug Pederson all but confirmed Dillard will be taking the place of a future Hall of Famer in Dallas. It’s a spot most expected the first-round draft pick would find himself at some point this season, as Peters missed time in three of the last four seasons.
Still, Dillard isn’t exactly being eased into the league, squaring off against Pro Bowl defensive end tandems in back-to-back games. Last week, the 24-year-old saw Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter in Minnesota, and this week, it will be DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn.
First-round pick or not, any notion Dillard will have the position mastered is unrealistic.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” Johnson said, “but those games you’re going to grow from, so the more he plays, the better he’s going to be.”
Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks estimated it can take an offensive lineman a full year in the NFL to get completely comfortable in the job.
“A lot of times with good O-linemen or higher picks, in college you can just be better than somebody,” Brooks said. “In the pros, everybody’s good, everybody’s fast, everybody’s strong.
“Technique and knowing what you have to do becomes so critical all the time, so a solid year to learn the playbook, learn to be a professional, learn to play offensive line.”
Dillard doesn’t have a year. He’s probably not going to feel completely comfortable on the field 100 percent of the time. The 22nd overall selection, only months removed from being a student-athlete, is being tossed into the fire against veterans in peak physical condition.
And yet, this exact situation is the reason Dillard is here.
“That's why we drafted him,” Pederson said. “We have total confidence in Andre.
“I go back and think about what [Halapoulivaati Vaitai] did his first start [in 2016]. Wasn't perfect. I think about what Andre did last week in Minneapolis. It wasn't perfect. He'll learn from it and get better.”
Assessments of Dillard’s first extended action against the Vikings vary. According to Pro Football Focus, his nine pressures allowed were the most by any offensive lineman in Week 6 — and he played only 72 percent of the snaps.
A closer look at the tape showed Dillard also shined at times despite some difficult assignments (see story). Playing behind Peters, he also hasn’t had the benefit of a ton practice reps since training camp ended.
“I thought he did a great job,” Wentz said. “It’s a tough task to come off the bench cold like that, and not just come in and play a game but against a really good defensive end, a couple of them. I have nothing but confidence in him to protect my blindside.”
Dillard won’t have that excuse this week, and Dallas will no doubt be ready for him too and attempt to confuse the rookie protector with different looks.
Then it isn’t simply a matter of keeping either Lawrence or Quinn at bay. Dillard’s preparation, the mental aspect of the game, becomes key.
“Probably the biggest thing for a young guy is when they stand still right in front of you, it’s no problem,” Brooks said. “It’s exactly the way it’s drawn up on the sheet.
“All of a sudden, guys start moving, safeties coming down, blitzes — now you’ve gotta kinda think on the fly, and if you get it wrong, somebody might get hurt.”
It’s a lot to put on Dillard’s plate, but Brooks has been there. He began his career as a backup with the Houston Texans, lining up occasionally as an extra tight end or in the backfield. Then in Week 10, he was pressed into action as a starter, and his first assignment? All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Brooks knows all about the pressure of not wanting to let down teammates, of fan expectations, of not wanting to mess up. He knows from experience it’s not going to be perfect on Sunday — but believes Dillard has the mindset to succeed.
“The dude just cares,” Brooks said. “He wants to be great. When things don’t go well, it bothers him. I would rather see that than something not go well and it doesn’t bother you, because then I’m concerned.
“Just the passion and want-to stands out to me, especially from a younger guy. He’s always trying to perfect his craft, he’s always trying to chase perfection.”
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