PHILADELPHIA — In a move that displayed a level of maturity and intelligence well beyond his 24 years, Andre Dillard pulled the plug on all of his social media this summer.
Waved bye-bye to Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. Doesn’t even do Google searches anymore. That said, he still had a pretty good idea of what everybody was saying and tweeting last week as he prepared to make just his third career start at left tackle for the Eagles since replacing injured Jason Peters.
“I guarantee you, people were like, ‘Oh, man. Khalil Mack against the rookie. Mack against the rookie,’” he said. “I can guarantee you everybody was doing that.”
As it turned out, even Dillard did that Sunday the first time he lined up across from the Bears’ three-time All-Pro edge-rusher.
“The first thing that was going through my mind was, ‘Holy crap. This is Khalil Mack right in front of me,’ “ he said. “I mean, I watched him on TV before I was even here (in the NFL). He’s an amazing player. Strong. Fast. He’s got it all. I just did everything I was trained to do and survived it.”
He actually did a little more than survive. The rookie faced all three of the Bears’ top edge-rushers in the Eagles’ 22-14 win: Mack, Leonard Floyd, and Aaron Lynch. Dillard made some mistakes, including allowing a third-quarter sack to Floyd. But overall, he took another step forward in his NFL education.
“I definitely think I’m improving each week,” Dillard said. “Still not very experienced. Still need to get that experience. That just comes with the (practice) days, the opportunities, the games, everything. I’ve got to keep stacking on the days.”
Brian Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman and an analyst for the NFL Network, has been impressed by Dillard’s “steady growth” in his first three NFL starts.
“You go up against (the Bills’) Jerry Hughes two weeks ago; you go up against Khalil Mack. Those are two really experienced upper-level pass-rushers,” Baldinger said. “But he held his own.
“Rookie year for an offensive lineman is kind of like a pitcher going through the batting order for the first time. You kind of need to see everybody, see different rushes, different looks and schemes. But I think he looks fine out there.
“He needs to get stronger. But the thing I like about him is, he’s got a really good (pass) set and is in position to protect. He’s got good feet.”
Dillard, the Eagles’ highly regarded first-round pick out of Washington State, played just 16 offensive snaps in the first five games as the 37-year-old Peters stayed surprisingly healthy. But the eight-time Pro Bowl player hurt his knee in the first quarter of the Eagles’ Week 6 loss to the Vikings, and ready or not, Dillard was next man up.
He played 47 of 64 snaps in the 38-20 loss, and gave up a bull-rush sack to Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter and nine total pressures. Dillard gave up another bull-rush sack the following week to the Cowboys’ Robert Quinn in a 37-10 loss, but he played a little better than the previous week.
He turned the corner in Week 8 against Hughes and the Bills, giving up yet another bull-rush sack, this one to Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson, but otherwise played a solid overall game. Same thing Sunday against the Bears.
While he did initially get a little star-struck last week when he first faced Mack, Dillard has made a point of trying to ignore the resumes of the players he’s been going up against.
“When I’m studying film, it’s No. 52 (Mack) or No. 94 (Floyd),” he said. “When I was blocking (the Vikings’) Everson Griffen, he was No. 97. That’s how I look at it. That’s how I have to look at it.
“No. 97 likes to do this. No. 52 likes to do that. Put aside all the crazy hype, and they’re just another player when it comes down to it.”
It’s unclear when Peters will be back. Could be next week. Could be the week after that or the week after that.
Doug Pederson indicated earlier this week that when Peters is ready to return, he likely will return to the starting lineup.
“I do think when J.P. is healthy and comes back, I still think it’s J.P.’s position moving forward,” Pederson said.
Baldinger thinks that would be a mistake.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know why they would put Jason back in there,” he said. “Even if he’s healthy, you don’t know how long it’ll be before he breaks down again.
“I just think they should move on right now and keep playing Dillard. Obviously, Jason’s an elite player, a certain Hall of Famer. But it’s so intermittent right now.
“They’re playing two rookies (at offensive tackle) in Houston right now, and they’ve won six games. You draft these guys, you’ve got to play them. You’re not going to get a better coach than Stout (offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland).”
While they can put Peters back out there and hope he stays healthy this time, it hinders Dillard’s development to yo-yo him in and out of the lineup.
“Put (Dillard) out there and let him learn and let him play,” Baldinger said. “They’re not losing games because of him. He’s not the reason the passing game is struggling.
“They’ve featured the run game the last two weeks, which is probably their identity going forward. He’s a part of that. But they favor running behind (right guard Brandon) Brooks and (right tackle) Lane (Johnson). So that’s probably good for him at this point.”
Two years ago, Peters tore his ACL and sat out the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. But he played a pivotal role in mentoring the man who replaced him at left tackle, Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
He’s been doing the same thing this season with Dillard.
“He’s always there for me, whether it’s on the phone or right there on the sideline,” the rookie said. “He’s an amazing mentor. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect one. One that’s been around so long and is one of the most elite tackles to ever play.”
Dillard said left guard Isaac Seumalo also has been an incredible help to him.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Dillard said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot, but the things he says, they carry weight. He’s played every position across the offensive line. He’s just such a reliable guy. You can always count on him.”
©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):