July 15, 2020
The hints were coming fast and furious and the open secret was officially unveiled Tuesday when the Eagles brought back Jason Peters on a one-year deal.
The only surprise came with the intent behind the decision to give Peters the chance to earn another $6 million-or-so with incentives. “The Bodyguard” will be returning to play right guard in place of the injured Brandon Brooks, not his familiar left tackle position that will someday send Peters to Canton.
At least that’s the plan.
A musical-chairs scenario, something offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland typically does not like, could have produced many avenues.
Peters returning as the LT and Andre Dillard spending Year 2 of his professional career as the swing tackle, taking over for the departed Halapoulivaati Vaitai, with Matt Pryor being inserted at RG. Or how about Peters at LT and Dillard, the No. 22 overall pick in the 2019 draft, sliding inside to left guard and the versatile Isaac Sumalo, who has played every position on the line dating back to his time at Oregon State, flipping over to RG?
None of that has been broached just yet, not to say any scenario can’t be revisited.
The difficult dynamic at play here is that Stoutland and his star veteran linemen like Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, and Brooks know who the best LT in the room is going to be. Heck, even at 38, Stoutland reveres Peters, and trust me when I tell you that the veteran OL mentor believes Peters is his best option right now at three different positions (LT, LG, and RG).
So, the plan seems to be keeping Dillard and Seumalo in their comfort zones, allowing Pryor to continue to grow as a backup, and putting more on the plate of the guy who can handle it from a mental standpoint. Peters has also already expressed a willingness to move last season when the injuries started to pile up.
Mike Tyson might tell you that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face and if Dillard isn’t carrying his own water with the opportunity he’s being given, the sea change will be swift.
Already, Dillard was facing a daunting shadow in the form of Peters’ legacy. Now, a literal one accompanies that with the massive Peters scheduled to share the same huddle.
As an example, Brooks was attempting to prop up Dillard earlier this offseason when he let slip: “He may never be JP, but shit, he’ll be close,” when referring to the second-year player.
Behind the scenes, the Eagles were pounding the RG narrative hard but remember that the organization was considering bringing back Peters long before Brooks was hurt and by late April NBC Sports Philadelphia's Derrick Gunn foreshadowed the reunion weeks before Brooks’ season-ending Achilles’ tear.
"I do know for a fact that Jason Peters wants to be back in Philadelphia, the Eagles want Jason Peters here." Gunn stated. "It’s only a matter of time before they get something done."
The perceived consternation with Dillard has been overblown, at least in some quarters. The organization didn’t like how he handled the ill-fated, late-season move to right tackle last season, according to a team source. The disappointment wasn’t about the on-field struggles, however, it was about the unwillingness to fight through adversity.
As far as left tackle, Dillard was steadily improving after being unable to handle the bull-rushes of star edge players like Everson Griffen and Robert Quinn early, hardly the first college offensive lineman to have to add strength to deal with the “grown men” of the NFL.
Everyone understood what needed to be done and the Eagles strength and conditioning staff was planning on working closely with Dillard in the offseason to make sure he was doing the right things in the weight room. Like everyone else, however, Dillard was left to his own devices in a COVID-19 world.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing and there have been positive signs, most notably from Brooks on NBC Sports Philadelphia last month. According to the powerful 340-pound Brooks, Dillard is up to 335 pounds and the weight is in all the right places.
“None of that college body, that noodle body, none of that,” Brooks joked. “He’s been hitting the weights, man, getting strong. I tried to push him every day.”
The virtual offseason meant the coaches haven’t gotten their hands on the younger players like Dillard, and checking in on Zoom can only tell you so much. Meanwhile, Doug Pederson has already admitted that 2020 now shapes up as a “veteran-laden season.”
For that reason the talk around the league was not if Peters would be back but when, and all of it was a 180 from the pre-COVID-19 thinking when the Eagles essentially said goodbye to the veterans in advance of free agency.
When you couple the pandemic with the Brooks Achilles’ injury, the ultimate endgame here was assured because Peters had always indicated a desire to keep playing and eschewed other opportunities elsewhere, according to a league source
The final layer to all of this was the loss of Vaitai to Detroit in free agency and the safety net he once provided as the swing tackle. If Peters is needed outside due to injury, he could move seamlessly and there is no need to cross your fingers on rookie Prince Tega Wanogho or the untested Jordan Mailata. The right side would have been less of an issue with Pryor’s ability to swing from RG to RT but as far as comfort, let’s just say Stoutland is sleeping a little more soundly.
Long the strength of the Eagles, the OL was already planning on entering a new phase with Dillard at LT but when 20 percent change turned to 40 percent with Pryor penciled in as Brooks’ injury replacement, the sense of urgency increased.
A veteran was going to be brought in and those speculating on a Larry Warford, Kyle Long or Josh Kline to simply slide in at RG failed to recognize the comfort level the entire organization — from Jeffrey Lurie on down — has with Peters, along with the issues working in players from the outside in such a unique environment.
If Sam Hinkie was running the Eagles, he’d tell you this was about optionality.
An experienced player was needed, so why not bring in the old gunslinger who already knows the offense and is regarded as almost a mythical figure by many of his peers?
In many ways, the end of Peters' career is mirroring Darren Sproles in that the plan is always to go younger but circumstance and the coaching staff’s familiarity and confidence with the player always has them lobbying for a return.
Hindsight will judge if this was the right move for the Eagles in the short-term but it was the only one that made any sense to the organization.
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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for PhillyVoice and SI.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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