In a spiffy maroon suit with a Washington State lapel pin fastened to the left side of his chest, Andre Dillard walked up to the stage in Nashville, Tennessee, cordially greeted Commissioner Roger Goodell with a handshake, slipped the Philadelphia Eagles hat over his head and posed with the midnight green jersey he’ll be wearing this fall.
The 2018 Cougars aren’t done making history. Not just yet.
Not until the Eagles selected Dillard with the 22nd overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft had a Washington State offensive lineman been selected in the first round of an event that’s going on its 83rd year of existence.
But Dillard, once a 240-pound offensive line recruit whose only offers came from WSU and a few regional Big Sky schools, got his moment almost three hours into this draft, embracing mother Jennifer Bollinger in the “green room” and fist-bumping Cougars O-line coach Mason Miller before he started down the runway to the draft stage.
Once he got there, Dillard proudly flashed three fingers in the air, a tribute to former teammate Tyler Hilinski, the WSU QB who wore No. 3 for the Cougars before committing suicide last January.
Grabbing Dillard must have been a high priority for Philadelphia, because the Eagles traded with the Baltimore Ravens to move up three positions in the first round. They snatched the Woodinville, Washington, native right before Houston, another team eyeballing Dillard, made its pick at No. 23.
“I was feeling every emotion in the book,” Dillard told ESPN host Suzy Kolber. “I was anxious; I had to keep standing up. It was such an amazing moment to share with everybody. I’m speechless right now.”
He had to wait longer than some anticipated, but it had been all but guaranteed Dillard would end a long drought for WSU when the left tackle received one of the 23 phone calls made by the NFL earlier this month, inviting Dillard and 22 other elite prospects to Nashville. Not since quarterback Ryan Leaf in 1998 has a WSU player been given that opportunity, and the NFL typically only invites players projected to be taken off the board on the first day.
The Cougars hadn’t managed to place an offensive lineman in the first round, but putting them in the draft hasn’t been a problem and Dillard’s selection keeps a recent fad going.
WSU has had an offensive lineman snapped up in three of the last four drafts, and Dillard joins former teammate Cole Madison, taken by Green Bay in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, and Joe Dahl, a 2016 draftee of the Detroit Lions who was one of the first that showed Dillard how to pass-protect in the Air Raid when he got to Pullman in 2014.
“We’re excited for him, and he’s a good quality player and has worked hard for it,” WSU coach Mike Leach said of Dillard earlier this week. “Went from being a pretty nonrecruited guy by most teams to where he’s at now, so yeah, I think it’s been a pretty impressive path.”
Dillard has scaled up mock draft boards over the last four months, piecing together a strong week at the Senior Bowl in January, posting some of the best marks by an offensive lineman at the scouting combine in February and cementing his predraft process with an impressive showing at WSU’s Pro Day, where he performed positional drills for 28 NFL teams, including Philadelphia.
“I’m so happy for him. It’s been a great ride with him,” said WSU junior Liam Ryan, who’s expected to replace Dillard at left tackle this fall. “Three years and I just enjoyed every single moment with him. … I’m just so excited for him and his family because he’s worked so hard to get where he’s at right now.
“Whatever team picks him, they’re a lucky team. They’ve got a guy.”
Dillard showed an expert-level understanding of the pass protection schemes required in Leach’s Air Raid, sealing off the left side of an offensive line that allowed only 13 sacks in 13 games last season. Dillard was an Associated Press third-team All-American and All-Pac-12 first-teamer as a senior and finished with 39 consecutive starts at left tackle.
In the on-stage interview, Kolber alluded to Dillard’s gentle personality away from the field, which is contrary to his violent blocking style on it.
“GMs tell me that you’re one of the nicest guys in the draft, but man you are nasty on the field,” Kolber said. “How do you turn that on?”
“I know what I’ve got to do when I’ve got to do it,” Dillard responded. “Off the field, I just like being someone people like to be around, but when I’m on the field, I know I’ve got to do my job.”
In Leach’s patented Air Raid, that usually meant shielding a quarterback who was going to air it out between 40-60 times per game. But what will be asked of Dillard should change – at least somewhat – at the next level, as he adapts to more run-oriented, pro style-driven league.
It could explain why Dillard fell below three other offensive linemen and one other tackle: Alabama’s Jonah Williams.
“Obviously, he’s going to have to be multidimensional and move defenders off the line,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on Thursday’s broadcast. “He doesn’t have great arm length for a left tackle compared to Jonah Williams of Alabama, longer than Andre Dillard’s. But here’s a guy that’s proven he has good feet.”
Dillard’s No. 1 priority with the Eagles will be to keep the club’s franchise quarterback upright, something Philly’s offensive line hasn’t been able to do successfully or consistently the past two seasons.
Carson Wentz’s 2017 season was shortened by an ACL tear, though the Eagles managed with backup Nick Foles, beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Wentz’s injury caused him to miss the first two games of the 2018 regular season, and though he’d return to play in 11 games, Philadelphia’s No. 1 suffered a back injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Jason Peters, considered a future Hall of Famer, occupies the left tackle spot for the Eagles, but he’s also aging quickly at 37 years old. Dillard is thought to be his heir apparent in Philly, or someone who could fill the position immediately.
“As much as pass protection is his forte, there were some games where you watched, and the Senior Bowl in particular, he got whipped with power, he got whipped with speed,” ESPN’s Louis Riddick said. “He has some technique deficiencies. They’re going to have really coach him up. … His upside is spectacular. They’re just going to have to do some work with him.”
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