Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson teamed up with blossoming stars Jordan Mailata and Landon Dickerson to form one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last season for the Philadelphia Eagles. The powerfully athletic front helped lead the top rushing attack in the league, and Jeff Stoutland played a vital role in that.
Strength in the trenches has become a hallmark of the organization during the nine-year tenure of offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, especially through the ability to withstand injuries and maintain continuity to put together an effective effort.
NFL teams can’t survive without depth on the offensive line. The Eagles were forced to use 14 different starting offensive line combinations in 16 games during the 2020 season, and they used 11 different starters on the line in 17 games in 2021.
How can the Eagles build one position group to withstand the heightened physical demands of the trenches through such a hectic revolving door?
Jeff Stoutland is vital to the success of the Eagles
General manager Howie Roseman spoke on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. In a statement that surprised nobody familiar with the organization, he called Stoutland the best offensive line coach in the NFL.
The former assistant to Nick Saban at the University of Alabama deserves the praise. As Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia accurately stated, “He’s taken good players and made them great players. Taken average players and made them good players. And taken undrafted free agents that nobody wanted and made them solid players.”
A track record of maximizing talent is the most accurate assessment to measure the performance of a position coach. Johnson has delivered on the high hopes the organization had for him as the fourth-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Kelce has transformed from a sixth-round pick into a Hall of Famer throughout his 11 seasons in midnight green. Jack Driscoll and Nate Herbig are backups who helped maintain the strength of the team in 2021 by filling in at guard in place of three-time Pro Bowler Brandon Brooks.
The successful development of nearly anyone Stoutland works with is no coincidence, and his players value his work as much as anybody. He has built a sense of comradery that feeds the emotion of his players, most famously teaching them that “hungry dogs run faster.”
Speculation emerged that Stoutland was considering a return to Alabama after the Eagles moved on from Doug Pederson last offseason. He ultimately remained in Philadelphia and played another key role as the longest-standing veteran on the youngest coaching staff in the NFL during head coach Nick Sirianni’s first season.
Roseman’s Roster Construction on the Offensive Line
Roseman’s decision to draft Dickerson with the 37th overall pick in 2021 was met with criticism. The Eagles already had a track record of success inserting lesser-known offensive guards into the lineup without losing significant production.
Stoutland had done excellent work with mid and late-round picks like Mailata, Driscoll, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and Isaac Seumalo. However, they spent a premium pick on an already highly talented player with major injury concerns after an ACL tear in December 2020.
Roseman was asked a question on Wednesday about his evaluation of offensive linemen in preparation for the draft considering the success the Eagles have had with a plug-and-play strategy at times during Stoutland’s tenure.
His answer debunks the theory that the Eagles believe they can provide Stoutland with interchangeable pieces and let him do the rest of the work. It also shed light on the decision to draft Dickerson.
“At the end of the day, these coaches can be as great as they possibly can be, but without talent, it doesn’t help.”-Howie Roseman
Faith in the system to maximize talent doesn’t mean that the system can succeed without talent. It’s the reason the Eagles were willing to spend the fourth-overall pick on Johnson, sign Brooks to a $40 million free-agent contract in 2016, and consistently extend the contracts of their veteran linemen requiring substantial financial investments.
Chip Kelly, Stoutland’s first head coach in Philadelphia, provided a cautionary tale of overconfidence in a coaching system. He prioritized his offensive scheme too highly and allowed dynamic offensive talent like DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy to leave the organization with almost no concern. Roseman hasn’t taken the same approach in his construction of the offensive line.
Stoutland’s ability to mold Driscoll and Herbig into serviceable short-term players wouldn’t have been possible without veterans like Kelce and Johnson anchoring the line. The Eagles shouldn’t expect either of the reserve guards to become long-term building blocks.
They do expect Dickerson to be a primary piece on the offensive line in the coming seasons, justifying the use of the 37th overall pick.
The ability to help mold Mailata into an excellent NFL starter despite his lack of football experience is one of the best accomplishments of Stoutland’s career. However, it still wouldn’t have been possible if Mailata didn’t possess the remarkable raw talent necessary to reach the level he showed in 2021.
Roseman’s Draft, Offseason Plans
In reference to the 2022 NFL Draft, Roseman spoke about “the usual traits that the Eagles would be interested in” when evaluating offensive linemen. Past indicators point to a preference for linemen with athleticism in the open field, versatility to play multiple positions, and reputations as highly competitive players.
Nick Faria of Philly Sports Network identified prospects in the 2022 draft class who possess the traits the Eagles prefer. Tyler Linderbaum, Kenyon Green, and Trevor Penning all fit the mold, but the Eagles will most likely need to spend a first-round pick to get one of them.
Roseman has already indicated that he won’t pass up premium talent if it’s available, and three first-round picks could allow the Eagles to invest in an offensive lineman with Kelce and Johnson in the later stages of their respective careers.
With foundational players like Mailata and Dickerson already in place from recent drafts, the Eagles might choose to wait until the later rounds to select an offensive lineman. Faria also mentioned Alec Lindstrom as a potential fit as a third-day pick. They could also prioritize backup roles considering Herbig’s uncertain status as a restricted free agent.
Like all moves that Roseman makes, his decisions regarding offensive linemen this offseason will align with past indicators of his personal philosophy on roster construction. He’ll hope that Stoutland can continue to utilize the players he’s been given as well as he has over the past nine seasons.
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire