PHILADELPHIA - If anyone can take you inside the development of a young NFL offensive lineman, it's Jason Kelce, the well-spoken center of the Eagles who arrived in Philadelphia as an undersized sixth-round pick in 2011 and has since built a strong case for a potential future in Canton.
One of the more surprising developments for the Eagles early this season has been Andre Dillard's work at left tackle since receiving a second opportunity due to the sprained right knee of Jordan Mailata, the popular one-time football novice who routed Dillard in a much-ballyhooed training camp competition before signing a big-money extension on the eve of the regular season.
As a fill-in, Dillard, the Eagles' 2019 first-round pick, held his own against Dallas and Kansas City even if Nick Sirianni's team wasn't quite ready to compete against playoff-level foes.
The context to Dillard's success, though, was that the Cowboys were minus star defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, and the Chiefs played without talented pass-rusher Frank Clark.
By this past Sunday in Carolina, Mailata was back but Lane Johnson was out with a personal issue so the decision was to move the more versatile Mailata over to the right side and allow Dillard to play LT again where he stymied a star edge rusher in Brian Burns.
In three games, Dillard has gone from perceived bust to No. 20 of 74 OTs graded by ProFootballFocus.com this season with his toughest test looming Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Super Bowl star Shaq Barrett.
The ever-thoughtful Kelce was asked about the evolution of Dillard as a player Wednesday and offered a deeper context of what makes great players great.
“I played with guys that haven’t realized their potential and certainly have played with guys who have and probably the biggest thing that most of the guys that realize their potential or continue to get better is they have a very realistic assessment of who they are as a player and where they are,” Kelce explained.
Self-scouting is a prominent buzzword among coaches in the NFL but not everyone looks in the mirror and can identify what they need to improve.
Some are even insulated by those around them who provide echo chambers instead of constructive criticism and always remember nearly everyone in the NFL was once a star, be it at the high school or the college levels.
“Their confidence isn’t so bad that they don’t think they can do it and it’s not so great that they’re not aware of how bad they’re playing," Kelce said. "So I think awareness is really where it’s at and you have to really truly know as a player, was that good or was that bad? Was that what I was supposed to do on this play or was it not?"
According to Kelce, it's the players who are honest with themselves who can then marry work ethic and the need to improve to a talent level that got them to the NFL in the first place.
“I think that most of the players that continue to get better are able to have that very realistic assessment while watching the film of, ‘OK, that’s not correct, OK that’s correct, OK, that’s not correct,’ and you put your ego aside," said Kelce.
It's a fine line, though, because you also can't beat yourself up and destroy your own confidence.
"You’re also not destroying yourself for every little thing that you have no confidence whatsoever," he said. "You’ve got to kind of be in the middle of both of those.”
It's a perfect description of the fine line that basically serves as a tightrope.
In the NBA, enablers in an echo chamber turned Ben Simmons from a generational talent into stagnation while the lack of self-confidence is the quickest way to destroy any career.
For the first time, Dillard is carefully traversing the tightrope from the platform of a promising prospect to the foundation of an established contributor.
"Andre has always had the physical attributes," said Kelce. "I think we’ve touched on that for a couple of years. His foot quickness, his suddenness, his size. He’s got some really good things, positive things to go on as a player.
"I think he’s just naturally progressed. The technique has gotten better. The knowledge of the game, the awareness. ... He’s had a lot of strengths and ability, and now it’s starting to become more natural, and executing on a higher percentage of plays."
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.