Vaitai could turn baptism of fire against Redskins into campaign for starting role

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With franchise Right tackle Lane Johnson suspended, the Eagles are putting their trust into fifth round draft pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai. But like fellow rookie Jalen Mills, he will face a baptism of fire in his NFL debut this weekend.

Not only is this the first divisional game to be played by the Eagles under Doug Pederson, but it’s the first time that the Redskins Defense will get up close and personal with the new Eagles Offense..meaning that the Offensive line has a great chance to come together as a unit and minimize the effect of Lane Johnson’s suspension.

One man trying to make the most of it however, will be Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. A former first round pick, Kerrigan has developed into a cornerstone of the Redskins Defense and has previously caused major problems for Lane Johnson and the Eagles Offensive line.

Last year against the Eagles, Kerrigan was able to sack Bradford and rack up four tackles..which is an impressive feat..and one he nearly matched in their week 15 matchup as he once again tallied four tackles. In the same matchup just 12 months beforehand, Kerrigan recorded six tackles and a sack..meaning that in his last three meetings with the Eagles, the 2012 Pro-Bowler has a combined 14 tackles and 2 sacks…which is frightening to say the least.

The good news for the Eagles is that “Big V” has an almost identical frame to their prized right tackle. At 6’6 and 320 pounds, Vaitai is an extremely intimidating figure and is three pounds heavier than the Eagles first round pick from 2013.

Heavily praised for his strength, Vaitai is coming off of a preseason in which he struggled to begin with, before transforming his pass-protection efficiency to earn him the ninth overall rookie spot in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 list.

Vaitai may not have taken first team reps until this week, but has seen plenty of work against the Eagles starting Defensive Line..which is by no means an easy task. The unit itself has become the heart and soul of the Jim Schwartz Defense and sees pass-rushing threats at every position.

Kerrigan may be a different beast, given that Washington like to keep their opponents on edge. 10 tackles and a forced fumble through his opening four games, he’s en route to another impressive season and will smell blood on the water come Sunday.

For Vaitai, it’s a chance to really prove his worth and emerge as a reliable starter. The offseason preparation and improvement seen throughout preseason showed enough talent to the coaches to prompt his name being called in the absence of Johnson.

Eric Rowe and Jalen Mills are just two of the recent Eagles rookies to encounter “Baptisms of fire”, with “Big V” being the latest…but with a great supporting cast around him and a sizable frame that favors him over the 6’4, 265 linebacker..it should be a key matchup in the game that if Vaitai can win, could give him the confidence for the rest of what’s going to be a grueling season and potentially lead to a long-term starting role elsewhere on the line.

With the long-term future of Jason Peters uncertain and Johnson the heir to the throne at Left Tackle..the Eagles will be looking for someone to eventually fill that right tackle spot..and this is the perfect opportunity for Vaitai to make his case.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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