Passing the torch: Halapoulivaati Vaitai has a chance to become heir to Eagles LT throne

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The Eagles escaped with a win in Monday Night’s clash against Washington, but they will face some of their toughest challenges yet moving forward. Nine-time Pro-Bowler Jason Peters tore both his ACL and MCL in the victory and was carted off away from a huddle of every Eagles player who sprinted on the field from the sideline.

|It just shows the love and respect that the guys have for him, quite honestly.” Pederson said of the traumatic event. “And the chants from the crowd [and] from the fans was breathtaking to experience that for a guy that means a lot to this organization and to this community, this city.

His blood, sweat and tears have been on that practice field and that game field for a lot of time, a lot of Pro Bowls. And I think it’s just the love that everybody has for him. And to see that yesterday was pretty awesome.”

Moving forward, the Eagles will not only have to figure out what to do at Left Tackle, but what happens in the long-term future. The 35-year old has had a Hall of Fame career and will go down as a legend of the game. It’s hard to fill a void like that…and the Eagles don’t have long to act. A homestead against San Francisco lingers…so what’s the plan from here on out?

The first man to be associated with the spot is Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The TCU product has filled in for Peters twice this season now and both times have come against the Redskins and the man who forced him into a trial by fire, Ryan Kerrigan. Vaitai held his own and responded quickly to help the Eagles score on the very next drive after losing Peters. But is he ready to take on the full-time starting role for the remainder of the season?

“He played well. Pederson explained today. “He came in there — listen, he’s a guy that just has to trust his ability, trust his fundamentals [and] trust his coaching. And he does get reps during the week on both sides, even though [he was on] the right side a week ago with Lane’s absence, he played over there.”

The improvement in Vaitai’s game has been well documented and rightly so. The 6’6, 320 lbs lineman looks far more confident than he did this time last season, but if the Eagles do go all in on last year’s 5th round pick, will he play on the right side or the left? The Eagles have some very intriguing matchups remaining on the calendar. Denver’s Von Miller, Oakland’s Kahlil Mack, Seattle’s pass rush, another visit to the Meadowlands and a flurry of versatile Rams defensive linemen. Lane Johnson could just as easily swing to the other side, but for Vaitai, it’s just a case of suiting up and playing wherever asked.

“Wherever the coaches tell me to go.” He told reporters after the game. “If they ask me to play center, I will play center. This is my job and I have to play wherever they want.”

Vaitai was in this spot one year ago. When Lane Johnson was suspended 10 games for a PED violation, Vaitai was dropped in the deep end and expected to learn how to swim. One year later, the tide is coming in once again and with starting experience under his belt, Vaitai has to be ready to go.

The big thing to note here is that Vaitai wouldn’t be unassisted. The Eagles Offensive line has been simply outstanding across the board this season. Here’s a look at their overall PFF grades prior to last night’s win.

With the pass protection from LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement and Brent Celek all playing into the occasion as well, so long as Vaitai can hold his own long enough for support to arrive, the Eagles should be able to support their second year lineman a little more proactively.

Vaitai won’t see the trial by fire he did one year ago and there isn’t a cloud of uncertainty either. The Eagles know what they’re getting from a tackle who has filled in for Johnson and earned his stripes learning behind Jason Peters. Is he the eventual heir to the Left Tackle throne, or does that honor still belong to Lane Johnson? It’s too early to tell. But there’s one thing we know for sure.

Vaitai now has a golden opportunity. The passing of the torch at left tackle has long been spoken about but nobody never really expected it to arrive. Jason Peters has long been one of the NFL’s most reliable, durable, and consistent players…even when battling debilitating injuries. If now really is the time that Peters decides to hang up his cleats, then Halapoulivaati Vaitai has a nine game stretch to show the Eagles that he is ready to step up to the plate and be the long-term option up front.

If he can, the Eagles suddenly have one of the youngest and most secure offensive lines in the league. Vaitai’s test not only matters for his own personal development or even the sustenance of the offense. This goes far beyond wins and losses. The former Hornfrog has a chance to carve his role as a long-term starter…and it all starts this weekend when the Eagles host the Niners.

Last year saw Vaitai endure a trial by fire. Having come out of the flames unburned, he now revisits those same fires in the hopes of putting them out for good.

 

Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

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