The Eagles offensive line is in a unique situation heading into 2019. All five starters from their Super Bowl-winning season two years ago are still on the team now, and even key depth pieces too. But one starter from that incredible Super Bowl win is now looking for a new lease of life.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai is now entering his fourth year in the NFL and unlike most fifth-round selections, his journey has seen him rack up 39 appearances in that time frame, starting on both sides of the bookshelf in the process. While there were some impressive highs, there were also worrying lows and heading into 2019, Vaitai’s circumstance changed massively.
Watching Isaac Seumalo, a guard drafted two rounds before him, sign a contract extension this offseason, Vaitai’s future looked to be going down a different route. The team already had project tackle Jordan Mailata waiting in the wings and the drafting of Andre Dillard saw the stock of the TCU product drop seemingly overnight.
But during OTA’s, something interesting happened. With Brandon Brooks expected to miss some time due to a torn Achilles, the Eagles needed to find a backup right guard who could hold down the fort if needed. They brought back Super Bowl 52 starter Stefen Wisniewski, but it was Big V getting the first-team reps in May.
We’re now in the heart of Training Camp, and it seems as though the decision to switch from tackle to guard has served him and the team well.
“He’s our right guard right now. We’re trying to prepare him that way. We’re obviously managing [G] Brandon [Brooks] through his injury, just trying to prepare to get ready to play in that first pre-season game.– Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh
Also building depth. As you know, as you go through the course of a 16-week season, you’re not always playing with the same 11 every week. We’re trying to do two things, kill two birds with one stone.”
Typically, for a tackle to transition inside, they need to have a very firm base and quick hands relying on physicality more than mobility due to matching up against ferocious nose tackles. Vaitai has the shorter arm length, athleticism, and composure needed to make the jump inside, but what’s his ceiling?
Well, that question seems to already have an answer. Doug Pederson has preached the idea of ‘cross-training’ for quite some time and it’s easy to see why. If Vaitai has already displaced Wisniewski, who is now backing up Jason Kelce at center just one year removed from entering the week one as a starting left guard, then that’s a really encouraging sign. Vaitai wouldn’t be expected to carry the load for an entire season, but if he can show enough to prove to the Eagles he’s ready to keep things locked down until one of the best right guards in the game returns, then that’s vital.
Vaitai is entering his contract year and at this point, if he remained at tackle, his future would be a wild unknown. He’s proven enough to be serviceable at either tackle spot, but if he can replicate that as an interior guard, then he may become the next member of the Eagles 2016 draft class to earn an extension.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports