After sustaining a concussion in last week’s loss to the Patriots, Lane Johnson will be sidelined during Sunday’s matchup against Seattle. In his place, the Eagles had a tough decision to make. Do they start Halapoulivaati Vaitai, or rookie Andre Dillard?
Ultimately, it will be Dillard who was given the reigns, with Vaitai remaining as a valuable, versatile backup. But this could prove to be problematic.
Dillard stated the following on Friday when asked about the potential switch:
That’s not exactly the most encouraging thing to hear, especially when the chances of being lined up against the ruthless Jadeveon Clowney are extremely high, if he plays.
Dillard was supposed to essentially ‘redshirt’ his rookie year, learning behind one of the best to ever do it in Jason Peters. That plan fell through midseason and Dillard was asked to fill in for the Future Hall of Famer, playing strongly against the rampant pass rushes possessed by the Bills and Bears.
It’s one thing throwing him into the deep end and expecting him to swim, but tossing him to the Ocean could have a very different outcome. Especially when it’s a move that they didn’t necessarily have to make.
Vaitai wasn’t exactly electric against the Patriots, but who was? The entire line was playing some of the worst football we’ve seen this season and while the former TCU lineman’s performance raised a cause for concern, it’s easy to forget that he transitioned to guard this offseason, beating out Stefen Wisniewski for the primary backup spot.
The fourth-year tackle has played in 49 games for the Eagles (starting 17) and has started on both sides of the bookshelf. As a rookie, Vaitai was asked to fill in for Lane Johnson during his suspension and was punished in his NFL debut by Ryan Kerrigan, a matchup that would later come back to haunt the Eagles over and over again. As time passed and experience was gained, Vaitai began to find his consistency.
Working closely with OL coach Jeff Stoutland, his second offseason was one of development and progress. But the Eagles would be forced to turn to Vaitai yet again when future Hall of Famer Jason Peters went down with injury. The project offensive tackle was called up to the plate once more.
This time, however, at left tackle, Vaitai would face some of the most tenacious pass rushers in the game including the Broncos’ Von Miller, Khalil Mack and a strong-willed Seahawks defense to which he allowed two sacks, one QB hit, and seven QB hurries, per PFF. That’s not the most encouraging thing in the world when trying to make a case to start him and only adds to the reasons against.
However, Vaitai has starting experience at right tackle and has long been applauded for his versatility. It would make logical sense to give Vaitai a shot here because it’s someone that can slot in without the immediate concern of someone having never played the position before lining up against elite talent.
Regardless of who starts in place of Johnson, Jadeveon Clowney will undoubtedly smell blood in the water if he starts. He’s been battling knee and hip injuries, but if he’s able to go, he’s still going to be a problem.
If you do start Vaitai, as Mike Kaye pointed out when discussing this on Twitter, it does limit your backup options if the injury bug were to sink its teeth even deeper. Matt Pryor would ultimately become the next in line because Dillard wouldn’t have practiced any other spot.
In the long-run, helping Dillard get to a point where he’s able to play both sides of the trench makes a lot of sense, but there are definitely more favorable situations in which to enhance that growth.
If you start Vaitai coming off of a shoddy week, you know that there’s a concern and your backup options are limited. But, if cross-training has stagnated the growth of Agholor and prevented JJ Arcega-Whiteside from seeing the field, then this isn’t the time to get cute. (Although, I think there’s far more trust in OL Coach Jeff Stoutland than there is in WR coach Carson Walch).
If you start Dillard, someone that has just vocalized the difficulty of switching to a position he’s never played in, you’re opening the door to defensive creativity from a dangerous pass-rush that will thrive in throwing everything they can to throw the rookie off-guard.
The good news is, this is the reason why I’m not a Head Coach. It’s a tough call and not one that really has any overwhelmingly positive outcome other than teaching Dillard even more about the position and adding long-term value. But in this very moment, it could open up a whole can of worms that the Eagles really didn’t need to see wriggling around.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports