The Eagles have a total of 18 players set to enter the free agency market in around a month from now, meaning that the process of deciding who will flee the nest is well underway. There are some tough decisions facing Howie and Co. this offseason and this series will take a look at some of the most challenging.
Among them is the future of swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. On the surface, it may seem relatively simple, but the case is a lot more complex than it looks.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Vaitai was always seen as a developmental talent. Someone who had played both sides of the line during his time at TCU, his versatility was regarded as a huge bonus. What many didn’t anticipate was how early it would be tested.
When Lane Johnson was forced to miss time due to a PED suspension, Vaitai would be tasked with stepping in and holding the fort at RT. It started off tumultuously, as he 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. The Rams, Giants, Panthers and Niners all presented unique challenges for the second-year tackle, but none more pivotal than the Minnesota Vikings and Everson Griffen…who tallied just 2 QB hits in the NFC CHampionship game of 2017.
In 2018, Vaitai was only asked to start once. He graded 80 out of 85 offensive tackles that year, per PFF and in preseason, allowed 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries in just 95 snaps.
But then 2019 happened. The Eagles drafted Andre Dillard, a future heir to the LT throne who somewhat pushed Vaitai to the back of the queue. It also didn’t help that they handed now-starting left guard and fellow draftmate Isaac Seumalo had just been handed a new contract. With Mailata behind him and Dillard blocking his development, the future began to look bleak.
Vaitai shifted to right guard during the offseason, pulling an ace out of his sleeve. Brandon Brooks was recovering from a torn Achilles and it was assumed he’d miss time. Vaitai actually beat out Wisniewski for the primary backup guard role, although stunningly to everyone, Brooks returned week one and never looked back.
The TCU product did however play in 476 snaps, grading out at 72.8 per PFF (25th out of 87 tackles). He started four games at right tackle (1 playoff start), the position he’d drifted away from, due to Lane Johnson’s injury. This all happened because for some reason, it was deemed a great idea to push Dillard at RT, despite the fact he’d never played there in his life and expressed concern before the game. That experiment went as expected, and the team turned to Vaitai once more.
Vaitai held his own in the four spot starts he was granted, which is what we’ve come to expect. He wasn’t overwhelmingly dominant and there were a few too many penalties for an ideal world, but he was serviceable. Just as he was in the Super Bowl. Just as he was in the NFC Championship game, and just as he was in the 2019 playoffs.
The Eagles have sleepwalked into a bit of a conundrum. Andre Dillard may well have leapfrogged Vaitai as the inherent heir to the LT throne, but three things stand out.
1) If Lane Johnson misses time, Dillard, a lifetime LT, is not the man you want to line up on the right-hand side of things having never played the position in his life.
2) We learned in the preseason that while Jordan Mailata dazzled as a rookie, his second run was less impressive. The shock factor wore off and it became evident that the Aus was still relying on his frame and power to get him out of tough spots as opposed to technique which still needs a lot of refinement. There’s a significant drop off as of right now and given that Vaitai has had to start at least 3 games in 3 of the 4 years he’s been with the Eagles, there is a strong chance Mailata would be dropped in the deep end if made the primary backup.
3) Vaitai was a prime trade candidate this past offseason and after showing he can play inside, outside, backside, and probably at Safety if you let him, teams will come running if he hits the free-agent market and the big dancing bear may well seek an opportunity to secure a long-term future with potential to win a starting role. Something he just isn’t going to get in Philadelphia now.
If the Eagles want to bring back Vaitai, they may be trying to close gate after the Horse has bolted. Value has now evaporated and they will have to cough up more than ideal to keep him around. The issue there is that it’s still arguably within the team’s best interests to do exactly that, at least until it’s clear what they have in Mailata or can groom his eventual replacement.
Should Vaitai remain an Eagle, do not be surprised to see a slightly bigger deal than you’d usually expect. It’s absolutely plausible the Eagles try to keep their big-man around a little longer, and they’ll have to work hard to do so.
Will Howie Roseman still be willing to pull the trigger knowing just how many other needs the team have to fill this offseason?
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports