Eagles

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

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Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

Halapoulivaati Vaitai is already a huge reason why the Eagles are playing for the NFC Championship. Now, he might be the key to reaching the Super Bowl.

The Eagles couldn’t have made it this far without Vaitai, who took over at left tackle way back in Week 7 when Jason Peters was lost for the season. But on Sunday, Peters’ replacement faces one of his stiffest tests to date in Vikings right defensive end Everson Griffen.

“He's a game-wrecker,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Griffen this week.

Recently named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, Griffen set career highs with 13 sacks in 2017, finishing tied for fourth in the NFL. It was the third time in four seasons the eighth-year veteran went into double digits, and he’s still going strong, getting to the quarterback once more in the Vikings’ divisional round playoff win over the Saints.

Griffen is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league. Vaitai was a minimally experienced backup until mid-October. On paper, the matchup looks like a serious concern.

“Fast, strong guy,” Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks said of Griffen. “He’s played in this league for years now, got experience.

“But V is big and strong too. He has not as much experience but got more experience than a lot of younger guys his age with the games he started last year and games he’s playing this year, so I know V is up to the challenge.”

A fifth-round draft pick in 2016, Vaitai has 17 NFL starts under his belt and 11 this season, including playoffs. The results are somewhat mixed, though the Eagles have an 8-2 record since the 24-year-old stepped in at left tackle.

Vaitai hasn’t made anybody forget about Peters — a future Hall of Famer — but the second-year player is holding his own and improving steadily.

“He’s got a lot better, especially from last year to this year,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “His technique has improved greatly. I think his football IQ has gone up. He’s really worked hard to get better every day, and his pass blocking has improved tremendously.”

This week perhaps more than any other, the Eagles can’t afford a liability at the tackle position.

The gravity of the situation is obvious, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Plus, in addition to Griffen, the Vikings boast the league’s No. 1 defense both in scoring and yardage. Points and positive drives will be hard enough to come by for the Eagles without consistent disruption at the line of scrimmage (see story).

Naturally, Pederson plans to provide assistance for Vaitai. However, the Vikings are also known for using exotic double A-gap blitzes up the middle and other overload pressure packages, and the Eagles can’t double-team one guy the entire game.

There will be occasions when Griffen is one-on-one, and it’s on Vaitai to shut him down.

“It's a lot of respect for him,” Pederson said of Griffen. “He can change the ballgame.

“He knows that tight ends are going to help over there, backs are going to help over there, slide protection. It’s not rocket science. But Big V has had a challenge all season. We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long, and this will be his greatest challenge in this game. I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season.”

Whether out of comfort or necessity or resignation, at this point, the Eagles seem fine with the idea of Vaitai vs. Griffen. Right tackle Lane Johnson doesn’t see the potential mismatch as a big deal at all.

“We’ll have some chip [protections] and some slams tied in, but other than that though, I think he’ll be alright,” Johnson said. “Just another guy in there.”

Vaitai has often looked like “just another guy” this season, in varying senses of the phrase. He’s experienced his share of struggles, then been able to quietly blend in with a strong offensive line for long periods.

Whichever Vaitai the Eagles get on Sunday could go a long way toward determining the outcome.

Trey Burton denies report questioning his Eagles future

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Trey Burton denies report questioning his Eagles future

Several hours after an NJ.com report surfaced that the Eagles were unlikely to re-sign Trey Burton, the tight end denied it on Twitter.

Replying to a tweet about the report from former Eagles teammate Emmanuel Acho, Burton said he hasn't spoken to anyone.

NJ.com's Matt Lombardo reported Friday that the Eagles made Burton an offer that the soon-to-be-free-agent "didn't consider serious."

"We are fully expecting Trey to sign elsewhere," the source said.

It wouldn't be surprising whatsoever if Burton leaves in free agency. A team will likely pay him starter's money and offer him a chance to start, which he doesn't have here with Zach Ertz firmly entrenched.

The Eagles are over the projected salary cap, and while they could create space in numerous ways, they also have to worry about re-signing key linebacker Nigel Bradham.

6 ways for Eagles to create cap space

6 ways for Eagles to create cap space

The Eagles are coming off a thrilling season but there's a lot of work to be done. 

The NFL's new league year begins on March 14 and the Eagles must be under the salary cap by then. The problem is that based on projections, the Eagles are set to be more than $9 million over the cap, according to OverTheCap. So it's time for some maneuvering. 

The good news is that Howie Roseman's specialty has always been finding unique ways to get the Eagles out of cap trouble. There are ways for him to do it again.

Cut Torrey Smith 
Probably the easiest one. Smith was a great teammate and a solid addition to the Eagles' locker room, and he really stepped up his game in the playoffs, but it's probably not enough to bring him back. He just wasn't good enough last season, and cutting him would save the Eagles $5 million in cap room with no dead money. The Birds still have Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, while Mack Hollins is entering Year 2. 

Cut Brent Celek
This one will hurt, but Celek can take away the sting if he decides to walk away as a champion. He's set to have a cap number of $5 million. That's just way too much for what Celek provides these days. By cutting him, the Eagles would save $4 million in cap space. So just between Smith and Celek, the Eagles will almost get back to zero ... but there's other work to do. They'll still need money to sign free agents and draft picks. 

Extend Brandon Graham 
Graham is entering the final year of his contract with a cap number of $8 million. He wants a new contract and deserves one. Good news: An extension would work for both sides. Graham would get more money long term and the Eagles could get his cap number down this season. 

Rework/cut Vinny Curry
Curry is coming off of probably his best season in the NFL but will have an $11 million cap number. That's tough to swallow, especially with Derek Barnett waiting for his chance to start. It seems likely the Eagles will ask Curry to take a pay cut or rework his deal. If not, cutting him would leave $6 million in dead money but would also save $5 million in cap room. 

Trade Mychal Kendricks
If you remember, Kendricks actually wanted a trade last offseason. Good thing that didn't happen. Kendricks ended up being a big part of the Eagles' success in 2017. Depending on what happens with Nigel Bradham in free agency and with Jordan Hicks' Achilles recovery, trading Kendricks might again be an option. A trade would save $4.4 million in cap space. 

Trade Nick Foles 
This is such a tough one — we explore it more here. But basically, Foles is a pretty amazing insurance policy until we know when Carson Wentz is going to be ready. If the Eagles do trade Foles, it would save them $5.2 million that they could certainly use. The problem is that by the time they know Wentz's status, free agency will be long gone and that cap space won't help this year. But it could help in 2019.