Eagles

Halapoulivaati Vaitai thriving for Eagles in place of injured Jason Peters

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Halapoulivaati Vaitai thriving for Eagles in place of injured Jason Peters

Everybody thinks Halapoulivaati Vaitai is playing lights out right now.

Everybody except Big V himself. 

Vaitai is 3½ games into his stint as Jason Peters' replacement at left tackle, and the results are impressive.

The Eagles haven't lost since Vaitai took over for Peters just after halftime of the second Redskins game, back in late October, and the offense hasn't slowed down at all.

How would he grade himself?

"Not very high," Vaitai said Tuesday. "Reason why? Because I don’t feel like I’m doing the best I can at left tackle. I’m working very very hard to achieve that goal. 

"I tend to second guess, I tend to rush through things. I need to be more patient. … You know me. I like to criticize myself."

But the reality is that there's been no discernible dropoff with the second-year fifth-round pick at left tackle.

Pro-rating the two halves of the Redskins game, which Peters and Vaitai split, here are the Eagles' averages with each of them on the field:

With Peters: 28 points per game, 382 yards per game, 4.3 yards per carry, 131 rushing yards per game, 2.9 sacks per game.

With Vaitai: 35 points per game, 367 yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry, 170 rushing yards per game, 1.4 sacks per game.

Obviously, there are a million factors that go into those figures, but the bottom line is the offense has been motoring along just fine with Vaitai protecting Carson Wentz's blind side.

"Like they say, 'the next man up,'" Vaitai said. "It’s sad to see what happened to J.P. Just one of those deals where you have to be ready filling in that role. 

"The good thing is J.P. is still by my side. He texts me every now and then. He texts me before the game, he calls me after, tells me what I need to work on. J.P. always says, 'just calm down, get to your spot and you’ll be OK.' It’s just really, really good and makes me feel like he’s right there next to me." 

Vaitai started six games in place of Lane Johnson at right tackle last year, and the plan was always for Johnson to move over to left tackle when Peters retired or in the event he got hurt.

But the combination of Johnson's off-the-charts play at right tackle combined with Vaitai's encouraging progress convinced the Eagles to just make the one-for-one switch.

"He's done a great job," Jason Kelce said. "It’s extremely hard to play with a backup tackle in this league. Most teams aren’t fortunate to have two tackles who can block 1-on-1 on the edge. The fact that he can go in there and hold down that position for us … I don’t want to say he’s Jason Peters, but he’s definitely done his job."

The Eagles' 37-9 win over Dallas Sunday night was Vaitai's best game yet.

He had a crushing block that helped spring Jay Ajayi on his 71-yard game-breaking run in the second quarter, and he neutralized Cowboys defensive end Tyrone Crawford, who didn't record a single tackle. In all, the Cowboys had no sacks in the Eagles' 37-9 win.

And it's not like the Eagles are giving him a ton of help anymore.

"The first week or two that he's in, you're probably thinking, 'on any play that's a longer-developing play, we better give him chip help,'" offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "The more and more confidence you gain in a player, you know what? 'We can give him help but I'd really rather keep the back over on the right side for this play.' We've given him less help in that regard."

This is a veteran offensive line, with Stefen Wisniewski, Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Johnson all in at least their fifth season.

It's a great situation for a 24-year-old second-year pro.

“They have confidence in me, so it’s really good to have those guys," Big V said. "Wiz helps me out a lot, a lot of the calls when I can’t hear Kelce, he tells me. It’s really, really fun playing with those guys. Lane on the other side, he comes over to my side, 'how you doing man?'"

He's doing great.

“He’s really progressing," Johnson said. "He may have a few bad plays here and there, but he's really settling in. The more he plays the better he’s going to do. He’s shown up."

What's he getting better at?

"Pass pro, he’s not leaning as much," Johnson said. "Once he gets his hand on somebody, usually he’s pretty strong. (And) probably just recognizing when different blitzes are coming, fronts. Probably just his football IQ coming up a little bit. 

"You don’t try to do what (Peters) does, you try to do what you can do, and I think in the big picture that’s what he’s done. Quietly, man, he’s been playing really well.”

It's not easy to replace a Hall of Famer. Vaitai knows he can't be Jason Peters. But he doesn't have to be. It turns out just being himself isn't too bad.

"You can't be a Jason Peters or whoever it might be," Doug Pederson said. "It's like when I was in Green Bay playing, you can't be Brett Favre. You've got to be you and be the best that you can be, and that's the case with Vaitai. 

"Just let your talents show, trust your ability, trust your instinct, and good things are going to happen. And that's what you're seeing out of him."

Turns out, Alshon Jeffery was injured all season

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Turns out, Alshon Jeffery was injured all season

We all know about the myriad injuries the Eagles suffered on their way to the Super Bowl.

Nobody knew about this one.

Alshon Jeffery had surgery Wednesday morning to repair a torn rotator cuff that he played through all season, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

Per Rapoport, Jeffery suffered the injury in training camp this past summer. We did know Jeffery suffered some sort of shoulder injury during the summer. Even after he returned, Doug Pederson remained very cautious with Jeffery. At the time, that seemed strange. Pederson just kept saying he held him out at his own discretion, even though it seemed like Jeffery and Carson Wentz needed time to build chemistry. All that seems to make more sense now.

Rotator cuff injuries can be especially difficult for wide receivers (over-the-head catches) and any skill player who gets tackled to the ground. In recent years, rotator cuff tears have either ended the season or caused multiweek absences for Eric Decker, Martellus Bennett and Plaxico Burress, among others. 

Jeffery's ability to play the whole season with a shoulder injury makes what he was able to do all the more impressive. He made a quick impact, catching two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in Weeks 1-4, then scored seven TDs from Weeks 8-14 before turning in a strong postseason.

Along the way, Jeffery earned a new contract that pays him $26.75 million guaranteed with a full value of $52 million. 

Safe to say that playing through pain worked out. How crazy is it to consider now that on Wentz's crucial Week 14 touchdown pass to Jeffery in L.A., the QB had a torn ACL and the receiver had a torn rotator cuff.

Jeffery confirmed the surgery via Instagram story on Wednesday afternoon.

 

Eagles Stay or Go — How about all the tight ends?

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Eagles Stay or Go — How about all the tight ends?

In the third part of our offseason series examining the future of the world champion Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro try to figure out who will be on the roster in 2018. 

We go alphabetically — Part 1 was Nelson Agholor to Derek Barnett, Part 2 was De'Vante Bausby to Brandon Brooks. Today is Billy Brown to Vinny Curry.

Billy Brown
Roob: Don't be surprised if Brown makes the team next year. He's got good size at 6-4/255, and from what we've seen he has pretty good hands. We saw his catching ability at training camp last year, and he caught eight passes for 51 yards in the preseason. Brown spent the entire 2017 season on the practice squad, but with the future of both Trey Burton and Brent Celek up in the air, Brown may be able to secure a roster spot with a good training camp. I expect Burton to get an offer in the $7 million per year range if he hits the open market, which the Eagles most likely won't be able to match, and Celek could either retire or get released to save cap space. Brown could be the next guy up.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: After spending his entire rookie season on the Eagles' practice squad, Brown is going to have a pretty good shot to make the roster in 2017. Brown, who came from Shepherd University, was a training camp standout last summer. He's a converted wide receiver, so he has a good past as a receiving tight end. He has to prove himself, but the path to making the 53-man roster is there. 

Verdict: STAYS

Trey Burton
Roob:
Burton has gone from an undrafted free agent long shot to make the roster in 2015 to one of the most attractive tight ends set to hit free agency this spring. With his soft hands, versatility and tremendous athleticism, Burton should be in line for a multi-year deal in the ballpark of $7 to $7.5 million per year. Even the Super Bowl touchdown pass speaks volumes about Burton and his ability to stay cool and composed and make a play under extreme pressure and in a situation he'd never been in as a pro. You'd love to be able to keep Burton, but Zach Ertz is the Eagles' tight end and they just don't have the cap space for the luxury of a high-priced backup.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Burton is no longer a secret. The Eagles actually tried to extend Burton during the 2016 season, but the two sides were never really close. Burton wanted to bet on himself and now that seems wise. He played the 2017 season on a relatively cheap deal after being a restricted free agent last offseason. But now he's unrestricted this time around and other teams are going to be interested. Burton had his best season in 2016, when he caught 37 passes for 327 yards, but he did have a career-high five touchdown catches in 2017. He's going to get paid more for his potential, though, and it's going to price out the Eagles. 

Verdict: GOES

Brent Celek
Roob: We continue Tight End Day with the 11-year veteran, one of the most popular Eagles of the past generation. Celek will one day be enshrined in the Eagles Hall of Fame, but now he's just another veteran with a $5 million cap figure that is just too high. Maybe Celek will help the Eagles avoid a major decision by retiring. Celek has plenty of interests outside football and he's 33 years old now and has a ring, and retirement may be attractive to him. Go out on top. Or maybe he'll take a massive pay cut down to the veteran's minimum and stick around another year and get the two yards he needs for 5,000. But I think it's most likely Celek won't be here next year. Whatever happens, he'll always be remembered as a champion.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: This is a tough one just because it's Celek. He embodies the city of Philadelphia better than anyone else on the team. He's also the longest-tenured athlete in the city. It's important to him to be a career Eagle, to never play for another team. But he just can't be back in 2018 on his current salary. It doesn't make good football or business sense. His cap number in 2018 is $5 million, which is just way too high for a reserve blocking tight end. It would be tough for the Eagles to flat out cut him, but if he doesn't want to retire and doesn't want to restructure down to nearly the minimum, that's what's going to have to happen. 

Verdict: GOES

Corey Clement
Roob: 
To go from an undrafted rookie free agent running back with virtually no history as a pass catcher to a 100-yard receiver in the Super Bowl in 10 months is just insane. Clement showed me enough that I believe he can be a lead back on this team. I think the plan will be to take a good long look at Jay Ajayi this coming season, with Ajayi and Clement splitting time, then decide after 2018 whether or not to keep Ajayi, who is due to become a free agent in another year. But under any scenario, Clement will be a major part of this team's running back corps for at least the next few years.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I was wrong about Clement last summer. I thought he was a good running back but there was nothing special about him. I thought Wendell Smallwood deserved to be ahead of him on the depth chart. Oops. Clement had an incredible rookie season. The most incredible thing was that he became a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield, something he had never been in college or even in high school. He did everything the Eagles asked him to do in his rookie season and excelled at everything. He hasn't just earned a spot on the roster; he's earned the right to be a part of the running back rotation going forward. 

Verdict: STAYS

Fletcher Cox
Roob:
I think Fletch might be around a while. Cox goes into his seventh season with the Eagles having made three straight Pro Bowls and is one of the most dominating interior linemen in the NFL. And he's under contract for the next five years. He stays. And will stay for the foreseeable future.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Sometimes we all sort of forget how good Cox really is. As an interior defensive lineman, Cox doesn't always make flashy plays. But just ask around the league about the Eagles' defense and everyone comes back with one guy on their mind: big No. 91. There's a reason he's become a perennial Pro Bowler and there's a reason he got a $100 million contract last offseason. He's the engine to the Eagles' defense and we saw him elevate his game even more in the run to the Super Bowl by barely leaving the field. This is stupid easy. 

Verdict: STAYS

Vinny Curry
Roob: Curry didn't really have the stat numbers to back it up, but he did play fairly well this year. He's got some massive cap numbers coming up — $11 million in 2018, $11.25 million in 2019 and $12.25 million in 2020. Those are astronomical figures for a guy who has nine sacks in his last 50 games. The Eagles could clear $5 million in cap space by releasing Curry, and that number goes up to $7.25 million next year and $10.25 million before the 2020 season. I think he stays this year, but those cap savings could be tempting for the cap-starved Eagles.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: After a down season in 2016, Curry became a starter and had the best year of his career in 2017. Some folks will argue against that because his sack numbers weren't shocking, but Curry was just tremendously solid as a rusher and against the run in 2017. He's a big reason why the Eagles' defensive line was their top unit and why their run defense was the best in the NFL. But his cap hit of $11 million is a killer this year and first-rounder Barnett is ready to start. I think if Curry is back, it'll be after reworking that deal. But for now ... 

Verdict: GOES