Lane Johnson

Right side of Eagles' offensive line should be lock for Pro Bowl

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Right side of Eagles' offensive line should be lock for Pro Bowl

If everything continues to go to plan this season, the trio of Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson won't be in Orlando in late January for the Pro Bowl. 

If everything goes to plan, the Eagles' right side of the line will be too busy preparing to play in the Super Bowl. 

They'll certainly be deserving of making it to the Pro Bowl though. 

"I want to, man," Johnson said about the whole right side of the line making it. "I don't want to campaign for myself. But as far as the years we're having, we're doing pretty good."

Sometimes recognition is slow to come for offensive linemen. Kelce has already been to two Pro Bowls, so the name recognition will help his cause. Meanwhile, Brooks has been in the league since 2012, and Johnson has been in the league since 2013; neither has made a Pro Bowl yet. 

But it's hard to argue with results, and they're certainly deserving this season.  

While the Eagles lost future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters for the season in the second Washington game and while they have started three different players at left guard before settling on Stefen Wisniewski, the right side of the offensive line has been incredible through 11 games. 

Kelce and Brooks have started every game and Johnson missed just one because of a concussion and a Thursday night game. 

"It’s a luxury not only to have those guys healthy but just playing together and [having] three guys playing at a very high level," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "The consistency of that, the confidence in that just grows more and more every week."

Johnson has been playing at a completely different level all season. It's pretty clear he had a mission coming into the 2017 season. He wanted to prove he was one of the NFL's best tackles and he wanted to prove doubters wrong after his second PED suspension last season.

Through 11 games, Johnson has shut down top pass-rushers like Ryan Kerrigan, Von Miller and Demarcus Lawrence. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has played well enough at left tackle to allow Johnson to stay on the right side, where he has been simply dominant (see story). 

"I don't like to over-hype players, especially in the middle of the season, but Lane is playing great football," Reich said. "I just can't imagine there's a better right tackle in the league. I can't imagine there's any tackle — if you add up the cumulative guys that he's going to have to block by the time is year is over and their sacks, I mean, it's unreal."

Brooks has overcome his anxiety issues to start the first 10 games this season. The only snaps he missed came when he got a break at the end of the Denver game in garbage time. The former third-round pick, who joined the Eagles before last season as a free agent, has always had Pro Bowl potential. But he's starting to fulfill it this season. 

According to ProFootballFocus, Brooks hasn't given up a sack and has given up just one quarterback hit all season. 

"It makes it easier, man. He's having a Pro Bowl year," Johnson said about playing with Brooks. "I look at Kelce and Brooks. [Brooks] is 340-plus, whatever he is, and he just makes it a lot easier for me blocking inside."

Then there's Kelce, who is one of the longest-tenured players on the team. The center has been in Philly since he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 draft and he's had plenty of ups and downs during his time. 

While he made the Pro Bowl last season, he didn't necessarily have a Pro Bowl season. Recently, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland took the blame for that, saying he asked too much of Kelce during the 2016 season. Kelce had a different reason for why things have been going so much better toward the end of last season and into this one. 

"I don't know about that," Kelce said, responding to Stoutland's comments. "I just know I'm utilizing different techniques. I'm using my hands better. Not just me, I think it's everybody. And then another year being in the system, in the offense, you're more comfortable, you understand everything better."

It's not incredibly rare for a team to send an entire side of its offensive line to the Pro Bowl. In fact, the Eagles did it as recently as 2014, when the left side of Kelce, Evan Mathis and Peters went. But that season Mathis played in just nine games. 

In the second year with the center, right guard and right tackle together, the chemistry is clearly at a new high. Rookie running back Corey Clement noted that the guys on that side of the line just seem to complement one another. 

What's it like running behind them? 

"It's an honor," Clement said. "Anybody can see it on the outside. Anybody who wants to be in this running back corps, you get a great group of guys who lay it out every week for you." 

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."

Breaking down Eagles' 2018 Pro Bowl chances

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Breaking down Eagles' 2018 Pro Bowl chances

Pro Bowl voting began this past week, and ideally, the Eagles won't have anybody actually playing in the game.
 
The 2018 Pro Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 28 — a week before the Super Bowl — and players from the Super Bowl-bound teams will be headed to Minneapolis that weekend, not Orlando, where the Pro Bowl will be held this year.
 
But with the Eagles sitting at 8-1 heading into Sunday's game against the Cowboys, there's a good chance they'll have a sizable contingent selected for the annual exhibition.

Let's take an early look at the Eagles' locks, hopefuls and longshots for 2018 Pro Bowl honors.
 
And remember, once again, the NFL is picking Pro Bowl teams based on the conference.
 
Locks
Carson Wentz: Wentz is a lock to make his first Pro Bowl, which would make him the fourth Eagles quarterback in the last 10 years to receive the honor, following Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Nick Foles. No other team has had more than two. Interesting that the Eagles have had only four players make a Pro Bowl team within their first two years since 1990 - Donovan McNabb in 2000, DeSean Jackson in 2009, Nick Foles in 2013 and Cody Parkey in 2014.
 
Fletcher Cox: The only lock from the defense, which is more of a statement on the brand of team defense the Eagles are playing these days than anything else. This will be Cox's third Pro Bowl, something only five Eagles defensive linemen have ever achieved — Reggie White (seven), Hugh Douglas (three), William Fuller (three), Charlie Johnson (three) and Floyd Peters (three).
 
Zach Ertz: It's always tricky for players to get to that first Pro Bowl, but it's hard to imagine Ertz not getting picked. Despite missing the Broncos game, he's been the best tight end in the NFC. He leads all NFC tight ends in catches and yards and is tied for the lead in TDs with Seattle's Jimmy Graham with six. Barring a huge dropoff, Ertz is a lock.
 
Hopefuls
Lane Johnson: Johnson has played at a consistently high level, but a few things are working against him. His two suspensions shouldn't be a factor, but they won't help his chances. Players are branded a certain way, and Johnson has to overcome a league-wide reputation as a guy who's tested positive twice. But if it's based on level of play, he'll go.
 
Jason Kelce: Kelce probably has a better chance than Johnson, just because he's an already a two-time pick and has that Pro Bowl reputation around the league. He made the team last year despite not having a very good year. Kelce has been exceptional this year and is in the middle of the No. 1 offense in the NFL. Close to a lock.
 
Brandon Graham: Graham once again has everything but the sacks. He's played very good football, consistently pressured the quarterback, been exceptional against the run, but … it's all about the sacks with defensive ends. He has 5.0, which is a good number after nine games and just 1 1/2 shy of his career-high of 6 1/2 from 2015, but nine NFC defensive ends have more. Have they played better than Graham? Probably not. But he needs to get to double digits to really have a good shot at making his first Pro Bowl.
 
Malcolm Jenkins: Jenkins made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 and should have made the team last year, but didn't. He's having a great year but doesn't have any interceptions and he's going to probably need at least two or three to get himself in the picture. What he does have going for him is that he's extremely popular among his fellow players. His activism, his strong voice within the NFLPA and his reputation as a guy who's going to fight for player rights will really help. That stuff shouldn't matter but it does.
 
Longshots
Brandon Brooks: Brooks is in his seventh year and has never made a Pro Bowl. The longer you play without making one, the harder it is to get picked. Especially at a non-skill position. But he's sure deserving. That whole right side of the O-line is with Kelce, Brooks and Johnson.
 
Jalen Mills: This is going to come down to interceptions. Mills needs to overcome the fact that he was never a big-name college guy, wasn't a high draft pick and his personality might bug some opposing wide receivers — the ones who vote for CBs. But he's got three interceptions, and right now Detroit's Darius Slay is the only NFC cornerback with more. If he can get to five? He'll be in the mix.
 
Patrick Robinson: Robinson is in a very similar position as Mills. He doesn't have that league-wide reputation as a top corner, but he's sure played like one. Robinson is now with his fourth team in four years, and he's an eighth-year player who's never been a Pro Bowler, so he needs to overcome that journeyman reputation. But like Mills, he has three interceptions. A couple more gets him in the picture.
 
Nigel Bradham: Bradham has one sack, no interceptions, and no forced fumbles. Without stat numbers, it's tough for outside linebackers to make a Pro Bowl team, no matter how solid they are against the run and in coverage. Bradham is a sixth-year veteran without a Pro Bowl on his resume, and he'll probably need INT and sack numbers to make his first one.
 
Jake Elliott: Elliott doesn't have the accuracy of some kickers, so his only chance is to keep racking up the 50-yarders. Going into Dallas, he shares the NFL lead with five 50-yarders, including, of course, the game-winning 61-yarder against the Giants. But overall, he's at 85 percent, which sounds high but is actually only sixth-highest among regular NFC kickers. And he's missed three PATs. His only chance is another game-winner or two and a bunch more 50-yarders.
 
Rodney McLeod: McLeod has a couple interceptions and has played well all year, but it's hard to imagine him making the Pro Bowl and Jenkins not. And it's hard to imagine both safeties getting picked. Like any DB, McLeod can improve his chances with a couple INTs and maybe a pick-six during the voting period.