Stefan Wisniewski

2014 Nick Foles played with a far inferior offensive line

2014 Nick Foles played with a far inferior offensive line

Nick Foles is a changed man. The sixth-year veteran is older, wiser, more experienced; all attributes the Eagles stand to benefit from coming down the home stretch with their backup signal caller.

There's also something about Foles that might look different in his second stint with the Eagles. Don't be surprised if you see a more confident, poised quarterback in the pocket, too.

After all, the Eagles may actually be able to protect Foles this time around.

When last we saw Foles in an Eagles uniform in 2014, fans were not happy. One season after setting a since-broken NFL record with a 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he was leading the league in giveaways through nine weeks. Furthermore, Foles looked skittish, unwilling to step up in the pocket, and developing the terrible habit of throwing off his back foot.

Most observers placed the fault squarely on Foles, chalking it up to a former third-round draft pick's inevitable regression. However, extenuating circumstances were at least partially to blame.

The Eagles' offensive line was, in a word, a mess.

In 2013, when Foles was busy making history, all five starting offensive linemen played in all 16 games. The unit paved the way not only for a gunslinger in the passing attack, but a rushing championship for running back LeSean McCoy. It was the best line in the league, without a doubt.

Foles would not be so lucky the following year. Lane Johnson was suspended for the first four games, while his replacement at right tackle, Allen Barbre, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Left guard Evan Mathis was also hurt in the opener, missing the next seven games, and Jason Kelce went down in Week 3, missing four. Four starting-caliber players, out.

If Foles wasn't feeling comfortable in the pocket, that might be because there often was none. The Eagles were relying on the likes of Andrew Gardner, Matt Tobin, David Mold and Dennis Kelly for much of the season.

Lines don't get much more patchwork than that.

Foles wound up with a broken collarbone just as the O-line was beginning to get healthy. Before that, he was taking unnaturally deep dropbacks, throwing off his back foot and generally getting rid of the football as quickly as possible in the interest of self-preservation.

Not surprisingly, Foles' touchdown-to-interception ratio dipped dramatically to 13-10, along with three fumbles lost -- totaling 13 turnovers in eight games. Also no coincidence, his completion percentage dipped from 64.0 to 59.8, and his yards per attempt from 9.1 to 7.0.

When Foles was traded to the Rams the following offseason, he didn't fare any better. But while we weren't following his progress nearly as close, we know the Rams were in the midst of 10 straight losing seasons with offensive finishes no better than 21st. The franchise was a career killer. Look no further than Sam Bradford's improvement with the Eagles and Vikings for evidence.

Foles may not have been as good as the hype surrounding his magical 27-2 campaign. He also isn't as horrible as he looked with the Rams, and he probably isn't even as bad as his final season with the Eagles seemed at the time, either.

This is not to absolve Foles of his failures completely. Clearly, he is somebody whose success is dependent on the supporting cast around him to some extent. And by the end of that '14 season, he was most definitely feeling some false pressure and making unforced errors as a result.

That's not the type of performance the Eagles should expect now, not regularly at least, so long as the line holds up. Left tackle Jason Peters is missing from the lineup, but this unit is still far superior, provided there are no more major injuries -- perhaps even if there are.

Foles has plenty of weapons at his disposal in 2017, too. No McCoy in the backfield, but Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement is a quality stable of ball carriers, while receivers Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor are all capable of bailing out their quarterback in the passing game.

Yet, the biggest difference is up front. If Foles is protected, he's more than capable of dissecting opposing defenses. We've seen that firsthand.

Foles may not be a world beater or break a bunch more records. But as long as he's upright, the Eagles have a a shot -- and this time, they have a legitimate shot at keeping him on his feet.

Doug Pederson still undecided on Eagles' starter at left guard

Doug Pederson still undecided on Eagles' starter at left guard

As expected, Chance Warmack got the start Sunday at left guard for the Eagles. The surprising part was Stefen Wisniewski wound up playing the majority of the snaps.

Warmack wound up being on the field for 32 plays against the Giants, compared to 44 for Wisniewski. It’s not as if Warmack exited the game with an injury or was benched for poor play, either. The two of them alternated throughout the contest.

After the game, Eagles coach Doug Pederson acknowledged the plan was to rotate Warmack and Wisnewski all along.

“We wanted to give both of those guys an opportunity [Sunday], and it just so happened that Wis ended up taking the bulk of the reps,” Pederson said. “But we had them both ready.”

Pederson added the rotation was based on in-game performance. The next day, however, he wasn’t ready to settle on a permanent starter at left guard.

“There was some positives with both players,” Pederson said Monday. “Chance had a couple of missed opportunities early in the game, but bounced back and in the run game was effective. At the same time, Wis getting an opportunity — Wis is that veteran player you know when you put him in that he's going to execute and do some nice things for you.

“It's something we'll evaluate this week again going forward, and by Sunday, we'll have the best five out there.”

That means Warmack and Wisniewski could continue auditioning for the job in Week 4 when the Eagles travel to Los Angeles to face the Chargers.

“If someone at that position just steps up, we definitely could go into a game with seven guys,” Pederson said.

Despite shuffling different players in and out, the offensive line turned in its best performance of the season so far. Eagles running backs rushed 33 times for 171 yards — a 5.2 average — and two touchdowns, while quarterback Carson Wentz was hit on only four of 37 dropbacks.

While continuity is essential to quality offensive line play, Pederson has repeatedly downplayed that notion, likening changes up front to substitutions at other positions.

“These guys are all prepared the same, so we shouldn't miss a beat one way or the other just by rotating at that position,” Pederson said.

“The way our guys practice and the way (Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland) prepares these guys, it's seamless. It's flawless, and that's the way it should be. As backup role players, you're expected to know what a starter does. Same as a backup quarterback, you should be expected to do the same thing.”

Several of the Eagles’ veteran linemen didn’t disagree.

“Both of those guys — I played beside before, so it’s not a big deal,” said left tackle Jason Peters, adding he did not know beforehand who would be lining up to his right.

“The thing is, they’ve had numerous reps,” right tackle Lane Johnson said. “That’s what are OTAs are for. You get numerous reps, so when your number is called, you’re not caught off guard.”

Of course, that’s easy for everybody else to say. Warmack and Wisniewski are almost certainly trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

Warmack was unavailable for comment postgame, but Wisnewski admitted there are some challenges involved with subbing in and out.

“It’s definitely easier for anybody to be in there and feel the flow of the game, whether you’re a running back, an offensive lineman, whoever,” Wisniewski said. “But we made it work today.

“We’re all pros. Mentally, all you can do is be ready when they call your number and try to stay warm on the sideline.”

The situation at left guard came about because second-year pro Isaac Seumalo struggled in his first two starts. Pederson stresses the club hasn’t lost faith in Seumalo, and “he’s still in the mix.” But for the time being, at least, the Eagles appear determined to go in a different direction at that spot.

Thus, the ongoing competition — while unorthodox — probably is not as unique or atypical as it sounds.

“I actually talked to (former Eagles offensive lineman) Allen Barbre last night,” Johnson said. “They’re doing the same thing with him in Denver. It’s not out of the ordinary. They have two guys, want to see what they can do and see who the better man is.”

In this case, the Eagles have two players with vastly different skill sets, so it makes sense to see which meshes better with their teammates.

“Wis is more of a technician,” Peters said. “He’s almost like a center at guard, which he really is. He knows the offense, he’s giving calls, more of a communicator. And Chance is more of an aggressor. He wants to get into the linebackers.”

Wisniewski could not personally remember an occasion where he was rotating in and out of the lineup during a game. Regardless, the Eagles picked up a victory over the NFC East rival Giants, so for one week anyway, it was all good.

“The guys around us, (Eagles center Jason Kelce) and JP did well rolling with it,” Wisniewski said. “It worked out well. Got a win, ran the ball well and protected well as a whole.”

Long-term, it would behoove the Eagles to settle on a permanent starter sooner rather than later.

Trades of veteran offensive linemen signal Eagles' confidence in depth at position

Trades of veteran offensive linemen signal Eagles' confidence in depth at position

Clearly, the Eagles feel good about their offensive line depth, trading away two experienced veterans since training camp opened in July. It also sounds like the latest deal to send Matt Tobin to the Seahawks had a lot to do with the organization’s faith in one player in particular.

Tobin made 21 starts over four seasons with the Eagles and was the first player off the bench at offensive tackle when the 2016 campaign began. Yet, after Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games, it was Halapoulivaati Vaitai who took over at right tackle, and the player known as “Big V” stuck until an MCL sprain knocked him out of the lineup.

Vaitai’s performance in seven games as a rookie apparently was enough to put the Eagles at ease when Seattle came calling about Tobin.

“I'm really comfortable, and I say that because of what ‘V’ did for us last year, stepping in when Lane was not with us,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after practice Tuesday.

A fifth-round draft pick from TCU, Vaitai is now cemented in his role for the Eagles heading into 2017.

“This is a good opportunity to keep making a name for myself,” Vaitai said. “From the first game last year to now, there's a big difference.

“Like I keep always keep telling myself, ‘If these guys can do it, why can't I do it?’”

Vaitai struggled mightily – and very visibly at that – in his first NFL start at Washington last season, but gradually improved as the weeks progressed. Within a month, he had developed into an acceptable stand-in for Johnson and was playing some pretty good football.

It was an adjustment for everybody, to say the least. It was also tremendous experience for Vaitai, who credits Johnson and Eagles left tackle Jason Peters in aiding his growth.

“Just think of it this way: It was like being a freshman all over again last year,” Vaitai said. “Going to college, you're new to the offense, new coaches and everything, but it's just like here, only more of a business.

“Coming in here, you're like, 'Oh, dang,' thinking a lot. The good thing about it is I'm getting mentored by one of the greatest guys in the world, not only Jason but Lane, too. They've been helping me, not only with the technique but getting my mental right.”

With Tobin gone, the Eagles are placing a lot more responsibility on Vaitai’s shoulders. The 24-year-old is suddenly the next man up at not one, but two positions.

“Obviously, comfortable with Jason Peters and Lane as our starters," Pederson said, "and Big V as the swing tackle that can go left or right.”

Listed at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Vaitai certainly possesses the size to tangle with defenders on the left, but he faced some questions about his athleticism coming out of college. His technique remains the No. 1 concern, however, and as we’ve seen from Tobin, or even from Johnson this preseason, learning to play multiple positions can be a daunting task.

“Now I kind of understand what Matt was going through the last couple years playing left and right and guard,” Vaitai said. “It's just one of those things where if you're the next guy up on the bench, you have to do it.

“I played left and right tackle at TCU, but more of a spread offense there. Here, it's a little challenging because I've trained (on the right). This is more of a muscle memory thing.”

The Tobin trade made it more likely the Eagles keep Dillon Gordon on the 53-man roster.

Entering his second season, Gordon was undrafted from LSU, where he played tight end. The Eagles have put a lot into the conversion already, stashing him on the 53 for the entire 2016 campaign, though he suited up for just one game.

“Tobin was here when I first came in, and he was another guy who took me under his wing, teaching me little things about the game, and you hate to see for him to go,” Gordon said. “But then it's also a boost for me and some of these other tackles that are here. It kind of solidifies your spot on the team.”

Whether Gordon cracks the roster might be based on how many offensive linemen the Eagles keep this season. With Stefan Wisniewski serving as the primary backup on the interior, and reclamation project Chance Warmack also in the mix, it’s still a numbers game on the O-line.

Dealing Tobin brought some clarity to the picture, but the Eagles still face tough decisions.

“The thing is you go into games with seven offensive linemen," Pederson said, "and I don't know how many, right now, we're going to end up keeping.

“We kept 10 last year. Whether it's going to be nine or eight, we haven't made that decision yet, but we're comfortable with the guys. I don't think you make these moves if you're not comfortable with the guys that are working.”

One thing is for sure, and that’s having too many quality reserves or prospects along the O-line is a nice problem to have.

“We have some really, really good backups that would be starters other places for sure,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “As an offensive line, you have to have depth because injuries happen, as we've seen, and I think we have some guys who are more than capable and ready to go.”

The Eagles also showed confidence in their interior depth early on in camp, sending Allen Barbre to the Broncos. Barbre started the previous two seasons at left guard and previously played offensive tackle for the club as well.

As one player observed, multiple trades are simply a sign of a plan coming together.

“This organization has done a good job of adding a lot of good players to this offensive line,” Wisniewski said. “It's good because then you have options, options like trades in the summer, if guys get hurt, you still feel good about what you have. It seems like it's been a plan to add a lot of guys and see what happens.

“Seems like the plan's working out.”