Big V excelling with help from Hall of Fame mentor

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Big V excelling with help from Hall of Fame mentor

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Having Jason Peters as a mentor is kind of liketaking piano lessons from Vladimir Horowitz or acting lessons from De Niro.

You can't help but improve.

And Halapoulivaati Vaitai sure has improved.

Vaitai played his best game yet in the NFC Championship Game, neutralizing feared pass rusher Everson Griffen in the Eagles' 38-7 blowout win over the Vikings at the Linc.

"Yeah, I was just locked in that night," Big V said. "I didn’t have any worries. I just try not to have any worries going into a game, but yeah. In my opinion I think I played pretty good."

And Peters was there the whole way to encourage him, support him, help him.

"He's been playing great, man," Peters said. "I always encourage the guy and keep him calm. He's been doing great. I'm just happy for him.

"It's going to take time. Guys are going to beat you. You just have to have a strong mindset to just keep coming back and battling."

Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowler, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second Redskins game. Big V struggled at first but has gradually grown into the left tackle role.

With Stefen Wisniewski healthy and solidifying left guard, the left side of the offensive line has gone from liability to a real strength of this offense.

“It’s gotten (more) calm as each week’s gone by," Vaitai said. "Still not comfortable, still have to work to do, but as the weeks go on I guess my nerves have calmed down a little bit.

“The more repetition, the more experience I get (the better I'll play). I just have to continue doing what I’m doing. It’s night and day (over earlier this year)."

With All-Pro Jason Kelce at center and Pro Bowlers Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson at right guard and right tackle, the Eagles have dominated on the right side all year. Now the left side is holding its own.

The Eagles' offensive line muscled the Vikings' vaunted defensive line out of the Linc in the NFC Championship Game and will have to play just as well Sunday if the Eagles are going to have a chance in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

"He's made strides throughout the year," Brooks said of Vaitai. "He did the same thing last year (at right tackle).

"The biggest thing J.P. told him out of the gate, there's no replacing Jason Peters. Just be you and do what you do well and he took that to heart."

The Eagles have had elite left tackles in their two previous Super Bowl appearances.

Stan Walters was a two-time Pro Bowler in his ninth NFL season when the Eagles faced the Raiders in 1980. And Tra Thomas was a three-time Pro Bowler in his seventh NFL season when the Eagles faced the Patriots in 2004.

Vaitai is a second-year fifth-round pick who has still only started 18 games in his NFL career, including the postseason.

On Sunday, he starts in a Super Bowl.

“It’s always been about the next man up," Vaitai said. "It’s crazy to be in a Super Bowl and actually be the left tackle here, but I’ve got to give it all for J.P.

"It’s unfortunate for him to go down but it’s just one of those deals. It’s crazy, but it’s just another game. Just another game.

"I treat every game like a big game. But it’s really cool to be in this spot, on this stage."

Obviously there are a ton of factors, but in the seven games Peters started, the Eagles' offense averaged 27.4 points and 381 yards per game and went 6-1. With Vaitai at left tackle, those figures were 24.5, 361 and 9-2.

Vaitai is clearly holding his own.

"He's a great player," said Peters, one of the best ever. "Once he gets his confidence up, you just can't really stop him. I'm going to be by his side all the way."

Eagles mailbag: Lead back, Mack Hollins, the LB position

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Eagles mailbag: Lead back, Mack Hollins, the LB position

I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday weekend. The Eagles are probably enjoying it too — because on Tuesday, they’re back to work. 

That’s when the team’s second round of OTAs begin. The Eagles will have a few more weeks of the voluntary offseason program before the mandatory minicamp June 12-14. 

Let’s take a dip into the mailbag: 

Yeah, I’d consider Jay Ajayi the lead back for this coming season. I really think the Eagles are going to ride him a little more than they did last year now that he’s had plenty of time in the offense. But I still don’t see Doug Pederson or Duce Staley abandoning the running back-by-committee approach. So while I think Ajayi will get the bulk of the carries, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles will still play plenty. 

Ajayi will be the feature back, but Pederson will want to keep him fresh for the playoffs too. Sure, the Eagles want to use him up on the final year of his deal, but they shouldn’t do it before they really need him. 

The Eagles really like Mack Hollins and it’s not hard to figure out why. He’s a nice, humble kid who works extremely hard. As a rookie, Hollins played in all 16 games and had just 16 receptions for 226 yards and one touchdown. He was even less productive in the postseason, when he caught one pass for nine yards. 

To answer your question, yes, I think Hollins will be more involved. It also can’t hurt that the Eagles brought in his college position coach, Gunter Brewer. The problem is that as long as everyone’s healthy, he’s still behind Alshon Jeffery, Mike Wallace and Nelson Agholor. He’ll get snaps, but they’ll be limited. He’ll have to make the most of them. 

Quick Hollins story: Late in the season, I asked him about his lack of offensive production and he looked me dead in the eyes and said his job isn’t to catch passes. I probably looked confused. “My job is to help us win,” he said. “And I’ve been doing that.” 

Got a few questions about bringing in a linebacker and I understand why. On the first day of OTAs, the Eagles cut Mychal Kendricks and lost Paul Worrilow for the season. Earlier this week, I looked at the depth the Eagles have. I still wouldn’t worry about the position. 

I think it’s very possible the Eagles bring in another veteran linebacker, but I’m not sure there’s a huge rush. What might have been lost this week is that to cut Kendricks, the Eagles must feel really good about Jordan Hicks’ recovery. And remember, the Eagles are in two-linebacker sets most of the time. Corey Nelson will have a chance to be the weakside guy with Kendricks gone. And there's still decent depth. 

Maybe the Eagles add a player this summer, but it’s also possible they wait a bit to see what they have. For what it’s worth, I’d at least take a look at Bowman to see if there’s anything left.  

Corey Graham is still available and Pederson seemed more than open to bringing him back, so that’s very possible. Graham was a really important addition last offseason because, like you said, it allowed Jenkins to move closer to the line.

A lot of Jenkins playing that hybrid LB position was out of necessity with Hicks gone. According to ProFootballFocus, he played 42 percent of his snaps at LB, so it’s hard to imagine him doing it more in 2018. Still, Jenkins' versatility and his importance to the team can’t be overstated. 

Lane Johnson not pleased with ranking on NFL's top 100

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Lane Johnson not pleased with ranking on NFL's top 100

Lane Johnson had a breakout season in 2017, holding down the right tackle spot for the Eagles on his way to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. 

And he even made the NFL Network’s Top 100 players list, which is voted on by players. 

All the way down at No. 95. 

“Obviously, I think it’s a joke to be honest with you,” Johnson said on the Mike Missanelli Show Friday afternoon. 

That’s when fill-in co-host Eytan Shander interjected: “Good it is a joke. You were robbed.”

Johnson, 28, is considered by most to be the best right tackle in the NFL and there will likely be plenty of the guys he shut down during last season on the list ahead of him. 

“Yeah, but that’s alright,” Johnson answered. “Better luck next year. That’s what they tell me. I think it’s just … there’s so many great players, it’s hard to put them in order. I guess just being on there is cool. Hoping next year, I’ll be a little bit lower on the list.”

Johnson isn’t the only Eagles player who might have a beef with where they’re slotted on the list. So far, the bottom 50 have been revealed and the Eagles have four players so far: 

68. Zach Ertz 
69. Fletcher Cox
95. Lane Johnson 
96. Malcolm Jenkins  

Johnson also talked about a few other topics on Friday shows, which was co-hosted by Shander and Geoff Mosher. He mentioned that he’s obviously hated in Boston and loved in Philly for his comments about the Patriots. 

He also talked about his relationship with Jason Peters, becoming a more vocal leader, and, of course, this …