Eagles

Halapoulivaati Vaitai thriving for Eagles in place of injured Jason Peters

ap-halapoulivaati-vaitai.jpg
AP Images

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."

5 more Eagles who were impressive during spring practices

eagles_5_guys.jpg
AP Images

5 more Eagles who were impressive during spring practices

As the Eagles wrapped up their spring practices last week, head coach Doug Pederson was asked for a list of young players who stood out over the last few weeks. 

It was a pretty good list (see story)

But with a limited amount of time, Pederson probably didn’t mention every young player who had a good spring. I’m gonna give him a hand and list five more players he failed to mention. 

De’Vante Bausby 
This guy was the revelation of the spring. He joined the Eagles’ practice squad last season but seemingly has a great shot to make the active roster this year. During many OTA practices and in minicamp, the 25-year-old took first-team reps at the nickel corner spot. I still have trouble believing that Bausby is going to be on the field ahead of Sidney Jones, but that doesn’t take away from how good he’s looked so far. Aside from just getting first-team reps, he made the most of them. It seemed like he was making a play every day. 

Nate Sudfeld
This was really our first extended look at Sudfeld, but it’s far from our last. In fact, prepare yourselves to see a ton of the third-stringer this summer. Because while Carson Wentz recovers, Sudfeld is Nick Foles’ backup. And the Eagles need to treat Foles like a starter, which means fewer reps. Sudfeld didn’t come to the Eagles until after last cuts a year ago. This spring, it was easy to see why the Eagles like Sudfeld so much. He’s pretty athletic, can move his legs, and spent the few weeks dropping dimes all over the field. Eventually, Foles is going to move on and Sudfeld should be able to take the backup role. 

Bryce Treggs
Remember when Treggs-mania took over Philadelphia in 2016? Fans were clamoring for more of Treggs after he made that one big catch. Since then, that mania has certainly died down, but Treggs is off to a good start in 2018. He’s a much better player than he was a few years ago. To me, he made the best play we saw all spring, when he stretched out to catch one of those dimes from Sudfeld. Treggs doesn't have a great shot of making the Eagles’ roster, but he can put together some more good tape and maybe find another team. 

Nate Gerry 
In his second season out of Nebraska, Gerry has a real chance to win the weakside linebacker job. He’s battling Kamu Grugier-Hill and Corey Nelson for the spot left by Mychal Kendricks’ release. And Gerry is off to a good start. Having a year in the defense under his belt should certainly help him gain an edge on Nelson, but he still needs to make plays. In the spring, he did. He had a couple interceptions and seemed to read everything well. His background as a safety is clearly something the Eagles like for this position; the other two guys have coverage skills too. 

Josh Sweat
It’s a little tough for defensive ends to stand out in non-padded practices, but the rookie from Florida State did. The first thing to notice about Sweat is just how big he is. He’s listed at 6-5, 251. For now, he’s really long and skinny, but is quick and athletic too. It helped him going against someone as raw as Jordan Mailata, but even when he was facing others, Sweat still looked explosive. We’ll know more once the pads go on, but it seems like the Eagles might have a steal and somehow added even more depth on the D-line. 

More on the Eagles

Watching Carson Wentz attack his rehab is nothing short of incredible

Watching Carson Wentz attack his rehab is nothing short of incredible

Carson Wentz has done some of his best work behind closed doors, far from any TV cameras or adoring fans, with just a trainer or two and maybe a few teammates in the room.

While Nick Foles has enjoyed the banquet circuit these last few months and all that comes with being Super Bowl MVP — national TV appearances, a book deal, life as a celebrity — the guy he replaced has had a pretty good offseason himself.

It’s just that nobody has seen it.

For Wentz to do what he did at these spring minicamps — compete in a variety of individual and team drills and look comfortable, fluid and confident six months after hobbling off the field at LA Coliseum with a towel covering his head — speaks volumes about this kid.

We know he’s a competitor on the field. We’ve all seen it. But rehabbing a shredded knee is different.

Throw a touchdown pass, and you instantaneously hear 66,000 fans roaring their approval.

Extend your range of motion by one degree and you get a trainer telling you, “Good. Now do it again 50 times.”

We can talk all day and night about how Wentz has attacked his rehab, but now we’re seeing the fruits of his labor. And it’s impressive.

It takes a certain type of motivation and determination to keep grinding away when nobody is cheering you on and the moments of true progress are fleeting and measured in millimeters.

We saw Wentz out there at practice taking five-step drops, firing dimes to Mike Wallace and Nelson Agholor in 7-on-7s and sprinting the length of the field under the midday sun.

What we never saw is what it took to get there.

It’s been about six months since Wentz tore his ACL and LCL.

That means probably about 150 days where Wentz has driven from his home in South Jersey to the NovaCare Complex at dawn and pushed himself through hour after hour of drills to regain his strength, his mobility, his speed, his endurance, his agility.

And then he’s back the next day to do it all over again.

We’re so used to athletes getting hurt and rehabbing it’s easy to forget just how grueling it is, and the fact that Wentz has made the progress he has since Dec. 10 is astonishing.

He’s taken that same ferocious competitive spirit we saw the first 29 games of his career and used it to fuel his rehab.

A month ago, there was no reason to think he’d be cleared to do anything at OTAs and there he was running, throwing, competing and looking every bit like the Carson Wentz we watched evolve into a legit MVP candidate the first 14 weeks of last season.

And if that doesn’t mean he’s ahead of schedule, I don’t know what does.

At this point, I’d be shocked if Wentz isn’t the Eagles’ opening day quarterback in 2018.

There’s always the possibility of a setback. Maybe he doesn’t get completely cleared quite in time to face the Falcons on Sept. 6. But the progress he’s made already has to make every Eagles fan feel confident and encouraged.  

Since he got hurt, Wentz has put the same remarkable level of energy and effort into rehabbing that he put into preparing to play football every Sunday.

Think about Wentz’s 2017 season.

Everything was going perfectly. The Eagles were on top of the football world. He was putting up numbers that were unprecedented for anybody other than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Before Foles was on anybody’s mind, the Eagles were a Super Bowl contender.

And then disaster.

We’ve all seen Wentz when things are going well. He blossomed into a superstar in front of our eyes.

But you really learn the most about a person when things aren’t going well. When they face adversity. What are they really about? How will they respond?

Wentz has definitively answered those questions.

We didn’t see Wentz in those long, lonely, arduous rehab sessions, but we can see the results.

While Foles was out winning the Super Bowl and taking all the bows, Wentz was doing everything humanly possible to make sure he’s ready to lead the Eagles to another Super Bowl title this year.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m not betting against him.

More on the Eagles