Halapoulivaati Vaitai: Everything to know about Lane Johnson's replacement

Halapoulivaati Vaitai: Everything to know about Lane Johnson's replacement

First, the most important part:

It’s pronounced: hal-lah-poo-lee-VAH-tee VIE-tie.

The Eagles’ new right tackle is 22 years old, has never played in an NFL game, has never dressed for an NFL game, likes to eat octopus and at 14 letters has the longest first name in Eagles history. By far.

With Lane Johnson’s 10-game suspension becoming official Tuesday, rookie fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai becomes the Eagles’ starting right tackle.

Although Doug Pederson hasn't said the Eagles are definitely going in that direction, he did say on Monday that if Johnson were unable to practice Wednesday because of his hyperextended right elbow, Vaitai would take the first-team reps in his place.

Using deductive reasoning, we can safely determine that if Johnson were unavailable for a different reason, Vaitai would still be the first-team tackle.

So Vaitai will make his NFL debut on Sunday against the Redskins and quite possibly remain the starter through the Eagles' Week 15 game Dec. 18 against the Ravens in Baltimore.

“Gotta get ready, you know? It’s my job,” Vaitai said last week. “Gotta step up. Gotta be the next man up. They depend on me, so I’m going to give everything I’ve got.”

Johnson is eligible to play only the Eagles’ last two games of the regular season — the Giants on Dec. 22, a Thursday night, and the season finale Jan. 1 against the Cowboys. Both games are at the Linc.

Vaitai last played on Sept. 1, when the Eagles finished the preseason against the Jets. He started and played the entire game at right tackle.

Since then, he’s done nothing to convince the coaches he can’t handle this.

“I started to see (his improvement) in preseason, to be honest with you,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said last week. “A couple of the preseason games. As the preseason games went on, you could see him getting better and better.

“Again, it's what we expected, but you could definitely see the progression go as each preseason game went on and he got more reps.”

Vaitai, who played at Texas Christian, stands 6-foot-6, 315 pounds. He was a two-time all-Big 12 pick at TCU. His parents are from Tonga, but Vaitai grew up in Texas and played high school football at Haltom High, about 20 miles northwest of AT&T Stadium, home of the Cowboys.

“What we saw with 'Big V' was on his college tape, just one of the things that jumped out was how good of a pass protector he really is, how natural he is at that,” Reich said.

“And then really to me with the big improvements that I've seen is in the run game — a physicality, a toughness, an aggressiveness. He's a very natural pass setter, got great fundamentals and technique in pass protection, but where you've seen the improvement has been in the run game.”

Pederson said that even though Vaitai hasn’t dressed for any regular-season games, his work on the scout team — working against the Eagles’ highly regarded defensive line — has helped prepare him for what he’s going to face starting Sunday.

“He's been going against our starting defensive line ... so the work he's done in that capacity, against a good defensive line, gives us confidence that if we had to make that decision we could do that and not bat an eye,” Pederson said.

“Just from that standpoint and then going back and evaluating even his preseason games and looking at that and where he is physically, mentally, puts him in a good position to potentially be that right tackle.”

Pederson says potentially because he hasn’t formally announced that Vaitai will start.

The original plan to replace Johnson was to swing left guard Allen Barbre out to right tackle and go with another rookie, third-round pick Isaac Seumalo, at left guard.

But the Eagles like the fact that replacing Johnson with Vaitai only affects the Eagles at one position instead of two.

Pederson is expected to announce his right tackle plans on Wednesday, when the Eagles return to practice. 

“He’s getting a lot of reps vs. a very good defense and vs. a very good defensive line,” Reich said. “And when we're running scout team, I mean, we're paying attention to that.

“That certainly gives you indicators because when you're running scout team the defense is going full speed, they're going hard. So it's really a good measure.

“That's why we push our guys. Those guys that run scout team, it's a good opportunity for them as well.”

Alshon Jeffery on Josh McCown: 'A guy you love being around'

Alshon Jeffery on Josh McCown: 'A guy you love being around'

When the Bears drafted Alshon Jeffery seven years ago, their backup quarterback was Josh McCown.

They didn’t know each other — McCown is 11 years older — but McCown is from Charlotte, North Carolina, which is right up I-77 from Columbia, South Carolina, where Jeffery played college football for the South Carolina Gamecocks.

When I first got drafted in Chicago, he was the first one who gave me a call,” Jeffery recalled Sunday. “He lived in Charlotte and that was right up the street from where I went to school. I went to work out with him and we developed a relationship ever since then.

McCown and Jeffery were teammates for two years in Chicago, before McCown bounced to the Buccaneers, Browns and Jets. 

Now, six years later, they’re reunited in Philly.

They were having a lot of fun with it on Sunday, their first day as Eagles teammates.

Jeffery stood on a chair in his locker room videotaping McCown’s chat with the media a few lockers away and even got in a question before the interview ended: “How’s No. 17 as a basketball player?”

McCown laughed and yelled back: “He’s not bad. He’s got some skills. But I can lock him down, just so we’re clear. But 17's not bad.”

McCown had announced his retirement after finishing last season with the Jets, but he said the opportunity to play with a team like the Eagles, a team with Super Bowl aspirations, was too good to pass up.

He said the Eagles were one of the few NFL teams he would have come out of retirement to play for.

They’re getting a great player but a great human being, a great leader, an all-around great guy,” Jeffery said. “Josh is awesome. I don’t know one person that I know that could say one thing bad about him. He’s a great father, he’s a great human being. He’s just a guy you love being around. He comes in the room, everyone just gravitates to him.

McCown is 40 now, older than any quarterback in Eagles history.

Only 17 players in NFL history have thrown a touchdown pass after their 40th birthday, and if all goes well, Carson Wentz will stay healthy and McCown will never even get the opportunity.

But Jeffery said he’s not surprised McCown is still healthy enough to crank it up for an 18th season of professional football.

“We were just talking about that,” he said. “Eighteen years, that’s a long time. But he can still hoop, he’s still athletic, so I know anything’s possible.”

How good a basketball player is the 6-foot-4 McCown?

“I’ll take Josh over most of the guys in this locker room,” Jeffery said.

What about as a quarterback?

“He’s a gamer,” Jeffery said. “He just makes plays and makes things happen."

McCown has completed passes to 105 different receivers in his NFL career, including 116 to Anquan Boldin, 38 to Jeffery, 21 to Emmitt Smith and four to current Eagle Will Tye with the Jets in 2017.

McCown seems thrilled to be back in the NFL and equally thrilled to be reconnected with Jeffery.

“That’s my guy,” he said. “From his rookie year to now — we were just having lunch talking about that, it’s crazy, it’s gone by fast. Respect him as a player, first and foremost, and who he is as a person and what he’s about. He’s a good dude.”

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Eagles' Brandon Brooks enters pivotal week in Achilles recovery

Eagles' Brandon Brooks enters pivotal week in Achilles recovery

Brandon Brooks is entering a very important week in his Achilles recovery. 

The Eagles’ Pro Bowl right guard hasn’t yet been cleared for full-team drills, but has been given the go-ahead to participate in 1-on-1s this week as the Ravens comes to town for joint practices. 

Brooks says Week 1 is still a possibility. 

“Still got time,” he said. “The biggest indication is going to be this week in 1-on-1s, see how it feels, not just against defensive players, but against another team. If things go well from there, progress from there.”

Brooks, 29, had a checkup on his Achilles last Wednesday, when they cleared him for the next step in his recovery. Now about seven months removed from the injury to his right leg, Brooks claims he’s still on schedule. 

More importantly, Brooks thinks there’s still enough time to get cleared and then prepared for the opener.  

“We've got 2½ weeks, so I’d say there’s more than enough time,” he said. 

This week, Brooks said, they want to see how his recovering leg responds. 

If things go well over the next several days, there’s a chance he could be cleared to progress to 11-on-11 team drills next week. 

“With team drills, man, you have a lot more going on around you, guys falling to the ground, things like that,” he said. “I think the best way you get live contact and it’s controlled is in 1-on-1s, that’s why we started there.” 

If Brooks isn’t ready for Week 1, Halapoulivaati Vaitai would fill in at right guard in the interim. 

We’ll learn a lot this week, one of the most important in his recovery yet. 

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