‘Big V’ Makes a Big Move Inside for Eagles
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — If you're going to be a backup offensive lineman in the NFL there is nothing more important than versatility.
On the typical 46-man game-day roster, most coaches would prefer to dress only two reserves, a swing tackle, and an interior backup. The Eagles have had one of the better setups in the league over recent years when healthy with 2016 fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai handling the outside work and veteran Stefen Wisniewski having the ability to handle all three interior positions with little drop-off at each.
Vaitai has started 20 games at both right and left tackle over the past two seasons and proved by definition to be good enough to win a Super Bowl with when he filled in for an injured Jason Peters en route to the win over New England in Minneapolis.
Things have changed for Vaitai, however. Philadelphia traded up in the first round of April's draft to land the talented Andre Dillard, the heir apparent to the aging Peters at left tackle, and still have Jeff Stoutland project Jordan Mailata around.
This spring Mailata, who spent his entire rookie season transitioning from Australian rugby to left tackle, stuck his rather sizable toes in the water at RT while Vaitai was kicked inside to right guard, a position the TCU product had not played before OTAs.
With both Peters and All-Pro Lane Johnson skipping voluntary work and Pro Bowl RG Brandon Brooks still rehabbing a torn Achilles suffered in the playoffs against New Orleans, Vaitai and Mailata have been the starting right side for all of the spring work.
The move makes sense on multiple fronts for the Eagles. Stoutland already knows what Wisniewski can do, room had to be made for the talented Dillard, and the team can get a first look at Mailata as a potential swing tackle in 2020. Pushing the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Vaitai inside, meanwhile, replicates some of the size Philadelphia has with Brooks and could increase Vaitai's value on the trade market if Brooks makes it back by Week 1.
“They asked me if I would do some guard stuff and I said, ‘Sure,'" Vaitai told reporters Wednesday. "I’m not opposed to it. I’m trying to help the organization win."
Earlier in OTAs coach Doug Pederson intimated the change is not necessarily permanent for Vaitai, likely a nod toward the reality that injuries can always morph a plain quickly in the NFL. Vaitai, however, understands his future in Philadelphia is now inside and he has embraced the challenge, picking the minds of the team's talented interior players like Brooks, Wiz and Isaac Seumalo, who offers a unique perspective because he's played all five positions on the line.
“They’ve all been helping me with my technique," Vaitai explained.
And what's the difference between the inside and outside?
“I just have to remind myself that I’m not at tackle anymore," Vaitai said. "Inside is a lot more aggressive. [The defenders are] on you quicker. So you have to punch faster. You have to have your hands ready. You don’t want them low like at tackle. You want to have them high and you’ll be OK. It’s good. It helps me with my overall skills."
And those overall skills would make Vaitai a starter on many teams in a league with a shortage of competent O-Linemen.
“Being able to play one position is good," Vaitai said. “But being able to play two, it gives you flexibility. I’m open-minded. I wanted to learn how to play guard. I’m just trying to do whatever I can do to help us succeed.’’
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen