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.”