Matt Pryor has spent a lot of time either pacing the sideline or blocking for extra points and field goals in his two seasons with the Eagles, after arriving as a sixth-round draft pick from TCU.
Sunday, the activity level will ratchet up a bit. With right tackle Lane Johnson out again with the high ankle sprain suffered Dec. 9, Pryor will make his first NFL start, in the Eagles’ wild-card playoff game against Seattle at Lincoln Financial Field.
Had Johnson been able to play, Halapoulivaati Vaitai would have moved from right tackle to right guard, and Pryor would have remained a reserve. Instead, Pryor will assume the spot he manned in the second quarter last week against the Giants, when Brandon Brooks suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, blocking for an extra point, of all things.
The Eagles spent the week practicing with that alignment, Pryor inside and Vaitai outside. Pederson, asked Friday if Vaitai had been splitting practice reps between guard and tackle in case Johnson played, said that he had not, that “we’re trying to keep that as consistent as we can at that spot.”
When you have a newish tackle working with a new guard, familiarity is a concern, but not so much with Pryor and Vaitai, who were TCU linemates. Vaitai joined the Eagles as a fifth-round pick in 2016.
“I came in V’s sophomore year. We’ve been close since then,” Pryor said Friday. “After the draft he called me up, just to say congratulations and be prepared, get in the playbook.”
Pryor feels he is prepared now, though he never got on the field as a rookie and has logged just 79 snaps in the offense this season – 43 of them in the first meeting with the Seahawks, when Brooks suffered an episode of anxiety disorder and Johnson was sidelined with a concussion. Pryor got 35 snaps against the Giants last weekend after Brooks went down.
”I’ve repped guard throughout the season, and I’m fairly up to date on the game plan, so I’ll make sure that I’ll be ready,” he said.
This week, for the first time as an NFL player, Pryor got to see himself working in the offense when the game tape from the previous meeting with an opponent was shown. He said he felt he played well and was proud of “really just having an understanding of the game plan, making sure you’re clear on the calls.”
Vaitai was not available to the media this past week, as is often the case. Center Jason Kelce repeatedly reminded reporters that Vaitai has played a lot for the Eagles; he was the left tackle in Super Bowl LII, when Jason Peters was on injured reserve. The total of 481 snaps Vaitai has played this season ranks second in his four-year career only to the Super Bowl season, when Peters went down in Week 7.
The idea going into the year was that Vaitai, who can become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, would be mainly a reserve guard and first-round rookie Andre Dillard would be the first tackle off the bench, on either side.
Dillard had never played on the right, and his debut there, against Seattle on Nov. 24, was a disaster, so much so that coaches pulled the plug at halftime, moved Vaitai outside, and went to Pryor, who had never taken an offensive snap, at right guard.
Kelce called Brooks the best offensive lineman in the NFL and Johnson the best tackle, but he noted that Pryor and Vaitai have had time to prepare this time, unlike in the previous Seattle game, when neither player got practice reps before having to play.
“Obviously, you’re not going to replace Brandon Brooks, or Lane,” Kelce said. “Both [Pryor and Vaitai] have shown they can do the job. Getting all the reps throughout the week, [offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland] does a great job of making sure guys are ready to do.”
Pryor was particularly effective in the run game last Sunday against the Giants. Vaitai, too, is more consistent as a run-blocker than in pass protection, something that could affect this week’s game plan.
Vaitai will start at right tackle for the fourth week in a row. Last month he reflected on an Eagles career that he acknowledged has seen “a lot of ups and downs,” starting with a horrible debut against Washington in 2016 when Johnson was serving a league suspension. In the wake of that game, Vaitai said, he was told: “Just calm down, be yourself. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
It isn’t clear Vaitai will get a second contract here, partially because of the development of players such as Pryor. Vaitai has said it isn’t hard to avoid thinking about his future.
“I just block it out,” he said last month.
Kelce certainly seems to believe Pryor has potential.
“He’s physical – he has all the physical attributes you want in a guard or a tackle, really,” Kelce said. “He’s tall, he’s long, he’s big, he’s powerful. The biggest thing we’re looking for with Matt, since he’s been here, is just consistency. That’s the biggest thing with young guys in general, especially guys who have all the physical attributes. You’re waiting for everything to click, for the consistency to step up. Matt’s done that.
“We’re fortunate enough to be deep, to be able to handle situations like this.”
Pryor said he benefits from playing next to Kelce, who Friday was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team for the third year in a row.
“We always talk after a play, make sure the angle’s right, if we have to change anything up, make sure everybody’s on the same point,” Pryor said.
Pryor said he did not get impatient while waiting for a chance.
“I came in knowing what I was going to get into. I knew who was on the O-line,” he said. “Regardless of if I was going to play when I first got here or not, I was just happy to be where I was, because there was so much experience on the O-line, and it was just going to help me perfect my craft.
“Brooks was really my main mentor, just because I came in playing that spot. He was just teaching me being patient, working on the angles, when to throw your hands, when not to. Little giveaways.”
Pryor was on the roster all last season but never got into a game.