For a guy they got on the third day of the 2016 draft, Halapoulivaati Vaitai has given the Eagles a solid return on their modest fifth-round investment.
The 6-6, 320-pound offensive lineman has started 20 games in his first three pro seasons, including all three of their postseason wins during their 2017 Super Bowl run.
- Eagles Practice Observations: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside shines in the red zone; Sidney Jones caps solid OTAs with an INT; Malik Jackson arrives
- Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby still aiming to play Week 1, expects to participate in training camp
- Eagles roster move: Linebacker B.J. Bello is out, well-traveled safety Trae Elston is in
All of those starts have been at either left (13) or right (7) tackle. He’s had his ups and downs, but for the most part he has done a decent job as the team’s backup swing tackle and frequently needed next man up for their oft-injured warhorse left tackle Jason Peters.
But when Vaitai showed up for the start of the Eagles’ organized team activities three weeks ago, he was informed by offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland that he was going to be spending the spring – and probably the summer -- taking snaps at right guard, a position he had never played, either with the Eagles or during his college career at TCU.
That said, the move didn’t come completely out of left field. A few weeks earlier, the Eagles had taken a tackle – Andre Dillard of Washington State – in the first round of the draft. They also have made no secret of their fondness for the potential of Jordan Mailata, the immensely athletic 6-8, 346-pound former Aussie rugby player they took in the seventh round of last year’s draft.
With the 37-year-old Peters expected to retire after this season, Dillard figures to replace him at left tackle if he’s as good as the Eagles think. Meanwhile, Mailata, who had never played football before last year but turned out to be an Usain Bolt-fast learner, has been cross-training this spring at right tackle after spending last year strictly on the left side.
It’s pretty clear that the Eagles feel both Dillard and Mailata have higher ceilings at tackle than Vaitai. But inside-outside versatility is a valuable commodity on an NFL roster.
“They asked me if I would do some guard stuff and I said, ‘Sure,' ’’ Vaitai said Wednesday after the Eagles’ final OTA before next week’s mandatory minicamp. “I’m down. I’m not opposed to it. I’m trying to help the organization win. We’re trying to have as many weapons as possible.'’
The Eagles have 17 offensive linemen on their 90-man spring roster. Not including Vaitai, only three really have guard-tackle versatility: starting left guard Isaac Seumalo, 2018 sixth-round pick Matt Pryor, and undrafted rookie Ryan Bates, who has spent the spring at tackle.
“Big V has handled it extremely well,’’ head coach Doug Pederson said earlier this week. “We’re still giving him some reps outside. But he’s getting comfortable in there [at guard].
“It’s a new position. Guys are on you a little faster, but he’s transitioned well. He’s picked it up and he’s smart.’’
Vaitai said he has picked the brains of the team’s top three guards – Brooks (who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon), Seumalo, and backup Stefen Wisniewski, to help him make the tackle-to-guard transition. “They’ve all been helping me with my technique,’’ he said.
“I just have to remind myself that I’m not at tackle anymore. Inside is a lot more aggressive. They’re 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.''
Pederson suggested that Vaitai’s move to guard isn’t permanent. But the player indicated Wednesday that, while he still might get some occasional practice reps at tackle, they want him to focus on learning to play guard. And he said he’s fine with that.
“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.’’
Brooks is one of the best guards in the NFL. But he turns 30 in August, is coming off that Achilles injury, and has an $11.5 million salary-cap number in 2020.
Two-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce, who is 31, considered retirement after last season, and probably will do the same each year going forward.
Seumalo likely will eventually slide over and replace Kelce in the middle whenever he leaves. But beyond the 30-year-old Wisniewski, the Eagles don’t have much proven depth at guard. Hence, another reason for cross-training Vaitai there.
“To be honest,’’ Kelce said, “I think it’s going to be good for V’s overall development. [Playing guard] teaches you more as far as angles and spacing. The more you can relate things, the better. I think it’s always good to be able to step outside your comfort zone.’’
Kelce said the biggest adjustment for Vaitai will be the fact that things happen quicker inside.
“Your feet need to be a little bit more to the ground [than at tackle],’’ he said. “You’re going to deal with a little bit different style of rusher. You’re not going to have to worry, for the most part, about speed guys, as much as power. There are more pass-off games [that you need to know]. So it’s a little different. But I think he’s up to the challenge.’’