The Eagles wouldn’t be in this fix if they had held onto Halapoulivaati Vaitai, their versatile, reasonably reliable top offensive line sub for the last four years.
You know, though, the Detroit Lions gave Vaitai $45 million over five years in free agency. Did you like Big V THAT much? Didn’t think so.
The Eagles made a commitment to youth in the offseason, one many fans hailed, because they were tired of seeing the team rely on oft-injured veterans, or veterans who repeatedly didn’t play to the expected level.
Unfortunately, the team made that commitment a few months before the coronavirus arrived. Turns out, this was not a great year to make a commitment to youth, without OTAs, minicamps, or preseason games.
That’s one reason why, when right guard Brandon Brooks went down with a left Achilles tear in June, the Eagles went back to 38-year-old Jason Peters, giving him that one-year $3 million contract. The contract Peters now feels is unacceptable, with the team presumably wanting him to go back to starting at left tackle, in the wake of Andre Dillard’s pending biceps surgery.
Does management have a lot of leverage, can it really just leave Peters at right guard for $3 million and play someone else? One of the things that happens when you make a commitment to youth after years of patch-and-fill is, your backups tend to be — wait for it — really inexperienced.
The Eagles could start Matt Pryor at left tackle, as they did in Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage, and just try to ignore the fact that Pryor got dragged all over the Linc turf Sunday by backup defensive end Josh Sweat. And that Pryor’s 148 NFL snaps (including the playoff loss to Seattle) have all come at right guard.
After Pryor, the most seasoned backup would be Nate Herbig. Last season, as an undrafted rookie center/guard from Stanford, Herbig played all of three snaps.
Jordan Mailata is in his third training camp but still hasn’t made his NFL debut. Sua Opeta, another 2019 UDFA, from Weber State, spent last season on the practice squad. Casey Tucker, signed after the 2019 draft and released in August, spent much of last season on Detroit’s practice squad, then returned to the Eagles in the spring.
Every other nonstarter in Jeff Stoutland’s offensive line room is a rookie, either drafted (Jack Driscoll, fourth round; Prince Tega Wanogho, sixth round) or undrafted (Julian Good-Jones, Luke Juriga).
This probably won’t be the case when the Eagles open at Washington Sept. 13. All 32 teams have to cut to 53 players by 4 p.m. EDT Saturday. It isn’t that hard to find a serviceable guard or tackle who has at least played in the league. It’s unlikely the team will go nuts and add several vets; again, the overall idea is to get younger. And the guys you get from cutdowns are placeholders, not difference-makers.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of experience, either, becoming a head coach for the first time [in 2016],” Doug Pederson said Saturday. “You get it by doing it. We’ve had situations here, I go back to Big V. … His first game was at Washington as a young player, and sometimes you learn and you gain valuable experience that way.”
Pederson glossed over the fact that Vaitai’s first rookie start was a disaster, an Eagles loss that featured one offensive touchdown.
“Obviously, it’s unfortunate with Andre and his injury, but we can bring somebody in here to help. If it’s a veteran player, we’ll look that way, too, but these guys have — Matt Pryor has played games. Don’t mistake that. He’s played games,” Pederson said Saturday, glossing over — wait, we just used “glossing over” what else means the same thing? OK, eliding — the fact that saying Pryor has played “games” is true only in the most literal sense, given that he has played two of them.
“He’s started for us [once, the playoff loss] and he’s played in some big situations, and so we’re going to lean on that. At some point we’ve got to trust our players, right? And as coaches, we trust our guys.”
Monday, the big name in the NFL offensive line sweepstakes was that of Minnesota’s Riley Reiff, who has been asked to take a pay cut so the Vikings can fit pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue under the cap. Reiff, 31, did not leap at this opportunity, and he seems likely to be released.
Reiff was decent in the 2019 regular season, not at all good in the Vikings’ two playoff games, but that aside, the Eagles are farther over the 2021 salary cap than any other NFL team. Given the hit that ticket revenues will take in 2020, making the cap exceedingly tight, they would like to roll over the $19 million or so in cap room they have right now. Signing Reiff would take a chunk out of that; he is in the fourth year of a five-year, $58,750,000 contract. Reiff probably won’t be looking to sign for the veteran minimum.
The Eagles’ cheapest and most logical option is to figure things out with Peters, then look for some bargain-priced vet depth. Surely they’d just have to hike some Peters incentives or some such.
It’s always possible that they will decline to do so, on grounds of principle. This was a bold request from Peters, who has made about $100 million as an Eagle since 2009. More money to play a higher profile position isn’t a precedent a team wants to set.
But there is principle, and then there is the matter of what could happen to Carson Wentz against Washington — one of the top defensive front sevens in the league — with Pryor or Mailata defending his blindside.