Halapoulivaati Vaitai To Start In Place Of Lane Johnson
Rookie fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai will start at right tackle against Washington on Sunday with Lane Johnson’s suspension beginning this week, Doug Pederson announced Wednesday morning. Johnson’s 10-game ban was upheld yesterday, meaning he won’t be available to return to the Eagles until Week 16.
“(Vaitai) is ready,” Pederson said. “He’s worked extremely hard. He’s gone against our defensive front not only through training camp, but practiced against them every single day. Smart kid, athletic kid, strong kid. Just excited to watch him play on Sunday.”
The Eagles’ head coach noted he won’t change the team’s game plan with Vaitai filling in for Johnson, although they’ll closely monitor Vaitai’s performance and adjust how much help they give him with their tight ends or running backs and how they slide pass protections. The Eagles previously planned to move Allen Barbre from left guard to right tackle and have Stefen Wisniewski fill in at left guard, but Barbre’s strong start to the season contributed to their change in thinking.
“I felt like in discussing this with [offensive line] coach [Jeff] Stoutland and Frank [Reich], where Big V is right now in his progression of the offense and where he is as an athlete, felt very comfortable with him going over there and not moving Allen,” Pederson said. “Allen is playing well at left guard; didn’t want to disrupt two positions.”
Johnson is not allowed to have any contact with Eagles coaches, front office executives or team personnel for the next 10 weeks, although he is permitted to keep in touch with Director of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer Chris Peduzzi because of a minor elbow injury he sustained in Detroit. Before Johnson left, Pederson expressed his disappointment to the Eagles’ star right tackle over the suspension.
Although Johnson initially planned to remain in Philadelphia, he decided to return to his home state of Oklahoma for the next couple of months. The Eagles set up rehab for Johnson’s elbow through the University of Oklahoma, Johnson’s alma mater. While the injury isn’t expected to have long-term effects, it’s unclear if Johnson will start at right tackle once he’s available for the Eagles’ December matchup with the Giants.
“Right now, the timing of it is a little iffy, because it’s the Thursday game,” Pederson said. “So we just got to make a decision at that point. See where he is physically, mentally, where we are as an offense at that point to make that decision, so it’s hard now sitting here to say he’s got his job back.”
The Eagles are also cognizant of how Johnson will be banned for at least two years if he fails another drug test, as it would be the third of his career.
“Ultimately, with any player, you’re worried about that. Again, you just keep talking to the players about those situations and you do the best you can to educate your players on these types of issues,” Pederson said. “I’m struggling with the question because there’s a lot of unknowns. I think you just got to go into still educating Lane and all your players on, ‘Hey, listen, you got to be smart with what you put in your body. Get it checked out. There’s resources that we have available to us to check these things out before we put them into our systems.'”
Because Johnson is suspended, the Eagles have one roster spot available now. The team hasn’t made a move yet, but Pederson said it’d most likely happen “later in the week.” The head coach also noted that Bryan Braman (left shoulder AC sprain), Leodis McKelvin (left hamstring) and Fletcher Cox (left ankle) won’t practice on Wednesday, but they will be “fine” for the game on Sunday.
Watch Doug Pederson’s entire Wednesday press conference below via the Bird 24/7 Facebook page.