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Can Halapoulivaati Vaitai step up for the Eagles in Lane Johnson's absence?

With Lane Johnson out on a suspension, can the Eagles depend on their 5th round pick to hold down the line?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Lane Johnson has reportedly been suspended for 10 games (barring appeal) due to a violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing drugs policy. Johnson, a top five pick in 2013, has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL the last two seasons and a cog in the Eagles offensive line. Even more pressing, Johnson just signed a massive extension last spring to keep him in Philadelphia for the prime of his career. While the long term outlook of Johnson is now in question, as this is his second PED violation, there is a question about how the Eagles fill in Johnson's spot at the right tackle position for the first 10 games of this season.

The Eagles' fifth round pick in 2016, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, could be in the mix along with Dennis Kelly and Matt Tobin to hold down the tackle position opposite of Jason Peters in Lane Johnson's absence. Vaitai was drafted with an obvious expectation that he would have time to grow due to the presence of two incredibly talented starting tackles, but unfortunately that patience has likely dissipated with the temporary hole the Eagles now have on the right side of their line. When looking at Vaitai, there is no doubt he *looks* like an offensive tackle. He has a large, solid build with long arms and huge hands. More importantly than just his size, Vaitai uses his body well and is a talented athlete. The former TCU player has great natural power that comes from his hips and plays with violent, heavy hands. However, despite the physical gifts Vaitai possesses, there is a rawness and lack of quickness to his game that will hurt his transition to the NFL.

First of all, lateral quickness is important for offensive tackles because the need to move in space to protect the edge. Offensive linemen with long arms can mitigate the need for top level movement skills, but Vaitai is very raw in regards to hand placement and using his length. That lack of nuance to his blocking ability, combined with his lack of natural movement skills will prove very challenging for him to block NFL edge rushers. What Vaitai lacks in technique, he makes up for in effort. He is a very high motor blocker who will block through the whistle, which maximizes his strength as a player. This will prove important, because he will never give up on the edge, always looking to recover, and also his confidence as a player will keep his play from diminishing with mistakes.

There is a large drop off going from Johnson to Vaitai, as can be expected any time you downgrade from the best right tackle in football to a fifth round pick, but all hope is not lost. The Eagles will likely need to keep a tight end in pass protection or use running backs to chip on Vaitai's side to help lock down the edge of the offensive line, but Vaitai should prove to be very proficient in the run game, and his aggressive mentality as a blocker should keep him relatively steady through the time Johnson is lost.

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