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Halapoulivaati Vaitai isn’t who you want him to be

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Unless you think he’s just a spot starter...

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NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If there were tiers ranking polarizing players on the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai would undoubtedly be in tier one. The much-debated lineman has ardent supporters, fervid detractors, and an interesting narrative surrounding his level of play. Stop me if you’ve seen or heard this before… “We won a Super Bowl with him as a starter!” This is the mating cry for Big V truthers, aimed to stomp out any criticism of the massive Texas native.

Does the argument hold up to scrutiny? Yes, in a way. In a league with a dearth of talent at offensive line, he was capable enough to start in a pinch and do just enough to not entirely hinder the offense. It’s an important role, one that the Dallas Cowboys famously struggled to fill when stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith exited the lineup last season.

To have a swing tackle who can step in, knows the offense, and execute his assignments at a base level is something every team covets. Having that player at an average cost of $731,281 over the next two years of his remaining contract is a win.

The issue becomes when he’s touted as more than a capable spot starter. The problem becomes when his supporters cluck, “he shut down Everson Griffen” while ignoring context. Context matters. The amount of help Vaitai received via alignment and with chips from backs and tight ends matters. How much he struggled when he didn’t receive these aids most definitely matters. That’s the baseline I’m working from here; with the belief that all of these rallying cries have merit and point to Vaitai potentially being a long-term starter and a darn good one.

Vaitai is a player you must scheme around. Luckily the Eagles coaching staff is excellent at hiding their weaknesses and allowing their strengths to shine. This was key to the Eagles success; being able to hide Vaitai’s deficiencies and provide him with the necessary help to allow the offensive to thrive.

At the Scouting Academy, there are three levels to describe a starter. There are starters you “win because of”, “win with” and “win in spite of.” If Vaitai is labeled as a starter, he’s on the fringe of “win in spite of” based off his performance last year. We’ll get into how his play in this preseason points to why that needle may be moving in a negative direction, but for now I’ll establish my stance.

Starting with Vaitai’s issues when he was forced into the lineup in 2016, the analytics and the film don’t do him any favors. In that season, he allowed a pressure on 7.2% of his pass reps. For perspective, he allowed over twice the amount of pressures (17) as Lane Johnson (8) in roughly the same amount of snaps. He allowed the same number of sacks (4) on 234 snaps vs. Peters’ 650 snaps. That’s not a downgrade. That’s a massive cliff.

He can be forgiven for this though; a fifth round rookie being compared to two of the best tackles in the game puts him at a distinct disadvantage. Being thrust into that position is a big ask and making those struggles a focal point would be foolish. That’s not the focal point, but for full context here’s how it went.

For the year, he finished tied for 46th of 74 (minimum 200 snaps) in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency metric, just ahead of Seattle Seahawks’ tackle Garry Gilliam. For the shoes he was asked to fill as a rookie, that’s not too shabby. The problem for Vaitai is that this did not improve in 2017, it got worse.

Once again pressed into long-term action after a Jason Peters’ injury, Vaitai got hot. In Week 8 action against the San Francisco 49ers, he allowed 1 pressure and 1 sack on 36 pass blocking snaps while the interior of the line grappled early with leaking penetration to a variety of stunts. Portions of the fan base incorrectly blamed him for a poor game protecting Carson Wentz. While his sack was an awful rep, the rest of his performance was solid.

In fact, having watched the vast majority of his snaps for this article, I’d argue it was his best game in pass pro of the season. It wasn’t just his best game either, it was a very good game from a protection standpoint. Select others hit the panic button and wanted to trade for a veteran like Duane Brown or Joe Staley.

The debate around his worth and talent raged on into the next week with the Denver Broncos heading to town. Many argued that while star edge rusher Von Miller normally lined up over the left tackle, the game-plan for the Broncos would be to set him upon Vaitai. This never materialized and Von was handled well by Lane Johnson. On the left side, Vaitai held his own, posting a perfect goose egg on 31 pass reps.

Not only did he hold his own in the pass game, if you believe the analytics, but he moved bodies in the run game too. The Eagles ran 37 times for 197 and three touchdowns on their way to a massive 51-23 blowout. In possibly his best performance as a run blocker all year, Vaitai played in integral part in the success of the ground game.

Sorry, sorry, wrong clip. Let’s try that again. That’s my bad. But really, Vaitai was consistently solid on down blocks to wash his man out of the gap. Beyond that, he took care of his responsibilities for enough time to warrant a positive grade in this area. Overall, he’s a better run blocker than he is a pass blocker. It’s not anything to write home about but it’s less prone to violent swings in performance. Let’s establish that baseline before continuing to focus on his pass protection: Big V is an adequate road grader that can move bodies but struggles to consistently sustain blocks.

Heading into the bye week on the heels of two quietly sound performances, the debate followed suit, drifting towards almost complete radio silence. The Eagles had lost Peters but avoided disaster. Or did they? It’s my opinion that those two games set the narrative and with an additional week to digest and celebrate the dismantling of the Broncos, people forgot how much that they ever doubted Vaitai.

Looking at the analytics, as I’ve already cited, Vaitai played great for that two weeks stretch. When you turned the film on however, the same issues that plagued his rookie season popped up in his second year.

This rep doesn’t count as a pressure, but I don’t believe in strictly result-based evaluation. Context matters. Vaitai’s feet stop and are out of whack as he attempts to anchor due to his balance being off-kilter. His weight is over his skis and he’s unable to adjust and sustain. The reason he’s in this situation is because he’s a pusher. There’s no explosive contact and no uncoiling of the legs, hips and knees due to his weight distribution. He simply wants to absorb contact with his mass and use that mass to envelop his opponent. The initial contact lacks pop, the defender works through the push and eventually discards Vaitai. The lack of explosive strength dooms the rep, the lack of balance is the death knell.

Scouts often refer to how many times a player finds the ground during their study of a player. For Vaitai, it’s far too frequent.

After the bye those warning signs manifested into a historically bad stretch for Vaitai. In the next five weeks he ranked 62nd of 63 qualifying tackles in pass blocking efficiency. He allowed 28 total pressures, one of only three tackles to allow more than 20 pressures. He allowed 5 sacks in that stretch, also 2nd among tackles. This time, the film matched the analytics.

Keep in mind that the Eagles averaged 31 points during this stretch. The rest of the offense playing world class football for a good portion of Vaitai’s descent into madness does not absolve Vaitai. If anything, it showed just how good they were to be able to brush his past discretions under the rug.

Heading into Week 16 against the Oakland Raiders, worries about Vaitai’s ability to hold up against vaunted edge rusher Khalil Mack cropped up again. Luckily for Vaitai, elite defensive ends rarely shadow offensive tackles like a cornerback would shadow a wide receiver.

Mack took only three reps from Vaitai’s side. On the first rep on Vaitai’s side, Mack was accounted for by Brent Celek and Jay Ajayi. On the second rep, Mack kicked inside for a stunt towards the other side of the line. On the third rep, Mack was again kicked inside and Vaitai received help blocking Bruce Irvin by Chance Warmack.

The one pressure Vaitai did give up came on yet another stunt. Credit where credit is due though, he held up perfectly fine for the most part which lead to a mostly quiet night from Irvin.

In Week 17 against the Cowboys, Vaitai dodged another bullet. The white hot DeMarcus Lawrence spent all but on snap lined up over the left tackle. Vaitai held up well on the right, surrendering only 2 pressures while adding a holding call while struggling to deal with a stunt and experiencing a rough stretch during the end of the second half push. Overall, these past two games are the ceiling of Vaitai. He can deal with a teams’ secondary edge rusher and do enough to not get noticed.

Finally, we’ve arrived at the sticking point. Vaitai’s stout playoff run, as his supporters would have you believe. To ensure proper context for this portion, I charted each pass blocking snap for both Vaitai and Lane Johnson to show the disparity in the help they received from chips. These plays involve direct contact from a tight end or running back on the player both tackles were blocking. Let’s check the numbers from each game and see how it stacks up.

Johnson and Vaitai received similar amounts of alignment help. That mostly includes inline tight ends or receivers that are slightly detached and affect the arc a defensive end can take. Where the differences come in is the amount of chips Vaitai received. Johnson totaled 4 chips with 3 of them coming in the Super Bowl. Vaitai received 11 total chips in the three games, some of them in key situations against the Vikings, which we’ll get into.

The point for now is that Eagles gave Vaitai plenty of help comparative to his counterpart. Not only did they help him with chips, but they also hyper-activated the quick passing game for Nick Foles. That week, Foles got rid of the ball at an average of 2.24 seconds, fastest by far that week.

Not counting quick throws, Vaitai’s performance against the Atlanta Falcons was boosted by several other factors. The offense featured 12 plays that gave direct or indirect help which aided his pass blocking productivity. This included chips, limiting the defender’s rush path options via alignment of a tight end, or screen passes. He still gave up 1 sack, but he ranked in the middle of the pack for starting tackles in the divisional round thanks to tactics that bailed him out of having to face traditional pass rushes. Vaitai played well enough to avoid scrutiny, but credit goes to the coaching staff on this one.

In the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, we all know that Vaitai “shut down Everson Griffen, right? Well, once again, the Eagles sped up Foles. He had the fewest amount of dropbacks of the four teams and the fewest amount of attempts that took him over 2.5 seconds to throw from the time of the snap.

We all remember the Alshon Jeffery bomb that put distance between the two teams? It was Vaitai being pushed into the lap of Foles by Griffen on that play.

13 of 34 dropbacks featured assists to Vaitai from the Eagles play-calling, either by chip, alignment or scheme. Some of them in key situations. Leaving a blocker in on third down is less than ideal. It gives the quarterback less options and keeps key money down converters like Zach Ertz from getting into their routes quickly. Yet, the coaching staff decided that resource would be better allocated helping the left side of the line. Perhaps they were right. In obvious passing situations, it’s hard to argue with the logic of giving Griffen and extra roadblock to work through. Especially when your left tackle is susceptible to giving up quick pressure.

The results would tell you that the Eagles converted 10 of 14 third downs against a historically great third defense. Watch those third down plays and harken back to the previous conversation about terminology when grading a starter. Would you say the Eagles converted those third downs “because of”, “with”, or “in spite of” Vaitai? Given the aid thrown his way which sapped precious resources from the offense, I think the answer is obvious.

It couldn’t have been more obvious in Super Bowl 52. Vaitai gave up more pressures (8) than the other three tackles combined. His balance issues in his set reared its ugly head again, not allowing him to sit early enough to absorb the force of James Harrison’s bull rushes. Repeatedly the aging pass rusher set 315-pounds on skates. Again, did the Eagles win a track meet “because of”, “with”, or “in spite of” Vaitai?

The Eagles won the Super Bowl, it’s true. Vaitai didn’t give up a sack, also true. When under pressure Foles went 6/13 for 71 yards and a touchdown with a quarterback rating 25 points lower than when he was kept clean. What happens if he’s not under duress for half of those snaps? Would the outcome have been in such doubt?

These are questions I ask so that you can draw your own conclusions based on the evidence presented. Working from a counter narrative baseline can be a fool’s errand and lead to even more slanted opinions, but when you watch Vaitai it’s hard not to see the obvious flaws. When a player is savvy enough to expose those flaws, or presented enough opportunities, it’s bad news for Vaitai.

For as much is made about his development, just as much should be made for the weaknesses that still exist. Those weaknesses have been boiling in the summer sun. Defensive players have dissected them and formed a plan against them. Those plans, which were basic as they come, came to light in last weeks Week 2 preseason game against the Patriots. Those flaws were exposed by not just a savvy vet, but by a redshirt freshmen and others.

10 pressures in a preseason game and a harsh lesson in preparedness and mental toughness. That’s where Vaitai is as a player right now. He admitted to not being ready. He admitted to not being able to pull himself from the quicksand. He had a whole off-season to “develop”, but so far has shown that hasn’t taken the next step. And in the NFL, if you aren’t taking a step forward, you’re going backwards.

In Vaitai’s case, he’s shown he can be serviceable enough to quiet criticism for one or two games at a time, but far too often he slips into the abyss for extended periods of play. If he’s forced into action again this year, his supporters better hope another Super Bowl is in the cards. We all should, but my hope is we don’t have to do it in spite of Vaitai.