Will Eagles finally find Jason Peters' replacement in NFL draft?

When the Eagles traded for Jason Peters just days before the 2009 draft, they had a gaping hole at left tackle.

Longtime left tackle Tra Thomas had departed via free agency – the Eagles made no effort to re-sign him – and guards Shawn Andrews and Todd Herremans were penciled in as his replacement. Shawn’s brother, Stacy, had been signed as a free agent earlier that offseason, but he was slated to play right tackle.

The Eagles were coming off an NFC championship appearance, Donovan McNabb was still at quarterback, and the linemen drafted to be Thomas’ potential heirs – Winston Justice and Andrews – had been disappointments for various reasons. The team needed a quick fix, and even though they had two first-round picks, they didn’t like the top crop of tackles.

Peters, disgruntled in Buffalo because the Bills didn’t offer him a new contract, had five seasons of wear on the treads, but he was 27 and entering the customary peak years of his career. The Eagles forfeited the 28thoverall selection — along with fourth- and sixth-rounders — and signed Peters to a five-year contract.

Andy Reid called him the best left tackle in the NFL, even though many disagreed, but it’s hard to see the former Eagles coach and former team president Joe Banner, who engineered the trade, imagining then that Peters would spend the next decade in Philadelphia, outlasting each by at least six years.

But here we are with the 36-year-old still at left tackle and the Eagles once again confronted with the question of whether this is the year to finally draft Peters’ successor. An argument could be made that they already did five years ago when they selected Lane Johnson with the fourth overall pick.

Poll

Should the Eagles trade out of the first round to get more draft picks?

Even if Johnson were to slide over from right tackle – and that’s not a certainty given the increasing number of premier edge rushers who line up on the left side – the Eagles don’t have an obvious starting bookend on the roster.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai might have a case. He capably stepped in for Peters, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in October, and held down the left flank as the Eagles won the Super Bowl. But it’s fair to wonder whether the Eagles envision a future with Vaitai as a franchise tackle; otherwise, would they have brought back the aging, injured, and more expensive Peters?

Of course, if they had moved on from the nine-time Pro Bowler, the Eagles might have found themselves in a similar scenario as nine years ago. The luxury of bringing back Peters and of having a championship roster is that they can draft without addressing an immediate need.

“We’re going to take the best player, and if that player is at a position that we have some perceived depth, that’s OK, because at the end of the day these guys are signing five-year deals in the first round and will be part of your team for the next five years,” Eagles executive Howie Roseman said last week. “And I don’t know what we’re going to need in 2019, let alone 2020, 2021.

“A lot of times when you make those decisions and you get a guy that you think might not play, you need the depth in this league. And we showed it last year.”

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Lane Johnson (right) could be the eventual replacement for Jason Peters on the left side of the line, but the surplus of elite edge rushers that line up on his side now could leave him at right tackle.

A year ago, the Eagles took Sidney Jones in the second round even though they knew the injured cornerback would likely not play most of the season. If the Eagles were to draft a tackle in Thursday night’s first round – or trade back from No. 32 into the second round – he would likely open the season inactive on game days.

Vaitai, assuming he wasn’t traded, would be the reserve swing tackle, with either Isaac Seumalo or Chance Warmack the backup interior linemen.

“I believe that if there’s an offensive tackle that unexpectedly falls to them at the bottom of the first round, I think they would jump on that,” NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks said recently. “I think being able to have some forethought when it comes to what do you do with Jason Peters as he gets older, do you have a replacement in the hopper, someone you can develop on the side that you can develop without the pressure putting him on the field?”

Johnson started from Day 1 and did fine. Others, like former Eagles guard Danny Watkins or Justice, were pressed into the starting lineup in their first seasons and suffered setbacks. This year’s tackle class isn’t considered strong, but there are several developmental prospects the Eagles could land in the first two rounds.

Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and Texas’ Connor Williams are the most polished of the early-round tackles, but UCLA’s Kolton Miller, Oregon’s Tyrell Crosby and Pittsburgh’s Brian O’Neill might have higher ceilings considering their raw athleticism.

There are several guards or centers who will be available in the late first round or second round, but aside from Watkins, the Eagles have long avoided drafting linemen in the early picks who don’t at least project to tackle.

In the 23 drafts during Jeffrey Lurie’s ownership, the Eagles have expended five of 21 first-round selections on offensive linemen. But they’ve taken only three in the second and two in the third. The large majority (22) have come in rounds 4-7.

The Eagles didn’t draft an offensive lineman last year. In fact, they’ve only drafted three – Seumalo and Vaitai in 2016 and Johnson in 2013 – in the last five drafts. The Eagles had arguably the best line in the league last season, but the projected starting lineup will be an average age of 30.4 by the opener.

Peters tips the number, but center Jason Kelce (30), guards Stefen Wisniewski (29) and Brandon Brooks (29), and even Johnson (28) aren’t spring chickens anymore.

If we’re making comparisons to the senior member of the group, however, they would just be entering the middle portion of their careers. And who knows, maybe Peters, who has one more year left on his contract, isn’t quite near his end?

The draft might indicate how the Eagles would answer that question.