Updated: Tuesday, October 24, 2017, 6:39 PM
There is a phrase that every NFL coach attempts to pound into his players’ brains. You heard it on a number of occasions while walking around the Eagles’ locker room in the wake of their 34-24 win over the Redskins. Nigel Bradham said it. Najee Goode said it. Brandon Graham said it.
Next man up.
At the start of the season, one of the pivotal questions about this Eagles roster involved its depth. In a sport with the physical toll of football, the ability to overcome injuries is a pertinent issue for every team. For the Eagles, though, the question burned even hotter. Building a roster is a continuous process, and the upheaval that accompanied the transition of power from Andy Reid to Howie Roseman to Chip Kelly to Roseman left the team in a constant state of pouring additional resources to fix past mistakes. An organization only gets so many draft picks and so much cap space. Now, with the Eagles at 6-1 and in commanding position in the NFC playoff race, season-ending injuries to a pair of marquee players turn the final nine games of the schedule into a referendum on the depth and breadth of their talent base.
That’s not to say that each of the NFL’s other 31 rosters is in a better position to absorb a blow like the one the Eagles suffered in the third quarter of Monday’s win over the Redskins when Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters crumpled to the Lincoln Financial Field turf with two torn knee ligaments. Look at the recent participants in the Super Bowl and you’ll notice few that had to overcome the loss of a significant pass blocker. Seven of the 10 teams that appeared in the last five Super Bowls did so with five offensive linemen who had been on the field for at least 70 percent of the team’s snaps. Only the 2013 Seahawks entered the postseason with a starting tackle who’d played less than 79 percent of their snaps.
The Eagles will need to be such a team. Whether they are able to be will depend in large part on a series of moves the front office has orchestrated over the last couple of years to mold the depth chart on the offensive line into its current form.
In training camp, the Eagles parted ways with their top two veteran backups at the tackle position, trading Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin for marginal draft picks. That leaves a trio of second-year players as the likely options: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a fifth-round pick who spent much of last season filling in for suspended right tackle Lane Johnson; Isaac Seumalo, who lost his starting spot at guard after two games this season, but who started a game at right tackle last year as a rookie third-round pick out of Oregon State; Dillon Gordon, an undrafted free agent in 2016 who spent all of last season on the 53-man roster but was cut after this year’s training camp and re-signed to the practice squad.
On Monday night, it was Vaitai who got the call. His first two series came on drives that resulted in Eagles touchdowns, with Carson Wentz completing seven of 11 passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another 38 yards. Wentz did not attempt a pass, and the Eagles did not get a first down, on either of the next two series. The third and final possession featured a kneel-down.
Options for the offensive line without Jason Peters:
*What you saw Monday night: Halapoulivaati Vaitai plays the left side and learns as he goes.
*Move Lane Johnson to the left and let Vaitai play right tackle, where he has more experience. But it’s usually better to make one change instead of two.
*For Peters’ roster spot, the most likely addition is Dillon Gordon from the practice squad.
*Bringing in a free agent or a practice-squad player from another team is always possible, but that player wouldn’t know the Eagles’ offense or have any familiarity with the rest of the line. It’s unlikely a good player would be available in a trade for a reasonable price. This isn’t baseball; teams having bad seasons don’t just trade their good players at the deadline. Available free agents at this point are players like former Eagle Kevin Graf, or a high-mileage “name” such as Eric Winston.
— Les Bowen
On Tuesday, head coach Doug Pederson did not commit to a course of action. He said the Eagles like Johnson on the right side. He talked up Vaitai but said Seumalo would get consideration.
After Sunday’s game against the winless 49ers, the schedule turns daunting. Five of the Eagles’ last nine games come against teams that rank in the top third of the league in sack percentage. The Rams have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 9.2 percent of dropbacks (fifth), the Cowboys on 8.7 percent (seventh), the Bears on 8.2 percent (eighth), and the Broncos on 7.8 percent (11th). That does not include a game in Seattle against the Seahawks’ vaunted defense.
The sudden uncertainty at tackle is, in some ways, a reminder of the unique nature of the Eagles’ situation. Since Roseman regained control of the roster after Kelly’s dismissal before the 2015 season finale, both he and owner Jeffery Lurie have spoken of their roster building as if its endgame lay somewhere beyond this season. As the only offensive linemen selected by the team in the last four drafts, some combination of Seumalo and Vaitai was going to need to contribute to that future. Peters wasn’t going to play forever. There had already been rumblings about center Jason Kelce’s contract.
Yet 6-1 does not happen every season. The NFC does not look this winnable every season. Before Peters and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks went down against the Redskins, there was a strong argument to be made that the Eagles had as good a shot as anybody.
It has been said that, in the NFL, the only future worth counting on is the next week’s game. With a budding superstar at quarterback, the Eagles are better positioned than most to assume that there will be more years like this one. But in all of those years, it will take more than Carson Wentz, and, in most years, it will take more than the 21 players who begin the season as his fellow starters.
In Peters, the Eagles might have lost the one player they could not afford to lose.
“But at the same time,” Pederson said on Tuesday, “the bigger picture is we still have a lot of football left. And we still have a game this Sunday and the season’s not over.”
Next man up.
EAGLES’ REMAINING SCHEDULE Week Date Opp. (W-L) 8 Oct. 29 San Francisco (0-7) 9 Nov. 5 Denver (3-3) 10 Bye week 11 Nov. 19 at Dallas (3-3) 12 Nov. 26 Chicago (3-4) 13 Dec. 3 at Seattle (4-2) 14 Dec. 10 at L.A. Rams (5-2) 15 Dec. 17 at N.Y. Giants (1-6) 16 Dec. 25 (Monday) Oakland (3-4) 17 Dec. 31 Dallas (3-3)
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