Film review: Scouting new Lions offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai
Over the next couple of weeks, we're planning on taking a closer look at several of the Detroit Lions' key free-agent signings. We will watch tape from three 2019 games for each player and provide a brief scouting report to better familiarize you with the new additions prior to the 2020 season.
Player: Offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai
Age: 26 (June 16)
Measurables: 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, 34¼-inch arms
Experience: A starter for parts of three seasons at TCU (2012-15), Vaitai earned All-Big 12 second-team honors playing right tackle as a junior, then again for his work at left tackle as a senior. The team’s offense ranked in the top 10 in scoring both years.
Drafted in the fifth round in 2016 (No. 164 overall) by the Philadelphia Eagles, Vaitai has appeared in 55 regular-season games over four seasons, including 20 starts as an injury replacement on the team’s deep and talented offensive line.
Vaitai has logged the majority of his playing time at the two tackle spots but has seen a handful of reps at guard. In 2017, he started the final nine games at left tackle, as well as the Eagles’ three postseason games, including a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. In 2019, he only saw three starts (as well as one playoff game), all at right tackle. In total, he logged 477 offensive snaps last season.
Tape studied: At Washington (Dec. 15), versus Dallas (Dec. 22), versus Seattle (Jan. 5)
Note: Vaitai is playing right tackle, wearing No. 72 in the clips below.
► While you obviously can't be an effective offensive lineman without the requisite size, intelligence is critically important to playing the position at a high level. Vaitai's play recognition and ability to process what's happening around him is clear throughout the study of his film. When multiple defenders are in his area, he can be seen quickly scanning after the snap and consistently identifies the correct assignment.
He smoothly transitions when needed to pick up a blitzing linebacker taking an inside angle. Similarly, Vaitai is rarely tripped up by stunts up front, exchanging responsibilities with linemates with minimal issues. His football IQ also shows up with how well he times breaking off combination blocks to address a second defender.
► Vaitai almost always plays under control. His pass sets aren't lightning quick, but they're smooth and consistently have him in position to perform his assignment. He stays square, keeps his weight centered, doesn't duck his head on contact and doesn't lunge, which puts him in position to adequately address a variety pass-rush moves.
In the postseason game against the Seahawks, he had to deal with a stylistic variety of rushers. While the elite combination of length and athleticism of Jadeveon Clowney occasionally proved problematic (similar to Dallas' DeMarcus Lawrence), Vaitai had no issues stuffing the power-based efforts of Seattle's larger defensive ends or the repeated attempts to penetrate the backfield with a spin move by linebacker Shaquem Griffin.
► When run blocking, Vaitai plays with good leverage and is often able to initially drive his assignment back with solid lower-body strength.
► The combination of a strong lower body and good balance allows Vaitai to anchor well against bull rush attempts. Even when initially knocked back after the snap, he's able to quickly gather his footing and stall out the push into the pocket after two or three steps.
► Penalties shouldn't be an issue. Vaitai doesn't panic when a snap isn't going to plan and rarely resorts to grabbing the defender. Only once, against Clowney, did he appear to blatantly hold and get away with it.
In the three games, Vaitai wasn't flagged once. In his four starts last season, including the playoff game against Seattle, he drew one holding flag.
► Despite physically dominating the early stages of many run blocking snaps, it would be a stretch to call Vaitai a road grader in the ground game. He lacks the nasty streak of an elite blocker who is determined to punish his opponent.
Whether it's out of an abundance of caution to avoid holding penalties or a technical deficiency in his play, Vaitai rarely latches on to his assignment when drive blocking, often allowing defenders to shed the block earlier than you'd like to see.
► As mentioned, Vaitai avoids lunging at defenders, but he also has a tendency to be too patient with his hands in pass protection, too often allowing defenders to get their hands into his chest and control the snap.
► Athleticism isn't an issue. He has adequate quickness to climb to the second level or get out in space ahead of a screen pass if asked, but he regularly takes poor angles or is passive when addressing his assignment in space, resulting in a high percentage of ineffective blocks.
► If there's a weakness to his pass protection, it's with speed around the edge. Vaitai's hand placement can be an issue when the target area narrows on the bend.
How he fits in Detroit: The Lions are selling Vaitai as an inside-outside option, but he really hasn't seen much playing time as a guard. Reviewing his quarter worth of snaps at the position last season, it was an ugly performance.
Whether it was early-season jitters or a lack of comfort with interior blocking assignments, his notable positives of power, balance and assignment recognition weren't there at guard. He allowed an early sack after missing an assignment and was knocked to the ground multiple times.
Given what he shows on film, the other lineman moves the Lions made this offseason and the lofty five-year, $45 million contract ($20 million guaranteed), Vaitai is essentially a lock to be Detroit's starting right tackle in 2020.
Given how well he performed in 2017 as a left tackle, it's conceivable the Lions flip him to the blind side if Taylor Decker were to suffer a long-term injury. It would likely depend on where the Lions feel most comfortable with swing tackle Tyrell Crosby starting.