The suspension of Lane Johnson came crashing down on Eagles fans everywhere. Most expected Johnson to have his suspension reduced, and some even held out hope that it would be completely repealed. That did not happen. Arbitrator James Carter upheld Johnson’s full 10-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy on October 11. Johnson will not be able to play again until the Week 16 matchup against the New York Giants. Enjoy the Oklahoma fairways, Lane.

With Johnson out, the Eagles’ offensive line has suddenly become very vulnerable. In the first three weeks of the season, Pro Football Focus graded the line as the fourth-best pass-blocking unit in the entire league. In Weeks Five and Six, PFF graded the line as the fourth-worst in the same category. It is true that Johnson played in Week Five against the Lions, yet a simple eye-test will reveal that he was sorely missed in the Week Six matchup against the Redskins. Johnson was graded by PFF as the best right tackle in the league prior to his suspension. Head Coach Doug Pederson and Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich decided that starting rookie fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai at tackle was the best move after Johnson’s suspension. Throughout the week preceding the Redskins game, both coaches couldn’t say enough good things about the rookie concerning his development as a run blocker and a pass blocker. Most of that praise was overblown. Vaitai looked very much like a rookie against Redskins pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who steamrolled past the right tackle on his way to 2.5 sacks.

It is imperative to note that Vaitai is not the only weak link on the offensive line. Future Hall-of-Famer Jason Peters is 34 years old and has dealt with injuries over the last few years. Understandably, he has slowly regressed. Center Jason Kelce has severely regressed since his 2014 Pro Bowl campaign. He looks like a shell of his former self. PFF has him graded as the 32nd-best center out of 32 starting centers. Without Johnson on the right side, these players’ ineptitude has shined more clearly. Still, guards Allen Barbre and Brandon Brooks have both been very solid, with Barbre grading out as PFF’s fourth-best guard in the league. Even with the bright spots of Barbre and Brooks, the line is in a very dire position currently.

When the line began to breakdown in Week Five and had a complete meltdown in Week Six, it impacted Wentz’s play. This was most apparent against Washington when Wentz could only muster a fifty percent completion rate, 177 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions, and a 77.7 quarterback rating. It is important to remember that Wentz is a rookie and that he needs some insulation to properly develop. When his pocket constantly breaks down, as it did in the Redskins game, he cannot shine as he did in the first three weeks. Wentz is still a very special talent, but he needs some bodyguards or else he will continue to have stale showings like he did in the Redskins game, and to a lesser degree, in the Lions game. If the line isn’t solidified, Wentz could develop some nasty bad habits that may undo a promising career.

What should be done to improve the situation? One interesting proposal was given by Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com. Shorr-Parks argued that Eagles’ GM Howie Roseman should get the Cleveland Browns on the phone to negotiate a trade involving the Browns’ All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas is 31 years old, but has made every Pro Bowl since entering the league in 2007 and has been named a first-team All-Pro six times in his career. Thomas is headed for the Hall-of-Fame the very first year that he is eligible. One could make the argument that he is one of the best tackles in NFL history. Thomas could be put at left tackle, allowing Jason Peters to slide over to the marginally easier right tackle position, or he could be put at right tackle. Either choice is an extreme upgrade from the position the Eagles are currently in.

Another solution to the Eagles’ line problem could be to ride the season out and allow Howie Roseman to work his magic in free agency to pick up a solid starter. After all, Brandon Brooks was signed during free agency and he has been one of the Eagles’ only good linemen. New Orleans’ Terron Armstead, Atlanta’s Ryan Schraeder, and Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn are all set to hit free agency in 2017. All are very significant upgrades at the tackle spot.

A final solution is to build the line through the draft. Besides being one of the best running back classes of all time, the 2017 Draft brings a large amount of enticing line prospects. Alabama’s Cam Robinson, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, and Bucknell’s Julie’n Davenport could all be huge upgrades for the Eagles’ offensive line. The Eagles could also target LSU center Ethan Pocic in the second or third round to fill in for Kelce. The 2017 Draft gives the Eagles many options to solidify Carson Wentz’s protection. Even if they pick someone up in free agency, the Eagles need to spend a good deal of their picks on the line.

The Eagles’ offensive line is currently not in a good way. The suspension of Lane Johnson has highlighted one of the worst position groups on the team. The line is extremely thin as far as depth goes. If another starter goes down, it might be time for Roseman to make a trade. Even if the line manages to remain healthy and suspension-free, the team needs to make significant moves to upgrade it through trades, free agency, or the draft. Until then, Eagles fans need to hope for quick development from Vaitai and for Carson Wentz to not get injured. On the bright side, there are only nine weeks until Lane Johnson is back.

Photo: Keith Allison (via: Flickr)

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