Pederson Names Vaitai Starting RT, No Promises for Lane Johnson When He Returns

Lane Johnson has been banished from the NovaCare Complex for 10 weeks, and even when he rejoins the Eagles on Dec. 19, there’s no guarantee he’ll instantly regain his starting right tackle job.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday, a day after the NFL formally denied Johnson’s suspension appeal, that it’s impossible to say what will happen at right tackle when Johnson returns from his lengthy suspension.

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Johnson was suspended by the NFL after testing positive for a banned substance. Because it was his second suspension — he was suspended four games in 2014 — it's a 10-week suspension that will gobble up most of the remainder of the season.

Johnson is eligible to play only in the Eagles’ last two games — the Giants on a Thursday night Dec. 22 at the Linc and Jan. 1 against the Cowboys, also at the Linc.

Johnson is allowed to rejoin the team Monday, Dec. 19, the day after the Eagles face the Ravens in Baltimore. That's only three days before the Giants game.

Pederson confirmed that rookie fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has never been active for an NFL game, will take over Johnson’s right tackle spot starting Sunday when the Eagles face the Redskins in Landover, Maryland.

Johnson, the fourth pick in the 2013 draft, has started 49 of a possible 53 games in his career, missing only the four when he was suspended in 2014.

Asked what his plan is for when Johnson returns, Pederson pointed to the short week before the Giants game — and other factors — that make it impossible to say.

“Well, right now, the timing of it is a little iffy because it’s the Thursday game, the Giants, so we’ve just got to make a decision at that point,” he said.

“See where he is physically, mentally, where we are as an offense at that point to make that decision.

“It’s hard now sitting here to say he’s got his job back but at the same time it’s a long way off and it’s hard to speculate.”

During his suspension, Johnson is not allowed in the NovaCare Complex and isn’t allowed to have any contact with his coaches.

“Everything’s off limits,” Pederson said. “As coaches, front office, Eagles personnel, outside of (trainer) Chris Peduzzi staying in touch with him, we’re off limits.”

Johnson said Sunday in Detroit that he planned to stay in Philadelphia during his suspension, but Pederson said Johnson has decided to return to Norman, Oklahoma, where he played college football.

Johnson suffered a hyperextended elbow during the Eagles’ loss to the Lions Sunday, and Pederson said he’ll rehab that injury with Oklahoma’s training staff in conjunction with Peduzzi.

Pederson did have the opportunity to speak with Johnson before he left the building Monday.

“Honestly, just wanted to express through myself, through Stout (offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland), just, one, obviously disappointed, and we are all accountable for our actions, but at the same time I look forward to getting him back in the building in a few weeks.”

A third positive test for Johnson would result in a two-year ban, which might not be career-ending but certainly would remove him from the Eagles’ long-term plans of having Johnson eventually replace Jason Peters at left tackle.

Pederson acknowledged he’s concerned about that.

“Ultimately, with any player, you’re worried about that,” he said. 

"Again, you just keep talking to the players about those situations and obviously you do the best you can to educate the players on these types of issues.

“But looking down the road, whenever J.P. steps aside, that’s kind of the thought process, is that [Johnson] goes to left (tackle) and Big V is our right-side tackle.

“I’m struggling with the question because you don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns. You just have to go into it still educating Lane and all your players: ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got to be smart with what you put into your body. Get it checked out. There’s resources that as players and coaches we have available to us to check these things out before we put them into our systems.”

The NFLPA offers every NFL player a free service in which they can have a specific sample of a supplement tested to see if it’s safe or whether it includes banned substances that don’t appear on the label.

But Johnson has said he’ll stop taking supplements entirely, or at least until he feels he can take supplements with zero risk. How that decision affects his size and strength and weight and ultimately his level of play remains to be seen.

But Pederson said he’s not concerned with it.

“That’s his body,” he said. “That’s his chemistry. Everybody’s different. I’m not a dietician or a nutritionist or anything like that, obviously, but there are ways to do it and to be smart with it because there’s help available.

“There’s all the resources. We have a great sports science team. We have a great nutrtion staff that can help keep players’ weights at certain levels that we require them to be at.”

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