Halapoulivaati Vaitai is in the fifth training camp of his young NFL career, and his first in Detroit after signing as a free agent with the Lions this offseason, but it's also the first training camp he begins with expectations to be a starter and major contributor upfront along the offensive line.
His first four seasons in Philadelphia were spent behind veteran tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, two Pro Bowl players. Vaitai was the swing tackle and spot starter – sometimes playing guard as well – and was good in that role for the Eagles the last four years. He filled in for the injured Peters in 2017, starting and winning the Super Bowl that year.
This fifth training camp is a little different for Vaitai in Detroit, however, because for the first time he's entering a season expected to be a starter at right tackle. The Lions invested heavily in Vaitai in free agency with the anticipation he can step in and upgrade the right side of their offensive line both in the run and pass game.
While the external expectations might be different for Vaitai entering the first padded week of practice in Detroit, Vaitai said he hasn't changed anything in the way he prepares.
"When I was in Philly I was always told, 'Hey, if you're a starter or not you have to act like you're a starter,'" Vaitai said after practice Tuesday.
That's a common theme throughout NFL locker rooms because of the regularity of injuries and likelihood that at some point backups will become starters. But it is a little different running exclusively with the first team, just in the amount of quality reps Vaitai gets in practice, and the consistent level of competition he faces throughout practice.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia said "Big V" has handled it all really well so far.
"I would just say that things that impress you right away is, he's big," Patricia said with a smile about his new 6-foot-6, 320-pound right tackle. "He's very large. He's got really good footwork and strong hands.
"When he punches those guys, and he gets his hands in their chest and get a hold of them, he's stoned a couple guys out at practice that were surprised at how strong he is. But his footwork is really good, too. He can move laterally and kind of stay with some of those quicker guys. So, that kind of combination has been impressive so far."
Last season, Vaitai gave up just two sacks in over 330 pass-blocking snaps and had one of the highest run-blocking grades among tackles by Pro Football Focus. He fits the scheme and the Lions' approach to wanting to be more balanced on offense this season. But there is a difference between being a swing tackle/spot starter and being a full-time starter.
"The reps he's been in there and specifically at tackle, he really hasn't missed a beat," Patricia said. "He's kind of just gotten all the information and he's done really well. This guy has played a lot of football in the NFL. He started a few games, one in particular I don't really care for (the Super LII win over New England when Patricia was the defensive coordinator for the Patriots).
"He's done it at a high level. I think the expectation is there that he can do that at a high level. The skill set that he's been able to display has been good."