During the 2017 offseason, Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was going to spend a few days playing golf with high school friends and enjoying something rare — time off in the NFL.
But then, of course, Stoutland’s phone rang. Eagles GM Howie Roseman wanted him to work out a 6-foot-8, 350-pound Australian rugby player who had piqued the interest of the scouting department. Stoutland canceled the golf getaway and headed to Florida to see what this curiosity, Jordan Mailata, could do on a football field.
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Stoutland — the guy who sold the Eagles on Lane Johnson after watching him in a workout — didn’t see a great talent, but he liked Mailata’s size, quick footwork and ability to change direction. Of course, there were many questions about a player who had never played football.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if he’s hanging around later on (in the draft), we should look at this guy,” Stoutland told the scouting department. The Eagles drafted Mailata in the seventh round of the 2018 draft.
On Sunday, Mailata will start his second NFL game when the Eagles meet the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, and head coach Doug Pederson says the left-tackle job is his (at least for now) if Mailata proves he can handle it. Mailata moved up the depth chart when Jason Peters was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury.
In his first start ever as a football player, Mailata played surprisingly well while replacing Peters — a likely Hall of Fame nominee someday — in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, but he bristled when people were shocked.
“Tell people that I’m not a rugby player anymore,” he said. “I’m a footballer.”
Can you play tackle?
Will Bryce’s quest to find international players for the NFL never stops. A few days before speaking with NJ Advance Media, he was in Germany. On Friday, he was sitting in a hotel room in Austria. As the Head of the Football Development for NFL UK, Bryce has become an emissary for American football, spreading the awareness of the game across the globe and finding players who would like to pursue a professional future.
Bryce was the first to spot Mailata — on video — playing rugby in Sydney, Australia, and was intrigued by his athletic ability. Bryce, whose office is in London, reached out to Mailata, and the two met in October 2016 on a field in Los Angeles — a roughly 7,000-mile trip for both.
Bryce said Mailata tested off the charts and ran a great 40-yard dash, despite never having run the drill before. Physically, Mailata was able to pass the test, but the intangibles sold Bryce, he said.
“His intelligence and his ability to retain information to see something and replicate it were the things we were looking at,” Bryce said. “Is he going to be coachable? What’s he going to be like when he gets to that next level? He checked all those boxes, so it was a no-brainer for us.”
Bryce believed Mailata would be a good fit for the NFL’s International Pathway Program. The program, which began in 2017, has given international players an opportunity to compete for roster spots and practice with teams. Mailata was sent to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to begin his crash course in football.
Given his size, he was originally projected as an interior defensive lineman, but Bryce projected him at a different position: offensive tackle, one of the most teams are staving to fill.
“We thought he would project best to the offensive side of the ball purely because of the premium that you have in that position as an offensive tackle in the league,” Bryce said. “There are not many quality players there, and there’s not a lot of depth across the league in that position.”
So, the teaching began with Football 101. He learned how to put on equipment and a uniform. He studied the basics in classrooms, on the field and in the weight room — the rules, techniques, the mental and physical aspects of the game. And, after bathing himself in Gatorade, he learned that it’s tough to drink through a helmet.
The transition from rugby didn’t always go smoothly, but Mailata, undeterred, kept getting better.
At the time, another rugby player, Christian Scotland-Williamson, was trying to make it, too. They leaned on each other, and Scotland-Williamson eventually was allocated to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, but he’s out of the NFL today.
This is where Stoutland enters the timeline, and if the Eagles hadn’t drafted Mailata, chances are he would’ve been allocated to an AFC North team — a division that had been selected for Mailata based on his ability and size.
Jumping in the deep end
Last Sunday, Mailata gave up one quarterback hurry as Carson Wentz completed 18-of-28 passes for 193 yards, with a touchdown pass and an interception in the 25-20 victory. Wentz helped Mailata — and the rest of the offensive line — by neutralizing the 49ers’ pass rush with seven carries for 37 yards and a TD.
Mailata has not allowed a sack in 82 snaps this season.
“As long as he plays well, right now, in the near future, it’s his job,” Pederson said. “At the same time, we understand that when Jason is healthy, that’s a decision that we are going to have to make at that time. We are focused on this week, getting Jordan ready to go.”
And while Mailata’s friends and family in Australia are thrilled that he’s getting his chance, there are some complications. This week’s 1 p.m. start means kickoff comes at 4 a.m. in Sydney. They’d selfishly love to see Mailata more in prime time: It was 11 a.m. Down Under when the Eagles and 49ers began.
“They were really excited and really happy,” Mailata said. “Because we played Sunday Night Football, they didn’t have to wake up in the crack of dawn to watch me play.”
Whether the Eagles can right themselves after a 1-2-1 start and take charge of the NFC East — the league’s weakest division — likely will depend, in part, on whether Mailata can keep Wentz’s blindside protected.
“I have a saying that pulled me out of a dark place when I was asking myself if I really wanted to play football,” Mailata said. “Don’t dip your toe in the water, drown in it, and learn how to swim. And I’m swimming.”
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