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The Cinderella story of how the Eagles discovered Jordan Mailata and trumped the rest of the NFL | Jeff McLane

Mailata’s unlikely journey from football neophyte to draft pick to the Eagles’ $64 million starting left tackle, in just 3½ years, is unique to the NFL. So, too, was his discovery.

Eagles offensive tackle Jordan Mailata waves to the fans at Lincoln Financial Field during a training camp practice on Aug. 8. The 2018 seventh-round pick, a rugby player who knew little about American football, has come a long way in 3 1/2 years.
Eagles offensive tackle Jordan Mailata waves to the fans at Lincoln Financial Field during a training camp practice on Aug. 8. The 2018 seventh-round pick, a rugby player who knew little about American football, has come a long way in 3 1/2 years.Read moreYong Kim / MCT

The Eagles knew they would have competition for Jordan Mailata as the seventh round of the 2018 NFL draft unfolded. They had identified four other teams that could have interest in the Australian rugby player who had never played American football.

But Jeff Stoutland was fixated on the Steelers, who were four spots ahead of the Eagles, and for two reasons:

  1. They were the only other team that had attended the private workout the veteran offensive line coach had conducted in March.

  2. And they were the only team of the five that had the roster exemption the league allowed for one international player.

Stoutland relayed this information to Howie Roseman. But to be safe and to account for other possible suitors, the Eagles general manager traded up 17 spots to land Mailata. Stoutland’s instinct, just like his evaluation of the mammoth would-be tackle, proved to be correct.

“I later talked to the [Steelers] coach,” Stoutland said, “and he goes, ‘Son of a bitch!’”

It’s likely that Pittsburgh isn’t the only team to regret missing out on Mailata. Of course, the same could be said of many unheralded prospects who drift under the radar, for whatever reason, only to flourish once in the NFL.

But Mailata’s Cinderella journey from football neophyte to draft pick to the Eagles’ $64 million starting left tackle, in just 3½ years, is unique to the NFL. So, too, was his discovery, although the process was in ways the standard front office collaboration that is often needed to identify talent.

It took a willingness, though, to turn over every stone in the minefield that is player evaluation. And a vision to project Mailata as a bona fide prospect. It started with a scout’s unearthing, a coach’s confirmation, and ultimately leadership pulling the trigger.

“I think every team was trying to find out, ‘Who is this guy? What’s he all about?’ Is he really any of these things?’” Stoutland said to The Inquirer. “But they missed out on the workout.

“I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t done that workout. I’m so thankful I went there because I was really blown away.”

Falling in love

But before Roseman made the trade, and Stoutland’s workout, someone from the Eagles had to find Mailata. There had been stories about the freakish former rugby player floating around by the time Brandon Brown landed in Tampa for the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program pro day just five weeks before the draft.

Brown, then the Eagles’ assistant director of pro scouting, knew about his prodigious size (6-foot-8, 345 pounds) and his athleticism based on film from two months of training at IMG Academy that had been making the rounds. But he didn’t know much about Mailata’s character or intellect and whether he had the necessary mental tools.

He went to the open interview that was held the day before the workout determined to find out. The IPPP, and its previous incarnations, had produced only one drafted player: wide receiver Moritz Boehringer. It’s not exactly a fertile scouting ground.

But Mailata, because of his dimensions and his young age, stood out during what Brown described as a speed-dating event.

“It was almost like when you’re young and you go to a party and you identify the pretty girl and make sure she has your number first,” Brown said of securing time with Mailata. “You don’t get [beat out] by anybody else.”

When it was his turn, they spoke for about two hours. Brown immediately tested his recall by giving Mailata the names of Roseman and Stoutland early in their conversion, and when he circled back an hour later, he said the then-20-year old was able to regurgitate their names and positions with the Eagles.

But more than anything, he came away impressed with Mailata’s affable personality.

“I fell in love with the kid,” Brown said during a recent interview. “He just reminded me of an old WWE character. He was gregarious. You just wanted to be around him.”

» READ MORE: How Jordan Mailata won the Eagles’ starting left tackle job

Brown recalled that Mailata, an amateur singer, broke out a Bruno Mars impersonation within the first 30 minutes of the interview. Mailata was smitten, as well.

“We just sort of hit it off,” Mailata said. “He was different from the rest. It was an interview, but it didn’t feel like an interview. It felt like a normal conversation with a friend. But he was persistent. We even exchanged numbers.”

There were about a dozen prospects running through various combine-style drills the next day at the Buccaneers practice facility, Brown said. Most teams had scouts in attendance, he said, but not all.

The Eagles had sent Brown and former colleague Dwayne Joseph and had them split the players. Mailata put up numbers in the 40-yard dash, three-cone, and other drills that were mostly in the top five of other offensive linemen in his class.

In drills specific to his position, Brown said his explosiveness, change of direction, and balance were remarkable despite his inexperience.

“After everything you took about the person,” he said, “Jordan doubled down as an athlete.”

Brown said he kept his “poker face” on. He said the vibe at IPPP events are typically jaded. You could get better odds in the lottery. But his job now was to convince Roseman, then-vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas and his current replacement, Andy Weidl, that Mailata was worth taking a gamble on.

He put together a presentation that included film of his workout, his measurables and times, comments from their interactions and his overall evaluation.

“Delivery is everything,” Brown said. “It’s no different than being a car salesman or a lawyer. … Anything that would put him in the best positive light and create a full picture to make everyone feel as if they were there with me.”

They were sold. Roseman and Douglas called Stoutland and asked if he would fly down to Bradenton, Fla., just south of Tampa, to work out Mailata.

Critical factors

Stoutland was about to head on a golf trip with his Staten Island high school buddies. He had some time before departure, but he wasn’t exactly keen on all the travel. Still, he knew Roseman and Douglas wouldn’t have asked unless they felt it was important.

He flew down, and after seeing his mother-in-law, drove over to IMG.

“I met him at the car park and I was like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Mailata said of his introduction to the all-business coach. “I could feel the intensity already and I was right. Just from the get-go when he said, ‘Hello.’

“Walked straight into the classroom and it was straight to the business, trying to teach me two-and-three jet protection.”

Like Brown, Stoutland wanted to find out whether Mailata would have the mental acuity to take NFL coaching, especially when he would likely need years to develop.

“It was very important for me to know if this guy is going to be able to understand me in the meeting room,” Stoutland said. “I had to visualize a couple years down the road.”

At the end of the class, Stoutland erased the grease board and told Mailata that he would need to recount the lesson the following day.

“When he said that, immediately I went, ‘How can I cheat this process?’” Mailata said.

Mailata said he went up to the board and noticed that because Stoutland pressed so hard on the marker, he could see an imprint.

“I went back with a red marker and just drew everything I could see on the board and was like, ‘Yeah, this is it,’” Mailata said.

He said he also took a photo of the board. When they reconvened, Mailata said he aced the test and that the coach was “blown away” by his recollection. Stoutland remembered it differently.

“I would say,” he said when asked how Mailata did, “that he needed to come here and let me coach him.”

» READ MORE: Jordan Mailata, Jason Kelce, and the offensive line are the reasons to be optimistic about the Eagles | Mike Sielski

On the field, Mailata confirmed Brown’s initial assessment even though he was clearly raw. He had all of Stoutland’s “critical factors” to playing tackle, he said, but he also qualified as an outlier because of his proportions and physical prowess.

“I say, ‘What is unusual about that player?’” Stoutland said.

Stoutland started sending videos back to Roseman and Douglas. When they asked for his bottom-line evaluation, he told them, “The sky’s the limit.” There might not be a position coach the Eagles have had in recent memory whose voice carries more weight than the 59-year-old Stoutland.

The Eagles flew Mailata up to Philadelphia for one of their allotted pre-draft visits in early April. They weren’t first to bring him into a practice facility — Washington was — and there were others.

Brown, meanwhile, said he wasn’t nervous about Mailata slipping through the cracks.

“There wasn’t any reservation of, ‘We may lose him,’” said Brown, now the Eagles’ director of player personnel. “I think we pegged him right.”

The Eagles had him graded as a seventh-round or undrafted prospect. But after they selected offensive lineman Matt Pryor, whom they had graded higher only because of his experience, their attention turned to Mailata.

Stoutland knew he had the workout in his back pocket, but he was wary of the Steelers.

“There was only one other guy at the workout. Pittsburgh was there. No one else,” Stoutland said. “And they had the exemption. … And so, I told Howie, Pittsburgh was there. Howie saw Pittsburgh in front of us. And that’s why he traded up.”

For your own good

The rest is history, as they say, but there were three long years of hard labor. Mailata said he had moments of doubt. There were times when he couldn’t understand why Stoutland was so relentless.

But he slowly turned the curve, finally played last season, and in training camp beat out former first-round pick Andre Dillard. A week ago, the Eagles locked him up to a four-year, $64 million extension with $40 million guaranteed.

He’s not anywhere near the end of this tale. He may get his toughest test yet when he faces 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa on Sunday. Luckily, he still has a coach who will remind him that he hasn’t accomplished much (although he really has).

Stoutland, one time while recruiting high school players in Texas, found his attention drifting toward nearby youth football players who were pitted against each other over a telephone pole.

“And they would just fight each other, try to block each other through the end of the pole,” Stoutland said. “And I would be like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ But they learned toughness. Jordan never had to do that! Ever in football!

“And I’m like, ‘Well, I got to be like that coach.’ Sometimes Jordan’s like, ‘Can you let up on me a little bit?’ … No, no. But it’s for your own good.”