Even among other football players, among other freakishly large and strong young men, Jordan Mailata stands out as he walks through the Eagles locker room at the NovaCare Complex. It is almost as if there should be a soundtrack echoing the footsteps as he proceeds, the thud-thud-thud of a bass drum that shakes the lockers and causes small objects to fall from the shelves.
A year ago, Mailata was a seventh-round draft pick who had never played a real game of football. The team took a flyer on him in the draft because the former Australian rugby star was a gifted athlete and had been identified and trained by the NFL’s International Pathway program. Not much risk, and the dude is 6-foot-8 and 346-pounds.
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If he hadn’t stuck, however, no one would have been shocked, particularly since the Eagles made him an offensive tackle, placing him at perhaps the most technical position in the game. His rugby highlight reel looked like the big kid in class mashing his way through a school playground of younger boys. Making it in the NFL was going to require something more than just that.
“The moment I’ll never forget is when Steven Means put me on my [butt] the first week of training camp,” Mailata said Wednesday. “He bullrushed me and took his helmet straight to my chin and put me on my [butt]. I said, ‘Holy cow. This is real.’”
Mailata got up, and he kept getting up, and here we are a year later, and Mailata is still here. The questions haven’t gone away, either, though. The Eagles moved up in the draft this year — the first round, not the seventh — to take offensive tackle Andre Dillard from Washington State.
Dillard is being groomed to replace Jason Peters at left tackle, and Mailata, who worked exclusively on the left side in practice last season, has been switched to the right side. It might not sound like a huge change, but it is the equivalent of doing everything in a mirror while someone else across the line is looking for a way to knock you over.
“I feel like I’m in Year 1 again, being moved to the right. I’m still trying to learn it. You need that body memory and it’s difficult to transition,” Mailata said. “It’s weird to kick off my left foot now, but I have to execute it. This is a game-plan decision to have me play both because I can have more value to the team. If you don’t have value to the team, you won’t be playing.”
Mailata dressed for three games in the regular season, but didn’t get in for a single play. The tackle snaps not taken by either Peters or Lane Johnson were mostly given to Halapoulivaati Vaitai. As the impact of Dillard’s addition spreads ripples across the roster, Vaitai is now being trained to play some guard. That might be seen as a sign of confidence in Mailata at tackle, but we’ll see how it shakes out.
“What separates this sport from other sports is the mentality and the physicality it takes to play it. They are married together,” Mailata said. “I don’t think fans and people appreciate that enough. You have to learn the plays, the angles, the techniques, and then you have to learn the different defensive looks, the schemes. Cover 1, cover 2, all that stuff, and it’s pretty much another language.”
Mailata’s goal between the end of the mandatory minicamp, which closes Friday, and the start of training camp in late July, is to do a minimum of 10,000 repetitions of the leg kick he needs at the right tackle position. Kick out with your left foot, set your body and get ready to defend that edge of the line. Do it again. And again.
“It is a fact that if I do 10,000 kicks, the body will become accustomed to it. You have to get that muscle memory,” Mailata said. “It’s a hard sport to play, and you have to execute to get the coaches to trust you.”
For some players, that never happens, and the game comes and goes that quickly. Mailata follows the dizzying pace of NFL transactions on social media, and knows he could be on that feed, too.
“So-and-so was just let go. So-and-so signed this guy. So-and-so was just recruited,” Mailata said. “It’s made me think about playing baseball, probably outfield.”
For a sizable player with his unique background, there is another role on the football field that is possible for Mailata. He doesn’t dwell on it, but he’s thought about it: Running with the ball in a short-yardage situation.
“You never know,” he said. “Chicago did that last year with their defensive tackle [Akiem Hicks]. I’m focusing on playing tackle, but if that opportunity should arise in a game, I would not say no.”
As the man said, you never know. Maybe he was such a longshot to learn the game that he isn’t even supposed to still be here. Jordan Mailata is still here, however. Everyone is sure of that, because he’s hard to miss.