In this most disappointing Eagles season, there have been few reasons to be excited about the future. Even rookie Jalen Hurts’ performance in Sunday’s upset over the Saints doesn’t fully qualify because it further incites quarterback controversy.
If there’s been one, however, it’s that the Eagles may have found their next left tackle in Jordan Mailata.
He hasn’t exactly cemented his spot at one of the NFL’s most important positions for next season and beyond. But considering how far the football neophyte has come in three years, and the progress he’s made each week this season, Mailata projects as one of two possible successors to Jason Peters.
“We haven’t fully seen Andre Dillard either at that spot,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday when asked if Mailata projects as the future left tackle. “So it’s hard for me to sit here today and say that he’s [the starter]. He’s helping himself, I’ll say that.
“Jordan has played well to maybe compete at that spot. But I think it’s a little unfair to sit here and say that he’s a full-time starter moving forward without seeing enough of Andre.”
Dillard was drafted to be Peters’ replacement and was slated to open this season as the starter. But the former first-round pick suffered a season-ending torn bicep and has since watched Mailata muscle his way into the conversation.
Dillard’s injury forced Peters, who returned to play right guard, back to left tackle. But the 38-year-old suffered an early-season knee injury, paving the way for Mailata. The former rugby player was inconsistent over four starts, but he showed promise despite having it being his first extended action at any level of football.
An argument could have been made that he had earned the spot even when Peters became healthy. But Pederson went back to the veteran. Mailata filled in at right tackle for a game, and then watched for two. Injuries, though, forced him back to left tackle and in his last three starts he has arguably been the Eagles’ most steady offensive lineman.
“I don’t really call it ‘settling.’ I call it just like, ‘doing my job,’ ” Mailata said last week when asked if he felt he had settled into his role. “I don’t really go out there to get settled or get comfy. I never stay comfy. I always look for an edge or a ‘one up’ every day. …
“I’ve always had that saying since rookie year and I’ve stuck by it -- ‘One percent better every day.’ And that’s what I aim to do.”
Mailata hasn’t allowed a sack since returning. His run blocking, while still up and down, has also improved. But the No. 1 job for a left tackle is to protect his quarterback’s blindside and the 6-foot-8, 346-pounder has mostly done that over the last three games.
In 138 pass protection snaps, Mailata has allowed only five pressures (two hits and three hurries), per Pro Football Focus, over that span. In his first 266 snaps, including his one-game stint at right tackle, he allowed 19 pressures (five sacks, four hits and ten hurries).
For comparison, Peters allowed 21 pressures (six sacks, three hits and 12 hurries) in just 262 snaps at left tackle. And compared to Dillard’s first three starts in 2019, when he allowed 25 pressures (four sacks, four hits and 17 hurries), Mailata has gotten off to a better start.
Dillard, 25, flashed his athleticism and strong footwork during that spell, but he needed to get stronger. He bulked up last offseason, and said he came into training camp in much better mental shape. But his practices were still a mixed bag.
The Eagles, privately, had been concerned about his psyche transitioning from college to the NFL and from playing under a relatively small microscope at Washington State compared to the Philadelphia pressure cooker.
Mailata has had his mental struggles, as well, but maybe because he arrived as a seventh-round pick and more of a curiosity than anything, he has come off as more care-free and less affected by outside distractions.
But as Pederson noted, it’s still too early to count Dillard out, or at least too early for the team to give up on a former first-round pick. It’s likely the Eagles will give him the benefit of opening next spring with the first team.
Or they could deem the left tackle spot open for competition. Mailata has certainly earned that right. And when you factor in his impressive size and athleticism and steady development, the 23-year old winning the job might not seem as outlandish as it did just a year ago.
It might not appear possible because of his mammoth dimensions, but Mailata can lose his balance against edge rushers who weigh 100 pounds less. Force plus speed, especially from elite guys, can calculate to an immense amount of power.
But if Mailata can execute three basic functions -- getting off quick, establishing his feet, and timing his hands -- there shouldn’t be many edge rushers who can get either through him or by him.
“The get-off is a big thing for me,” Mailata said. “Trying to be the first one off the ball is very important against a great edge rusher. Just getting off the ball, getting to your spot and the timing with your hands. Knowing when to fire them so [my hands] don’t get swatted.”
Peters had one of the best get-offs ever. Dillard’s is actually pretty good, too. Mailata (No. 68), as evidenced here on this play against the Packers, wasn’t the first of the Eagles offensive linemen to get off at the snap. But he was quick enough and easily fended off Preston Smith’s (No. 91) outside speed rush.
After Mailata sets vertically he can be prone to firing his hands too early. Good edge rushers know how to take advantage and keep tackles from getting their claws on them. Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said Mailata’s improvement in this regard was one reason he felt comfortable going back to him three weeks ago.
“Each and every week I’ve analyzed him and I’m watching and I’m like, right now, he’s got the timing factor, Jordan does,” Stoutland said then. “He knows when that guy is closing in on him. Prior to this, a couple weeks ago he was struggling with that, in my opinion.”
In his first game back against the Seahawks, he never had his hands swatted away, as he showed here on this Benson Mayowa’s (No. 95) power-to-speed move.
Even when Mailata may flash too soon, if he’s balanced he’s strong enough to lock rushers up with his hands, as he did here vs. Smith.
Perfection, of course, is impossible. Mailata got driven back and off his axis on this bull rush from Saints end Trey Hendrickson (No. 91) against the Saints.
It is remarkable to think that just three years ago he had never played a lick of football. Mailata doesn’t want to be graded on a curve based on his inexperience, though.
“I grade myself as a footballer,” he said recently. “Anything I do, I don’t blame it on anything being deficient or not playing the sport since I was young. I never like to do that. If I mess up a play, it’s because I messed it up.
“It’s because I didn’t do the correct techniques, it’s not because of a lack of experience.”
But there are still obvious instances when his awareness, or lack thereof, factor into a missed assignment, particularly in the run game. On the first play of the Packers game, he misinterpreted a check by quarterback Carson Wentz and missed his block at the second level.
Miles Sanders (No. 26) broke two tackles and picked up six yards, but Mailata knew he had messed up.
“Missed a couple of assignments on the first drive and just based off the call I went off another call that was made and ended making the wrong play,” he said. “Fixed that up when we got on the bench. It’s just listening to where the point is.”
He’s clearly learning. On this zone read play, Mailata motioned to Hurts (No. 2) with his right hand, based upon the Saints’ pre-snap alignment, that he was jumping to the second level to take out Kwon Alexander (No. 58). The linebacker crashed the B-gap and Mailata helped him along as Hurts beat the unblocked end around the corner.
Mailata, despite his size, can also move in space. He’s not as quick as Peters in his prime, but as he showed on this kick-out screen, he’s quick enough to take out defensive backs.
“He’s just too big to be moving like that,” Eagles guard Nate Herbig said. “Smooth, physical, great balance.”
Once he gains a greater understanding of blocking assignments and leverages, he should only improve in the run game. But sometimes brute strength is all you need. On this fourth down against the Saints, the Eagles needed Mailata to clear out the B-gap. He did so by rag-dolling Sheldon Rankins (No. 98).
Hurts, who had suggested a certain run play to Pederson pre-call, took care of the rest.
“The big rugby player, now he’s officially a football player,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said Wednesday, “has gone out there and played really, really well. And it’s always good to see a 6-9, 400-pound guy show you that he’ll be a good player in the NFL.
“Those are kind of rare to see.”