The Eagles are getting healthy, which should be good news for the team. But for individual players, in terms of playing time, it may not be.
Jordan Mailata is among those who have filled starting spots for an extended period and will likely be relegated to reserve roles once the regulars ahead of them return. He had already been supplanted at left tackle when Jason Peters came back, but Lane Johnson’s likely return this week should end Mailata’s one-game run at right tackle.
“I think I’m at running back this week,” Mailata joked when asked where he practiced Monday.
Some fans wouldn’t mind seeing the former rugby player with the ball in his hands, but many have gotten used to seeing the third-year offensive lineman protecting Carson Wentz’s blindside. Mailata has had his inconsistencies in four starts at left tackle, but he also showed enough promise for the future.
In some corners, he’s done enough to warrant a permanent stay at left tackle. Peters hadn’t performed well before the knee injury that sidelined the 38-year old. But Mailata might have needed to be perfect to keep coach Doug Pederson from going back to the future Hall of Famer.
The Eagles, despite their 3-4-1 record, are leading the NFC East, and Peters, as he showed in last week’s 23-9 win over the Cowboys, can still get the job done. Mailata, who has described moving from one flank to the other to be as difficult as undertaking bathroom hygiene with the less dominant hand, struggled early in the game. He allowed a sack to Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on the second play.
“Just bad technique from my end,” Mailata said. “Didn’t think he was going to play like that on a second play of the game, and that’s what caught me off guard. But that’s a learning mistake.”
Mailata settled down to an extent and would permit only one more quarterback pressure. To the untrained eye, that alone might seem reason enough to give him another shot at left tackle, or to slow-play Johnson’s return. But offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland would conceivably know who should be in or out of the lineup.
“He said I did a good job, but mostly I did a bad job,” Mailata said of Stoutland’s assessment of his blocking vs. the Cowboys. “He said, ‘You did a great job, but it wasn’t perfect. We got a lot to work on.’”
The same this season could be said of guards Nate Herbig and Matt Pryor, who have been pressed into duty. Herbig has started since Week 1, both on the left and right side. Pryor has four starts on the left.
But would the Eagles' best configuration up front have Peters moving back to right guard, where he was originally re-signed to play, and Mailata staying at left tackle? The potential change would also allow for the team to peek toward next season without benching Peters.
Left guard Isaac Seumalo, who missed six games with a knee injury, was activated off injured reserve and onto a 21-day practice window Monday. While that doesn’t assure his return for Sunday’s matchup at the New York Giants, he should be available soon.
Once he does, assuming no one else gets hurt, the O-line would look as it was intended to look, at least after season-ending injuries to right guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard, and as it did for Week 2.
The unit -- from left to right: Peters, Seumalo, center Jason Kelce, Herbig and Johnson -- had its best collective effort in that loss to the Rams. It was the only game in which Wentz, who has been sacked an NFL-high 32 times, wasn’t dropped behind the line of scrimmage.
Wentz has certainly been responsible for his share of the sacks, but the O-line, which has had seven different starting combinations in eight games, has played its part, as well. Considering all the moving parts, and the lack of continuity, Stoutland has done well with the hand he has been dealt.
The Eagles' poor play for most of the first half of the season has been the result of more than just injuries. But they could have more key players back this week aside from Johnson or Seumalo. Running back Miles Sanders, whose practice window was activated two weeks ago, would be the most significant returnee.
If projections hold, tight end Zach Ertz and wide receiver DeSean Jackson could be the only starters out this weekend. The week off was beneficial for the injured, but also for those who have played every game or most games thus far.
“Bye week really helped with just relaxing and easing my mind, man,” Mailata said. “It was so nice to just wake up knowing like, you know what, I just got to get tested today.”
The Eagles last week had their first player this season test positive for COVID-19 -- safety Marcus Epps. The team practiced and held meetings on Wednesday but otherwise didn’t meet. It has not reported another positive test since Epps'.
“I’m confident in our protocols and in our staff and how everyone has approached the COVID situation, us all wearing our mask,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “Most importantly, the contact tracers ... no one based on the trackers came in close proximity enough where the staff felt like they had to remove any one of us.”
As much as the Eagles have been bitten by the injury bug, they haven’t lost players to COVID like many other teams, sometimes with only a day or less of notice. If there’s a silver lining to the absences, it’s that some younger players, like receiver Travis Fulgham, have played well enough to hold onto their spots, and some like Mailata, have gotten experience.
Mailata’s future is unwritten, but playing both left and right tackle has positioned him into former Eagle Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s role as the swing tackle.
“It was about what I expected,” Mailata said of his first start at right tackle. “Took me a moment to get comfortable, and once I got comfortable there, I just found my little comfort zone and was able to rely on my technique and training.”