The reviews are out on Jordan Mailata’s first NFL start, and most of them are positive.
Nobody is ready to suggest that the massive 6-foot-8, 348-pound Aussie left tackle deserves a bust in Canton after his play in the Eagles' 25-20 come-from-behind win over the 49ers on Sunday. But he did play well.
“I thought he played really well,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. "You really can’t find any fault with the way he played. The good thing is, he was never on the ground. He’s got great feet. And you can’t run through him. He’s just too massive.
"Now, he didn’t go up against great players. Kerry Hyder and the guys he went up against, they’re not great players. They’re good ‘effort’ guys. But for what he had to do Sunday, he was really good.
"Even when he misses a jam, which happened once against Hyder, he’s just so massive that he can block you with his body. He had the one false start [on a third-and-1 early in the second quarter]. But other than that, you can’t really find a negative play.
“If you watched him Sunday and didn’t know his backstory, you would never know he was a rugby player all of his life until three years ago, or that it was his first NFL start.”
We’ll find out a lot more about Mailata and the rest of the offensive line on Sunday when the the Eagles face a Steelers defense that is first in the league against the run and has 15 sacks in three games.
This Bud’s for you
Mailata will spend much of the game going up against Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree. Dupree is second on the Steelers in sacks (2½) and tied for second with Stephon Tuitt in total quarterback pressures (17), one behind T.J. Watt.
“He’s going to see a lot of Bud,” Baldinger, an NFL offensive lineman for 11 seasons, said. "He will see [defensive end] Cam Heyward at times if they run a twist stunt or if they line up in base. But they’re mostly a nickel defense, which means that for the most part he’ll see Dupree.
“Bud’s really good. He’s really strong, a very powerful guy. He’s definitely much better than anybody Jordan saw either last Sunday or in the preseason games he played in the previous couple of seasons. This will be a good test.”
Dupree is an athletic edge-rusher. He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash and had a 42-inch vertical jump at the 2015 NFL scouting combine. He had just 20 sacks in his first four seasons with the Steelers but had a breakout year last season, recording 11½.
“Bud can turn a corner,” Baldinger said. “He hadn’t really done much until last year. T.J. [Watt, the Steelers' other edge-rushing linebacker] really helps him because he wins a lot of his one-on-ones on the other side.”
The Steelers blitz a lot. Their blitz percentage is one of the highest in the NFL. And they figure to target the inexperienced left side of the Eagles' line – Mailata and left guard Nate Herbig – with many of those blitzes.
At some point, maybe Sunday or maybe next week against Baltimore, Mailata is going to get undressed by an edge-rusher. He’s going to get Carson Wentz hit. Baldinger said that how the young left tackle reacts to that will be important.
Reacting to failure
“You never really know about any of these guys, how their wiring is, until they get beat bad,” Baldinger said. "If Bud Dupree runs over him, how does he react? If he gets his quarterback hit and the ball pops out, can he shake it off and come back and be steady and just let it go? Or is it going to compound itself?
“I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t know if [Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland] knows it or Doug [Pederson] or anybody else. Some guys just shake it off and get right back to it. And some guys, it can bother them the rest of the day.”
Mailata replaced 38-year-old Jason Peters, who injured his toe last week and was placed on injured reserve. Peters had replaced 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard, who suffered a season-ending biceps injury in training camp.
At some point, Peters' toe will heal, and he’ll be healthy enough to play again. But unless Mailata just completely self-destructs, Baldinger thinks the Eagles should leave him right where he is.
“They’re going to have to move off Jason after this year anyway,” he said. "If he comes back and they put him back at left tackle, he’s going to go down again. Because that’s what’s happened three years in a row now. It would just be a matter of time.
“If Jordan plays well this week against Dupree and the Steelers, I would just leave him there. Just leave him there and let him take whatever lumps and growing pains there are. Whether it’s stunts, looks, or any other game-situation stuff that he has to see in order to grow.”
Figuring the Eagles
Last year, Carson Wentz had 18 touchdown passes and just one interception on throws of 0 to 10 yards. So far this year, he’s got zero TDs and 4 INTs on throws at that distance.
In the Eagles' last two games, just 24 of Wentz’s 68 aimed (not including throwaways or batted passes) pass attempts, or 35.3%, were longer than 5 yards.
Wide receiver Greg Ward has 18 catches in the first four games. Eight have been on third down and 7 of those 8 have resulted in first downs. He’s tied for third in the league in third-down receptions behind the Chargers' Keenan Allen and the Falcons' Russell Gage, who both have 10. He’s tied for second behind Gage (with the Cardinals' DeAndre Hopkins) in third-down catches for first downs. Gage has 8.
Wentz already has 12 rushing first downs this season, including 10 in the last 2 games. Just two quarterbacks in the league have more rushing first downs than Wentz: the Patriots' Cam Newton (15) and the Cardinals' Kyler Murray (13). Wentz had 21 rushing first downs last season.
The Niners' George Kittle had 15 catches for 183 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles. It was just the third time in Jim Schwartz’s 52 games as the team’s defensive coordinator that the Eagles gave up 100-plus yards to opposing tight ends. The Eagles already have given up five touchdown passes to tight ends this season. That equals the most they’ve allowed in a season to tight ends under Schwartz (2017).
Eight of the Eagles' league-best 17 sacks have come in the fourth quarter or overtime.
COVID and the draft
This time of year, NFL scouts typically are living out of their suitcases, going from one college campus to another to check out draft prospects and talk to their position coaches, trainers, strength coaches, academic advisers, roommates, and anybody else who can help give them insight into the players they’re trying to evaluate.
COVID has changed all of that.
While most of the Division I schools are playing football this fall, NFL scouts have been banned from college campuses. Like the rest of us, they have to do much of their business from an office chair on Zoom.
“All of the schools have been setting up Zoom calls for NFL teams,” Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said. "On these Zoom calls you’re getting to talk to pretty much the same sources as you would if you went on a regular school visit in the fall.
"The information is a little more vanilla than what you would get if you were in Tuscaloosa, or Clemson, or Columbus, Ohio. That’s just human nature. If you’re on a Zoom call with 60 scouts, it’s different than being one-on-one in the position coach’s office with the door shut.
“The teams all will tell you that they’re a little behind from an information-gathering standpoint than they would be in a normal year. That’s going to place a little bit more emphasis on the predraft process for these teams to make up for lost time and really get to know these players.”
The Senior Bowl, the NFL scouting combine, and the pro days are a big part of the predraft process. Not just the on-field drills and the 40-yard dashes and the vertical jumps and the 20-yard shuttles but the interviews.
“That’s why I’ve been on the phone for the last couple of weeks trying to go through what our interview process is going to look like because I want to make sure these [NFL] teams feel good about what they’re getting when they leave Mobile,” said Nagy, whose All-Star Game is scheduled for Jan. 30.
“Typically, the second floor of our hotel is a free-for-all where teams can grab these players at any point and sit them down. That’s not going to be the case this year. It’s going to have to be more structured and more formal. So we’ve had to come up with a new schedule for this year.”
The numbers are even bigger at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. More than 330 players and about 600 NFL coaches, scouts, personnel executives, owners, and medical people attend the late February event.
“If teams are playing football right now, there’s got to be ways that players can be on the field in Indy doing individual drills and running 40s and jumping and doing everything they do,” Nagy said. "I can’t imagine we’re not at a place right now, barring an outbreak, where they wouldn’t be able to pull everything off.
“The hardest part is the same thing we talked about for us. How do you do the interviews? Do you use plexiglass barriers or masks? What type of testing protocol are you going to have? More people are in front of those players [at the combine] than here [at the Senior Bowl]. On medical day, they get poked and prodded by all 32 teams. They have a few different challenges than we have.”
At this point, there’s no guarantee that the Senior Bowl and/or scouting combine are even going to be held at their scheduled times. The NFL has to play the 2020 season first, and given the growing number of outbreaks around the league, that could push everything back. The league’s medical chief, Allen Sills, acknowledged Wednesday that “pausing” the season could be a possibility at some point.
There’s also been discussion about adding a couple of weeks to the end of the regular season for games that might get canceled because of outbreaks, which would mean moving back the playoffs and the Super Bowl, which would mean moving back the Senior Bowl and the combine and possibly the draft.
Nagy said he talked to Jeff Foster, the director of the scouting combine, about the possibility of moving back their events. The league’s current collective bargaining agreement allows the league to push back the spring draft to as late as June 2.
The teams' limited personal contact with players during the pandemic is going to make the evaluation process even more inexact than usual.
Evaluating the person
“Evaluating talent, the longer you do it the easier it gets,” said Nagy, who spent nearly two decades as an NFL scout before becoming the Senior Bowl chief. “The hard part is evaluating the person. And that’s where this is going to be tough this year. Teams aren’t going to have a feel for the guy like they would in a normal year.”
Nagy said most of the mistakes teams make on drafted players are when "we just didn’t get the guy right. We didn’t evaluate the person. We didn’t factor in his maturity level or his intelligence or things like that. Usually it’s more makeup-related than, the guy can’t play.
"In this year’s cycle, it’s really impacted. In a normal year, most of these scouts will be through the major programs three times, in August, September, and November. At a minimum, you might see him play in a couple of games and then you come to the All-Star Games and the combine and the pro days and the visits. Shoot, you might have as many as nine exposures to a player.
“This year, that might be cut down to two or three. That’s where it’s going to become a crapshoot, in terms of what are you getting as far as the human being more so than what kind of a player is he. That’s why we’re trying to make sure the interview process [for the Senior Bowl] is as close to normal as possible. So they can sit down face to face with these kids. Because the Zoom calls suffice for certain things. But it’s hard to get a real gut feel without spending a lot of time one-on-one with a player.”