When the Eagles selected 6-foot-8, 346-pound Australian rugby player Jordan Mailata in the seventh round of the draft four months ago, everyone, including the Eagles' personnel people, figured he probably would spend his rookie season on the team's practice squad learning the fundamentals of playing offensive tackle.
But Mailata's surprisingly rapid development is forcing the Eagles to rethink that plan. His impressive play in the preseason, including the second half of Thursday's game against the Cleveland Browns, has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the NFL.
If the Eagles waive him later this week, which they would have to do before they could sign him to their practice squad, there's a pretty good chance he would get picked up by another team that sees the same potential that the Eagles do.
So, expect the 21-year-old Mailata, who never played a down of football before this month, to wind up on the Eagles' season-opening, 53-man roster when they face the Atlanta Falcons at the Linc on Sept. 6.
NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, an offensive lineman for 11 years in the league, has been amazed at how far Mailata has come in such a short time.
"It's remarkable,'' he said. "It's one thing to go out there and do individual drills well. But when a guy with his limited experience can go into a game and get off on the snap count and use his hands and know when a guy is running a stunt and all that kind of stuff, it's like he's got football DNA in him.
"I'm not suggesting he's better than [Eagles backup tackle Halapoulivaati] Vaitai right now. But he has a real possibility next year of being able to line up and play for them, because the fundamentals are there," Baldinger said. "His body is coordinated. Watching him play, you would never know that he's 21 years old and from Australia and had never played football.''
In the Eagles' first preseason game, against the Steelers, Mailata gave up a sack on his third snap, then turned in a solid effort the rest of the way.
In the Browns game, he held his own against fifth-year defensive end Chris Smith and fourth-year defensive end Nate Orchard.
"This guy's coming on,'' Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said recently. "We just have to keep pushing him, keep teaching him. He has a lot of unique qualities.''
Baldinger compared Mailata's impressive kickstep to that of retired Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas, a six-time all-pro.
"His first step is unbelievable,'' Baldinger said of Mailata. "He gets incredible depth. I haven't seen anybody get depth like that since Joe Thomas. His footwork is amazing. He has the ability, when a guy goes inside on him, to flatten him inside. And he stays on his feet around the outside. He looks like a natural left tackle.''
Eagles scouts first saw Mailata at a regional combine in Tampa about a month before the draft. Stoutland flew to Florida shortly after that and worked him out personally. He urged the team to draft or sign Mailata and give Stoutland an opportunity to work with him.
Mailata is a fast learner who has benefitted not only from Stoutland's expert teaching but from Eagles all-pro offensive tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson.
"There's a lot to learn, but having coach Stout as my coach and having the peers that I have, especially the vets – Lane and JP [Peters] and even Big V – they've all been massive helps,'' Mailata said. "They tell me what to emphasize and what to focus on. I'm happy with the progress I'm making, but I still have a long way to go.''
Stoutland has handled the mature-beyond-his-years Mailata well. He's been tough on him in practice but takes a kinder, gentler approach with the Aussie on game day.
"I'm a lot different on game day than I am during practice sessions,'' Stoutland said. "Before the Pittsburgh game, I sat and talked with him and said, 'Look, you gotta have fun with this. This is where you enjoy what you do. This is why we grind.' ''
Mailata said: "It's like reverse psychology. In training, he gets up everybody's ass. No tomorrow. Then come game day, he's like a totally different person. And I love that, because we still listen to him when he's getting up our ass. But then when he fine-tunes it down and he speaks calmly to you, it's so clear, everything he's saying.''
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Last season, the Eagles carried eight offensive linemen on their 53-man roster for every game, including the playoffs. If they keep Mailata, they might go with nine. Vaitai, who has struggled in the preseason, and Isaac Seumalo are expected to be the top backups at tackle and guard. That leaves guard Chance Warmack and rookie sixth-round pick Matt Pryor, a guard-tackle swingman.
Bottom-of-the-roster players generally need to contribute on special teams. Mailata has been used very little on special teams, mainly because the Eagles have wanted him to focus on playing left tackle. He has played just five special-teams snaps in the first three games.
Baldinger said the next big step for Mailata is to learn to use his hands.
"He's strong. You can see it when he pushes people," Baldinger said. "But he's not a real puncher yet, like where he can really shoot his hands like a real punch and really stab at people. He's still not really good at that. But the feet are the most important thing. Then, he'll start coordinating some of the other stuff.''
"He really has no limits,'' fellow tackle Johnson said. "Once he gets it all figured out, it's going to be scary.''