At the very beginning, when the Eagles traded in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft and selected Australian rugby star Jordan Mailata with the 233rd overall pick, it was an interesting story. Then Mailata became a curiosity. And then, honestly, a bit of a phenomenon as people watched his incredible athleticism blend with his raw understanding of the game of American football.
Mailata is an Eagle, and with that – after a year of his learning in practice and developing the basics and gaining some instincts – there are expectations. But what exactly do the Eagles think they will get from Mailata in 2019 after his redshirt rookie season?
"When you're looking at an offensive lineman, I have a list of critical factors, and I'm looking for that guy," offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said of Mailata during the 2018 season. "He's unusual. I like unusual. And I think those are your best players if you look across the board over the years, those end up becoming your best players."
The Eagles knew what they were getting into when they drafted Mailata, a beast of a man at 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds. A native of Sydney, Australia, Mailata transitioned from being a front rower for the National Rugby League's South Sydney Rabbitohs to pursuing a dream to play football in this country when he entered the NFL's International Pathway Program and later trained at IMG Academy in Florida. Stoutland was among those in attendance watching Mailata in the pre-draft process and, well, you know the story.
Nearly a full 12 months later, Mailata is in a different place. He's acclimated to living in Philadelphia. His outsized personality makes him one of the team's most popular players and Mailata showed the coaching staff that he was serious about being a great football player. A back injury landed Mailata on Injured Reserve in mid-December, but the Eagles don't seem concerned about any long-lasting effects on that front.
The important issue is what kind of gigantic leap can Mailata make in Year 2 of his NFL career and how does he fit into the plans for 2019? Is Mailata going to challenge for playing time? Is he headed for another developmental season? For a team with some sticky questions to answer related to the 2019 salary cap and the offensive line, Mailata suddenly is a key figure. The novelty of the biggest of the big men is gone. This is all about Mailata and his skill set and how it translates into helping the Eagles win games.
"For such a young player who had never played the game before he came here, he's made a lot of progress," right tackle Lane Johnson said during the 2018 season. "When he gets it all together and understands how the game is played, he has a chance to be special."
That's what everyone has said about Mailata, who improved steadily and, at times, spectacularly, when he played in the 2018 preseason. He didn't play in the regular season, but Mailata worked hard on the side during and after practice. He will enter the team's spring Offseason Conditioning Program and then the on-field work worlds advanced from where he was 12 months prior when he hardly knew how to button a chinstrap.
Is that enough to advance Mailata into the equation along the offensive line in 2019? A team that values excellence up front, the Eagles have some delicate questions that need definitive answers as they rebuild around quarterback Carson Wentz. Is Jason Peters, at age 37 and with a hefty contract, coming back for another year as a starter at left tackle? Where does Halapoulivaati Vaitai fit into the projections? What is a realistic timetable for Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks as he recovers from an Achilles tendon injury suffered in January?
Those are just a few of the questions. The Eagles want to be great, not just very good, up front. They want to be deep and strong and athletic and powerful and build chemistry and continuity as they get Wentz back into his flow. Mailata is part of the plan, no doubt about it. It's just that we don't know the timeline of that plan. It's hard to imagine that Mailata would go from a no-game-action rookie season to a starter protecting the franchise quarterback's blind side in one year, but who knows? The Eagles understand that they are dealing with an athletic freak here.
"He come a long way and he knows he's got a lot more to learn," Peters said of Mailata during the season. "He does things you don't see many guys do."
The offseason plans speed up in the days ahead. Mailata is going to be part of the conversation, as he's been all along. The truth is that the Eagles don't even know for sure what kind of progress he's going to show because they haven't dealt with this kind of project before. When the Eagles traded for Peters – a tight end in college who transitioned to left tackle and future Hall of Famer in the NFL with Buffalo – in 2009, he was already an established star.
Mailata is a 346-pound piece of ultra-talented clay. Does he vault into the gameday plan in Year 2? That's part of the puzzle the Eagles are putting together, an exciting piece who someday has a chance to pay big, big dividends.