It would’ve been inaccurate to have called Jordan Mailata a project 3 ½ months ago when the Eagles selected him in the seventh round of the April draft.
Project was several rungs up the developmental ladder from where Mailata was at the time. The 6-foot-8, 345-pound Australian rugby player was more like a lump of clay that offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was tasked with trying to mold into an offensive tackle.
Progress has been slow but steady. Thursday night, Mailata made his NFL debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing the entire second half of the Eagles’ 31-14 preseason loss at left tackle.
He had an early case of what he described as “jelly legs’’ and gave up a sack and forced fumble to Steelers rookie linebacker Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on his third play from scrimmage.
But after that, he settled down and turned in a surprisingly good performance, especially when you consider that, nine months ago, you could’ve fit everything the guy knew about the game of football on a Post-it note.
“Having one of your first plays be a sack, that’s a massive learning curve,’’ Mailata said after the game. “But after I gave that sack up, I had that next-play mentality. I just focused on the next play.
“The vets said, ‘You’re going to make mistakes. When you make them, just focus on the next play and we’ll fix it up the next day.’ That’s what I did. I learned from that and tried to play on and put up some good minutes.’’
Mailata received a lot of support from Stoutland and his teammates, particularly fellow tackles Jason Peters and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
“Everyone was helping me out after I effed that first one up,’’ the rookie said. “Excuse my language. I learned from my mistake.’’
Indeed he did, keeping Adeniyi and the other Steelers defenders he faced away from quarterback Joe Callahan the rest of the second half. Mailata also had some effective run-blocks, including a nice second-level block on linebacker L.J. Fort that helped spring running back Josh Adams for a 15-yard gain.
“Stout has trained me well and taught me a lot of stuff,’’ Mailata said. “I was comfortable and able to think clearly most of the time, and able to see when they were going to run a stunt or drop somebody out [of the rush].’’
He also drew two penalties on the Steelers, for offsides and a neutral-zone infraction, when he alertly came out of his stance after Adeniyi and defensive end Greg Gilmore jumped into the neutral zone before the snap.
“Coach Stout, at training, says if a guy jumps, you [come up and] go, ‘Ooga booga booga,’ ’’ Mailata said. “That’s what he calls it. Ooga booga booga. So, as soon as I saw him jump, I went, ‘Ooga booga booga.’ In Stout we trust.’’
Mailata mimicked the same exaggerated kick-out move with his left leg against the Steelers that both Vaitai and All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson use.
“I learned it from those guys,’’ he said. “Obviously, Stout is big on being in the snap count and beating the D-end to a spot. So that was a big emphasis before the break [between OTAs and training camp] and after. To get that bunny hop in and try to imitate what Lane and Big V do. I think it’s safe to say it works.’’
Mailata played 30 snaps Thursday. They were the first “live’’ snaps he’s taken in a football game. Think about that.
“I knew I was going to play a half,’’ he said. “I tried to prepare mentally for that. I wrapped my head around the first snap. Then the jelly legs came in. But I learned from that. Now, the only place I can go is up. I tried to finish strong and thought I did reasonably well in the last quarter.’’
Mailata’s linemates were very impressed with his play against the Steelers, and with the overall progress he’s made since joining the team in the spring.
“I was anxious to see how he was going to respond after he gave up that sack,’’ Johnson said. “He nailed it down.
“Jordan’s got everything you want in a tackle. All he needs is reps. He can be as good as he wants to be. He’s so big, so strong. He’s got a lot of ability. I was impressed.’’
Said center Jason Kelce: “He’s improving every day. The improvement he’s made since he’s gotten here has been pretty impressive. He just needs to keep going. He had the sack-fumble early on, but outside of that, it looked like he did a pretty decent job. He had a few MAs [missed assignments], which we’ll clean up.’’
Even if Mailata continues to improve, his chances of earning a spot on the Eagles’ season-opening 53-man roster appear remote. A more likely scenario has him spending 2018 on the team’s practice squad or on injured reserve.
Mailata has a Grade 2 tear of the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He said he suffered the injury last year while playing rugby in Australia. It doesn’t seem to be hampering him, but certainly would qualify him for an eventual spot on IR. Heck, they stashed fourth-round running back Donnel Pumphrey on IR last summer with a nearly healed hamstring strain.
“It’s not bad enough to operate on,’’ Mailata said. “It’s good. I’ve been wearing the brace just in case.’’
Thursday’s performance should give him a confidence boost going forward.
“I think going into next week’s game against the Patriots, I’ll feel a little bit more comfortable,’’ Mailata said.
“I obviously had some jelly legs my first couple of snaps out there. But now that I’ve got the first game out of the way, the only place I can go is up.’’