How the Eagles hope to turn rugby player Jordan Mailata into an offensive tackle

Australian rugby player Jordan Mailata greeting fans after being drafted by the Eagles in the seventh round.

If you’re going to get creative, if you’re going to throw caution to the wind, the seventh round of the NFL draft is the place to do it.

Judging football flesh is an imperfect science and by the time you get down to the seventh round, it’s pretty much a crapshoot. Teams are looking for just one or two redeeming qualities in a guy that will provide them with a modicum of hope that he might be, could be, more than just another training-camp body.

Since the draft was reduced to seven rounds in 1994, the Eagles have found a few serviceable players at the bottom of the draft barrel, but not many. For every Jalen Mills and Beau Allen and Kurt Coleman they have uncovered, there have been 10 Nate Ilaoas and Joey Mickeys and David Bergerons.

Which brings us to their latest seventh-round selection, Jordan Mailata.

Camera icon Doug Benc / AP
Jordan Mailata, right, getting interviewed onstage after being drafted by the Eagles.

The Eagles had only five picks in this year’s draft, the second-fewest in the league and their fewest since 1989, when they had just four in a 12-round draft.

That was the memorable draft in which Buddy Ryan traded away nine picks, including a first-rounder (and their 1990 fourth-rounder) for steroidal guard Ron Solt, a fourth-rounder for tackle Ron Heller, and seven for a third-round pick they used on linebacker Britt Hager. Hager ended up starting a grand total of 13 games in six years for the Eagles.

But I digress.

The Eagles traded up 17 spots in the final round to take Mailata. He is an impressive physical specimen. His measurables are off the charts. He’s 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds with very little body fat, 35½-inch arms and 10½-inch hands. He ran a 5.12-second 40-yard dash, which is pretty darn impressive for a guy his size.

The only thing is, well, he has never played football. Not a single down.

Too big for rugby?

Mailata, who is just 20, is an Australian rugby player. He said he was “OK’’ at the sport. Though, if you check out his highlight clip on YouTube, he looks like a man playing against children.

“I wasn’t playing top-tier football [rugby],’’ he said. “I was right under top tier. I was told I was too big to play rugby. They wanted me to lose another 30 or 40 pounds, which was unrealistic because I’ve only got about 10 percent body fat.’’

Last August, after his rugby season ended, officials from the agency that represents Mailata put together a highlight video to send to other rugby clubs in Australia. It also e-mailed it to someone in the NFL who is involved with the league’s two-year-old International Player Pathway program, which creates potential opportunities for a select group of foreign-born developmental players.

Each team in the NFC South last year was allotted one extra practice-squad spot for an international player. There will be a limited number of practice-squad allotments again this year for foreign players. But because Mailata was drafted, the Eagles won’t get an extra practice-squad spot for him.

Mailata flew to Los Angeles in November to work out for scouts and eventually was one of six foreign-born players selected by the league to train at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. In February, Mailata found that he was draft-eligible and decided to explore that option.

He first got on the Eagles’ radar in late March when their pro scouting director, Dwayne Joseph, saw him at the NFL’s regional combine invitational in Tampa.

“We did a ton of work from there on Jordan,’’ Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said.

Jeff Stoutland, the Eagles’ offensive-line coach, went to Florida and worked out Mailata. The Eagles also brought him to Philadelphia before the draft as one of their 30 allotted pre-draft visits.

Seven other teams — the Redskins, Steelers, Browns, Chargers, Falcons, Colts and Jets – also brought him in for a visit.

X’s and woes

Mailata said he knew “as little as peanuts’’ about football before this whole conversion process started.

“I’ll be honest,’’ he said. “I didn’t know much [about the game]. But I have to be thankful for the program that I’m in, because the last three, four months have not been easy. Mentally challenging as well as physically.

“Trying to understand the basics and fundamentals of football has been a great task. I can happily say now that I can understand concepts and am beginning to [take] a step in the right direction.’’

Regardless of his physical skills, Mailata still has a very long way to go. Expect him to spend at least one year, and maybe even two, on the practice squad before he’s ready to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster.

“They’ve got a great piece of clay to work with,’’ said Brian Baldinger, an analyst for NFL Network who spent 11 years in the league as an offensive lineman. “But they’re looking at every bit of a two-year training period with him.’’

Camera icon Doug Benc/AP
Australian rugby player Jordan Mailata says “trying to understand the basics and fundamentals of football has been a great task.”

Asked over the weekend whether the Eagles are considering Mailata only as an offensive lineman, Douglas said, “Right now, he’s going to be in Stout’s [offensive-line] room. We’re excited about the size and athleticism. I mean, those measurables are pretty rare. Just to see the excitement that not only Stout, but Eugene [Chung, the assistant offensive-line and run-game coach] had about Jordan, it was palpable.’’

On-field learning

Mailata needs to be on the field playing – and learning – the game as much as possible. Unfortunately, the practice restrictions the league agreed to in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement hurt someone such as him.

“He needs to be in pads every day and playing the game,’’ Baldinger said. “And you can’t do that in the NFL anymore.

“NFL Europe would have been the perfect spot for him if it was still around. I imagine they’ll have extra sessions after practice with him, and Stout and Chung will spend a lot of time with him working on the basic fundamentals of the game.’’

One option for Mailata could be the spring league that is supposed to start next February, the Alliance of American Football, which is being overseen by former NFL general manager Bill Polian. Spending a spring actually playing in games and blocking people certainly would help speed his development.

Asked how invested he is in trying to make it in the NFL, Mailata said, “One-hundred percent, man.”

“I had to weigh the pros and cons before I made the decision to come. I knew that if I made the decision, it has to be all-in. And that’s what I have been giving it,” he said.

“The last three, four months have not been a walk in the park. Walking away from something I knew quite well to go after something that was foreign was a big risk to take. Working out those pros and cons was crucial to making that first step. So I’m definitely all-in.’’

For now, so are the Eagles.