PHILADELPHIA — When you’re 6 feet, 8 inches tall and weigh 346 pounds, baby steps look more like giant strides.
Eagles rookie left tackle Jordan Mailata played in his first-ever football game Thursday, the team’s preseason opener against Pittsburgh, and overcame a rocky start to deliver a solid performance.
“When the coaches first yelled, ‘Mailata, you’re in,’ I thought, ‘Oh, (shoot),’” Mailata said with a laugh after Saturday’s open practice at Lincoln Financial Field. “I started doing all kind of stretches to loosen up. Then, as soon as I got out there, my whole body tightened up. But after the first few plays, I felt OK.”
One of his first plays was costly. A Steelers pass rusher blew past him on the Eagles’ first possession of the second half and strip-sacked backup quarterback Joe Callahan, a Holy Spirit High School graduate from Absecon.
But as the game progressed, Mailata’s confidence grew, and he began to demonstrate the raw talent that prompted the Eagles to draft the former rugby player from Australia in the seventh round.
“He’s got everything you’re looking for in a tackle,” Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson said. “Size, speed, athleticism. And I love his attitude. He’s always happy, always positive. I thought he made great progress the other night. I’m proud of him.”
His effort was especially impressive when you consider he had never put on a helmet until the Eagles’ May rookie camp and first strapped on a pair of shoulder pads when training camp opened July 26.
The 21-year-old previously played rugby for the South Sydney Rabbitohs of the National Rugby League until until he literally outgrew the sport about a year ago. He landed an invitation to the NFL’s International Pathway Program and the opportunity to learn the basics of the sport at IMG Academy in Florida.
He worked out for a number of scouts and coaches prior to the draft. Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was impressed enough to convince the team to take him with the 233rd overall pick.
Stoutland and the other members of the offensive line have been working with him after every practice, teaching him the skills needed to succeed at the top level of football.
“That was the first football game of his life (Thursday),” Stoutland told NBC 10 Friday. “I think he’s probably put pads on 12 times so far in his life. “But after early on, he really settled in and tried to apply the techniques we’re teaching him. I think he did a nice job with that part of it. To me, his development and his improvement each and every day is really good.
“He’s got danger written all over him. He can run fast, he’s big. There’s a lot of things he has to learn, but how many people have those things? He’s unique.”
Mailata is still very much a work in progress, but he’s been improving a such a pace that the Eagles may have to revise their plans for him this season.
Their original goal likely was to have him spend the season on their practice squad, but other teams are more apt to claim him before he can clear waivers. If they want to keep him now, they either must keep him on the active roster or place him on injured reserve with the unspecified knee injury that requires Mailata to wear a brace on his right knee.
“I don’t want to say I was satisfied with the way I played,” Mailata said. “I still have a long way to go. Football is a lot different than rugby, that’s for sure.”