Eagles project nearly got cut, now he's starting at left tackle. Will he keep job when Jason Peters returns?
Jordan Mailata knew that it was possible, that his grand experiment to go from a rugby player in Australia to learning an entirely new sport at the NFL level was close to ending as recently as six weeks ago.
Mailata, who was entering his third season with the Eagles, was playing poorly, and there was a chance that he was going to get cut before the season started.
Now, the 6-8, 346-pound left tackle is a starter in place of Jason Peters, who's on injured reserve with a toe injury. Eagles coach Doug Pederson didn't rule out Mailata possibly keeping the job when Peters returns.
Pederson said there's no timetable on Peters' return, but Peters has to miss at least three games while on IR. The Eagles' game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday will be his second.
"As long as (Mailata) plays well, right now, and in the near future, it's his job," Pederson said Friday. "But at the same time, we understand that when (Peters) is healthy, that's a decision that we're going to have to make at that particular time.
"We're focused on this week in getting Jordan ready to go. He's got a handful this week with (Steelers rushers) Bud Dupree over there, and T.J. Watt. We're focused on that right now."
Who would have thought that was possible six weeks ago?
Mailata, who never played organized football before the Eagles drafted him in the seventh round in 2018, had already missed the entire 2019 season with a back injury. And this summer in training camp, he was getting beaten routinely by defensive end Josh Sweat, among others.
"Really, I just had to knock off the rust," Mailata said in his thick Australian accent. "I knew I had it in me. It was just trying to get the feel back. Obviously, having the year off, and the tempo of things was the biggest challenge that I faced in training camp, just trying to get back into the mix of things."
Yet the 23-year-old made his NFL debut in the season opener, then started in place of Peters on Sunday night.
And while Pederson said Mailata's performance "wasn't perfect," it was certainly good enough to protect quarterback Carson Wentz in the Eagles' 25-20 win over the 49ers Sunday night.
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He'll have a tougher test against the Steelers, who lead the NFL in sacks per game with five. Overall, the Steelers are second in the NFL in sacks with 15, two behind the Eagles. The Steelers have played one fewer game.
So how did Mailata turn his fortunes around in a matter of six weeks?
"Probably straight after, unfortunately, when (left tackle Andre) Dillard went down, that’s when I had to really pick up my game because I felt that they had to rely on me," Mailata said. "That’s when I started to sharpen the tools."
Even then, Mailata seemed buried on the depth chart. And had Dillard stayed healthy, it's possible that Mailata would have gotten waived. Peters was playing right guard at the time after starting at left tackle for the Eagles for the previous 11 seasons.
Once Dillard went on IR, however, the Eagles had to keep Mailata. But they didn't have to use him. After all, they also have Matt Pryor and Prince Tega Wanogho, their sixth-round draft pick, who's currently on the practice squad.
They were always intrigued by Mailata's size and athleticism.
"Big dude," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "That’s your first reaction when you see him. He’s a big dude, and you see the highlights of him playing rugby and everything. Just a big athlete.
"To see him progress and learn this game and learn the details of that specific position, and as far as he’s come in a short amount of time, I was just so proud of him to see what he did on Sunday night."
It wasn't easy.
He said Peters, who's 38 and in his 17th season, helped him tremendously. Mailata also mentioned defensive end Joe Ostman, who's on the practice squad, for keeping him sharp as well.
So it was a source of pride to Mailata when Peters approached him earlier this week after his first start.
"J.P. is a man of few words. He didn’t say much," Mailata said. "Just shook my hand and said I did a good job ... Real classy comment by J.P. there. So it was cool."
Still, there were times when Mailata wondered if he made the right decision by coming to the United States to play football.
"What part of this year?" he asked rhetorically. "What year are you talking about? Year 1? Year 2?
"I have this saying: 'Don’t dip your toe in the water. Drown in it, and learn how to swim.' I always go back to that saying, and it pulls me out of that dark place when I start asking myself, ‘Man, do I really want to play football?’
"And I’m swimming."
Eagles down 2 receivers vs. Steelers
The Eagles will once again be without veteran receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson. But it seemed like the Eagles were planning for Jeffery to play, until he suffered an illness that kept him away from the team both Thursday and Friday.
Pederson said it's not related to COVID-19. Jeffery had foot surgery last December, and has yet to make his 2020 debut.
Jackson, meanwhile, injured his hamstring on Sept. 27 against Cincinnati. He hasn't played since, although he was a limited participant in practice this week.
CB Avonte Maddox has also been ruled out with an ankle injury for the second straight game. Jalen Mills is expected to move from safety to replace him, just like he did last week.
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.