My thoughts on all 32 NFL franchises ahead of the chaotic 2021 off-season conclude today with thoughts on the eight teams from NFC south and west divisions.
If Jordan Mailata never played American football again, he still would be regarded as a success.
The story of an ex-rugby league junior who had never even played a game of gridiron holding his own in the NFL is certainly inspiring, but throughout the year the 23-year-old, six foot eight, 157 kilogram offensive lineman is showing that he has the potential to be a high-quality NFL-calibre player.
What is remarkable about Mailata’s journey is that he might not have even been on a team this year.
He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the seventh (and final) round of the 2018 NFL draft. His selection was seen by many as an experiment; could the Eagles take this behemoth former rugby league player and turn him into an NFL player?
Philadelphia saw Mailata as someone they could turn into an offensive lineman. For the uninitiated, an offensive lineman is tasked with protecting the quarterback from getting hit and also blocking defenders so that a ball runner can move upfield. It is considered one of the more difficult positions to play because it requires a mixture of knowledge, technique and physicality.
Mailata showed promise in both the preseason of 2018 and 2019, but due to back injuries and lack of experience, he had never played in an actual NFL game.
By the time 2020 came around, there were questions being asked about whether or not the Eagles should persist with Mailata. During training camp, Mailata struggled, and didn’t seem to be progressing quickly enough according to some analysts.
Before the Eagles had a chance to consider if they were going to persist with the Australian as a long-term project, the offensive line got hit by injury, with starting left tackle Andre Dillard and right guard Bradon Brooks both going down with season-ending injuries.
With no preseason and a limited amount of practice heading into the season, the Eagles kept Mailata on the team as a backup.
He played briefly in Philly’s Week 1 game against Washington, making a cameo off the bench filling in for right tackle Jack Driscol.
But it was in Week 4 that Mailata got his chance to start an NFL game, being called up against the San Francisco 49ers. There wasn’t much expectation for Jordan, as he was already joining a broken down O-line. To the surprise of many, he held his own and the Eagles came out with their first win of the season.
From then on it’s been a roller coaster. He has had his ups, most notably dominating opponents with his sheer size and strength. He has also had his downs – mental errors where he has missed a blocking assignment or technical errors where a defender has exposed his inexperience.
It also must be noted that protecting an almost self-destructive quarterback in Carson Wentz will make any O-line player look like they’re struggling, even when they’re not. It’s no surprise that when the Eagles changed their quarterback to Jalen Hurts, Mailata played his best games.
In the Week 15 game against Arizona, Jordan was one of the most dominant players on the field, constantly shoving defenders to the ground and making a key block to set up Qeuz Watkins for a touchdown.
Despite the fact Philly have fallen out of playoff contention due to injury, poor coaching and the inability to execute when it matters, Mailata has remained one of the club’s bright spots. His form has been so good that former lineman and NFL analyst Brian Baldinger has said he should be the Eagles’ long-term starting left tackle, even when players like former first-round pick, Andre Dillard, return from injury.
It’s no fluke though that Mailata is in this position. His scarily rapid improvement throughout the season is a testament to his work ethic and determination to shrug off the label of a league player trying to play football.
Jordan Mailata wants to be known as an NFL player – and this year he has well and truly achieved that. But why isn’t his success making waves in Australia?
Well, O-line play isn’t the highlight reel stuff. The minutiae of line play in the NFL is hard to grasp. It can often look like giant men slamming into each other repeatedly. While a good block can set up a lane for running back to score a touchdown, or provide enough time for a QB to throw a dazzling pass, a ten-second highlight clip isn’t going to focus on a guy like Mailata.
For that reason, Jarryd Hayne, who has played far less NFL snaps than Mailata, is still regarded by the Australian public as the quintessential “Aussie NFL player”, despite never fully grasping the game.
But it’s Mailata, not Hayne, who is providing a blueprint for young Australians wanting to make it in the NFL. He went over as a 19-year-old and put in the time and effort to turn into an NFL player rather than trying to make a mid-career transition – which is infinitely more difficult.
There were many moments when Jordan could have given up and came back to try his hand at an NRL career, but he didn’t. He persisted, and it’s for that reason Jordan Mailata has quietly produced one of the best Australian sports stories of 2020.