PHILADELPHIA >> What began as a belly laugh is morphing into a savvy move by the Eagles.
The seventh-round pick the Eagles invested in rugby import Jordan Mailata could turn into one of the biggest of draft bargains since the Dallas Cowboys took the late Bob Hayes off the board in the seventh round of the 1964 draft.
Hayes was the fastest man in the world, having won the 100 meters at the Olympics before joining the Cowboys as a wide receiver. Mailata is the largest, most athletic big man on the roster of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. There’s no denying the 6-foot-8, 346-pound Australian expatriate has the size and strength to make a living in the NFL.
The last prominent lineman to start regularly in the NFL without a football background was wrestler Stephen Neal, who played guard for three Super Bowl champion teams with the New England Patriots, including the 2004 squad that went on to defeat the Birds in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Patriots signed Neal off the Eagles’ practice squad in 2001.
The Eagles won’t let that happen with Mailata.
It’s safe to say the secret is out on Mailata after the job he did in the Eagles’ preseason opener, his first football game ever. Playing left tackle, Mailata was beaten for a strip-sack on his first pass protection assignment by undrafted rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi of the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was the only sack Mailata surrendered largely because he used his strength and length to wear down the rush. There were occasions when Adeniyi just pushed away from Mailata, rather than rush. Mailata enjoyed that almost as much as drawing a false start penalty from the Steelers.
“He got that sack and I could see the look on his face, like, ‘yeahhhh!’” Mailata said. “But as the game went on I could see he was hands on hips and just blowing (air). And I was like, ‘just keep coming.’”
Mailata is the pet project of Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. The big guy wouldn’t have been drafted had Stoutland not seen enough special qualities during a private workout. The process began when Eagles assistant scouting director Brandon Brown was at Mailata’s pro day in Tampa.
“He discovered me,” Mailata said of Brown. “He liked my athleticism and he had told me about Adam Zaruba, how the Eagles had gotten another rugby player. He was like ‘we do know how to mold rugby players.’ It was kind of cool. And yeah, I was sold.”
Zaruba, the tight end out of Canada, recently was waived-injured.
There’s virtually no chance the Eagles will turn the page on Mailata, providing he continues to progress each day, each practice, each game. The coachability quotient has the Eagles excited, particularly Stoutland.
“He’s got danger written all over him,” Stoutland said. “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 could be just what the Eagles need from a big picture perspective.
The Eagles obviously have to groom a replacement for 36-year-old left tackle Jason Peters, who’s coming off ACL surgery. A low-cost option such as Mailata certainly would make it easier to sign Carson Wentz to a big contract extension down the road.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who did a solid job stepping in last year for Peters, is looking like trade capital. So is veteran center-guard Isaac Seumalo, who last season did a solid job as an extra blocker but in this training camp has had bouts of wildness with his shotgun snaps. It will be interesting to see if either, or both of those guys are dealt.
The Eagles like what they’ve seen of rookie sixth-round pick Matt Pryor, the 6-7, 332-pound guard-tackle out of TCU. Pryor has some of the strongest, heaviest hands on the team. The low-cost Chance Warmack could hang around as insurance at guard.
Mailata and Pryor give the Eagles options they only dreamed of on draft day. Particularly Mailata.
The last guy with no football background to play for the Eagles was punter Sav Rocca in 2007. The 34-year-old veteran of Australian Rules Football averaged 42.9 yards a punt in four years with the Eagles.
Basketball player Antonio Gates (San Diego Chargers), hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah (San Francisco 49ers) and basketballer Ray Seals (Steelers) all played in the NFL without football experience.
In recent years rugby’s Jarryd Hayne came close to making the 49ers as a running back while Britt Lawrence Okoye, a world class discus competitor, followed an unsuccessful tour with the 49ers with a career in the Canadian Football League.
Eagles right offensive tackle Lane Johnson is a believer. He’s seen consistent improvement in Mailata from the outset.
“He’s progressing,” Johnson said. “He’s really picking it up. I’m proud of him. It’s hard to make this jump never having played football. But he’s really doing pretty good. So, I’m glad for him. He moves well for his size. And he has 6-8, 6-9 range so he has a lot of length. Whenever he puts his hands on people, they’re usually done.”
Contact Bob Grotz at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @bobgrotz.