The opening day of free agency was filled with thrills, spills, and everything in between. But among the big movers and shakers was a slightly surprising name to those unfamiliar with the Eagles. Backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai signed a 5-year deal worth $50M in Detroit, securing his long-term future as a starting tackle – which is ultimately something he’s earned.
Now nearly 26-years old, Vaitai has 20 NFL starts and 55 regular season appearances under his belt…as a backup. He was a relatively polarizing player in Philadelphia though, with some being much higher than others when it came to evaluating his play. But the fact remains that whenever the Eagles were in a pinch, be in a championship game, the Super Bowl, or regular season (against anyone not named Ryan Kerrigan) Vaitai’s name was called and it wasn’t often that he dropped the ball.
The Eagles have been the beneficiaries of elite offensive line play for years and with the baton now passed from a future hall of famer down to Andre Dillard, that reign looks to continue. But there’s a problem. The ultimate insurance policy is no longer around to bail them out when needed, putting a lot of pressure on the team’s only other offensive tackle.
That man is entering his third year in the NFL and his third year playing the sport of Football. That man is yet to play a regular-season snap. That man is Jordan Mailata.
Drafted with the 233rd overall selection in 2018, the former Aussie Rules footballer brought a frankly ridiculous athletic build to the table. Towering at 6’8, 346 lbs, Mailata was as raw as they come, but presented a freak of nature project for Jeff Stoutland to nurture.
His development from year-one to year-two was notable, but there were still notable holes in his game. In his rookie preseason, it was easy to be stunned by just how almost-NFL-ready he looked in such a short space of time. Year two drew a harsher attention to detail and showed a player still struggling to judge his kick-backs and gauge leverage and movement of edge-rushers. Handling inside moves was easy because the guy’s a man mountain. Anything that required lateral movement highlighted just how much he was still leaning on that raw athleticism.
At the second level, Mailata had clearly come a long way and was easily able to sustain blocks and drive traffic, but for the second year in a row, there was a concerning hurdle.
Mailata made the Eagles roster no thanks to a back injury. He was listed on the injury report every week of the season until the team eventually placed him on IR in favor of Greg Ward Jr, which is naturally a slight cause for concern after similar problems with his back in 2018.
The issue now facing the Eagles is one of confidence. Is Jordan Mailata ready to be a primary backup to both Lane Johnson and Andre Dillard? To even think this is in the realm of possibility is a remarkable testament to the coaching prowess of Jeff Stoutland, but if it isn’t, the Eagles are still going to need some extra bulk in the trenches.
It’s not merely a case of ‘being a backup’, either. Vaitai has been called into action 55 times since being drafted in 2016. That’s an average of 3.4 games per season, for those counting along at home. Even Andre Dillard, who was essentially supposed to redshirt his rookie year, played in close to 30% of offensive snaps, with 3 starts at left tackle in place of Jason Peters.
If Mailata does become the team’s lead backup, then there is a big chance that he will be playing regular-season action in some capacity next year. If not, there’s an even greater chance that the Eagles invest a mid-round pick on a developmental talent like they once did with Vaitai, or explore other avenues.
Whichever way you look at it, Mailata’s miraculous journey could still see its fairytale ending.
Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports