No longer just 'the rugby guy,' Jordan Mailata might even be a top 3 Aussie athlete

ByLaurie Horesh ESPN logo
Friday, September 9, 2022

The days of Jordan Mailata 'the rugby guy' are no longer.

But does he now contend for a different title: Australia's best athlete?

At 25 years old, the Philadelphia Eaglesleft tackle has a rapidly improving skill set at a position of premium value in the NFL. He boasts a contract that, even at $16 million per year, is still under market price, and has long since outgrown the novelty with which he entered the league in 2018.

The smiling offensive lineman from Sydney's western suburbs says he didn't intend to distance himself from his sporting past, but the change in conversation reflects the work and rapid progress he's made over just four years in the sport.

"This is something that I've wanted since I started to pick up the game," he told ESPN this week. "I wasn't trying to get rid of the 'oh the rugby player can play.' I just wanted to be seen as the football player, as a left tackle."

His stature has long been the headline at home and the United States, checking in at 6-foot-8 (or 203cm) and 346 pounds (or 157kg). But his standing in the NFL has grown far beyond than that, as Mailata is considered a valuable talent among all 32 rosters.

But how do we measure his emergence as one of the game's premier blindside tackles against some of Australia's other dominant stars of today, the likes of pound-for-pound UFC king Alexander Volkanovski, last year's breakout NBA rookie Josh Giddey, Chelsea and Matildas goal machine Samantha Kerr and Olympic pool stars Ariarne Titmus and Emma McKeon?

Compared to his peers across the NFL, Mailata's level of production and potential are the envy of most teams. For football analysts, his tape shows uncanny fluidity and redirection skills in pass protection for a man of his size, and cratering power and aggression as a run-blocker.

The numbers only back up these takeaways, ranking fourth overall amongst tackles in ESPN's Run Block Win Rate metric in 2021 and receiving an 87.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus on the season. From a team perspective, Football Outsiders ranked the Eagles offensive line in the top 10 in all runs behind Mailata's side of the line.

When asked about these rankings and the reputation of the Philadelphia front, Mailata dismisses the outside hype and opts for focused discipline instead.

"We don't listen to whatever praise or negative comments are out there," he said. "Every week is a new week ... be present, and be where your feet are at."

Those feet help provide rare speed and agility for his size, matched by open-field coordination borne out of playing a flowing two-way sport for the first two decades of his life. Mailata routinely demonstrates movement skills well outside the "phone booth" spacing many offensive linemen operate in, and on the occasions he's had to display it, his tackling skills and closing ability haven't waned in his time away from rugby league.

Moving from physicality to mentality, the strides the former South Sydney junior has made in the playbook and on-field reads can't be understated.

From running back to safety, the demands of complex NFL schematics are often a major hurdle for any position player breaking into the league level. But within those position groups, the offensive line room is often regarded amongst the smartest on an NFL roster, due to their need to play as reactive athletes, identifying the finest details of defensive linemen before the snap and the ability to strategically counter multiple moves or exchanges during the play.

The fact that Mailata, who hadn't worn a helmet before late 2017, has so swiftly improved the diagnostic side of the sport only affirms his standing in Australia's current sporting pantheon. Asked how he tackles the challenge of NFL schemes, he offers his oft-repeated phrase: "The quote is, 'Don't dip your toe in the water. Drown in it and learn how to swim,' and I truly believe in that."

While rugby may be fading from common use in the same sentence as Jordan Mailata's name, what has replaced it is upside. The improvement the Eagles franchise tackle can still make in technical refinement and vision suggest there is still several tiers of growth for his game to reach.

"I've always got room to improve. My game can grow ten times every year. My knowledge of the game, identifying coverages and seeing the blitz, getting into the mindset of a quarterback.

"Technique-wise there's so much I can still learn. There's some plays where I'm looking at myself real blunt and I'm like, 'that was a pretty crap rep, how can I get better?'

"I'm always learning from my mistakes, always trying to adapt my game... always have a growth mindset."

Consider his former mentor, longtime Eagles All Pro left tackle Jason Peters, who Mailata describes as "my Mr. Miyagi" from their years together. A tight end coming out of college, Peters is coming off a productive season as a rare bright spot on the 2021 Chicago Bears offensive line and signed a new deal with the Dallas Cowboys this week, at age 40.

It's well within reality that with a healthy run, the Australian has 10 years of high-end NFL production ahead of him, particularly if he ages "like a fine wine," as he described his teacher-turned-division rival Peters.

From a level of competition standpoint, the NFL is one of a kind, almost entirely drawing from a pool of America's male population of over 160 million. While it is not considered a global game in comparison to basketball and other sports, it showcases a super-concentrated athletic pipeline housed within world sport's most dominant sporting nation.

Numerous stars from around the world have tried the conversion, and to date Jordan Mailata stands out as the most successful since Christian Okoye and is a poster boy for the NFL's International Player Pathway Program.

Entering just his third year as an NFL starter, he doesn't boast the silverware or accolades of McKeon, Titmus, or Kerr. Despite an explosive start to his career, when weighing up all factors, Mailata can't yet lay claim to the mantle of the nation's top athlete, particularly over a dominant UFC featherweight champion in Volkanovski.

But his rapid rise in a new, highly competitive and technically sophisticated sport begs the question: if he's not Australia's best athlete yet, have we ever seen one like him?

Related Video