CFL import Okpalaugo confident his game will translate to NFL

May 24, 2016, 7:05 PM | Updated: May 25, 2016, 3:13 pm
Cardinals linebacker Tristan Okpalaugo works during the team's rookie mini-camp. (Photo by Adam Gre...
Cardinals linebacker Tristan Okpalaugo works during the team's rookie mini-camp. (Photo by Adam Green/Arizona Sports)
(Photo by Adam Green/Arizona Sports)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Over the offseason, the Arizona Cardinals acquired a 26-year-old linebacker who posted a double-digit sack season last year.

Actually, they added two such players, and while Chandler Jones has understandably received the bulk of the attention, Tristan Okpalaugo is another intriguing addition to a defense that was starved for pass rushers.

Brought over from the Canadian Football League, where he starred for the Toronto Argonauts, Okpalaugo — who notched 23 sacks in two CFL seasons — gives the Cardinals another option in an area where it never hurts to have them.

But of course, the game Okpalaugo left is a bit different than the one he is playing today, which means he has to make some adjustments.

“It’s been a little different because I’m playing a new position out here,” he said following the team’s OTA practice Tuesday. “But it’s still football; I’m still rushing the passer. I’m dropping a lot more than I did in Canada, but it’s still football.”

Okpalaugo played along the defensive line in Toronto, though in college at Fresno State he saw action both there and at outside linebacker, which is where the Cardinals have him slotted.

Undrafted out of college after collecting just eight sacks in three seasons, Okpalaugo signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2013 but did not make the 53-man roster, and later in the year landed on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad. He was released, though, and from there he went north.

Two years later he is back in the NFL, playing under a one-year contract signed in February. No role is guaranteed for a player who was also being pursued by the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets, but so far, so good.

“He’s another guy that’s in a big-time battle at that position group,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “There’s about three or four guys fighting for a couple spots, and that is another one that, come training camp when we can go play and there can be some physicality in the game and you can see some one-on-ones in pass rush, that is where I anticipate him to show himself from what he did in the CFL as a pass rusher, and that’s what we saw on tape.

“I think he’s grown, I think he’s picked it up really well and I think when we get to training camp I’ll know a lot more about him.”

At 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds Okpalaugo certainly looks the part of a pass rusher, but it remains to be seen if his effectiveness will translate to the NFL. He would not be the first player to successfully make the move, with the Miami Dolphins’ Cameron Wake being the most notable, but at the same time, it is not a particularly common occurrence.

One thing he believes will help is a rule difference between the CFL and NFL, wherein now he does not have to begin his rush a yard away from the line of scrimmage.

“That was a big thing that I feel like my get-off’s a little bit better,” he said. “And then the move comes sooner than in the CFL so I’m excited about it.”

But ultimately, Okpalaugo is confident football is football wherever it is being played, and if he can rush the passer in the CFL he will be able to do it in the NFL.

His first chance to really show his stuff will be, as Bettcher said, in training camp, when the pads are on and players are allowed to make football-level contact.

“I can’t wait to get the pads on because right now it’s a quick move and then stop because you’re not trying to get hurt out there,” he said. “I feel like putting the pads will be great.”

In the meantime, now offers him time to continue to re-learn the NFL game. While he said dropping back into coverage is something he has to get the hang of, he noted that the field he is working on these days is smaller than the one he played on in Canada.

An NFL field is 100 yards long and 160 feet wide, whereas the CFL playing surface is 110 yards long and 195 feet across.

“I feel like I can be one of those guys that plays sideline to sideline, so yeah, I’m excited about that,” he said. “So yeah, I’m excited about that. But pass rushing is still pass rushing.”

That’s the idea, anyway, and while the odds may seem against him, it’s entirely possible the Cardinals may have found, if not a star, a solid contributor in the linebacker. While technically not a rookie, Okpalaugo arguably has as much growth to do as the team’s first-year players, with there understandably being plenty he has to learn.

Such as, what life is like as an NFL player.

“I actually thought it would be a little bit easier,” he admitted, with a smile. “But in the NFL, it’s not. Everybody is playing at a high level. You’ve got the best athletes in the world playing on the same team.”

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