Cardinals linebacker Tristan Okpalaugo works during OTAs.
Back in 2008, the Cardinals – in the middle of making their run to the Super Bowl – brought in a pass rusher from the Canadian Football League for a tryout. Cameron Wake ended up signing elsewhere, becoming a dominant sack man for the Miami Dolphins.
Tristan Okpalaugo also has crossed paths with Wake, when Okpalaugo was an undrafted rookie with the Dolphins in 2013.
Okpalaugo didn't talk CFL with Wake, another one-time undrafted NFL rookie. But Okpalaugo, like Wake, eventually found his way to Canada to post impressive sack numbers. Like Wake, he tried out for the Cardinals. But in this case, he did sign in Arizona, a one-year deal in which he – like Wake – will try and use his CFL experience as a stepping stone to an NFL career.
"I know I rush different than Cam Wake, but it's a cool comparison," said Okpalaugo, who is transitioning to linebacker from defensive end. "I hope I can get to the level he is at."
Okpalaugo's path has been rough just to get to this point. The Dolphins, Vikings and Cowboys all let him go. Still, "after my rookie year, I wouldn't have said I was going to go to Canada," he said. "I thought I was good enough."
He realized he wasn't. He was told he needed to develop – a tight end in high school and a walk-on at Fresno State, he moved to defensive end in college and didn't play a lot – and Canada made sense. One of his former college coaches working in the CFL called to ask if he wanted to spend a couple of seasons up north working on his game, and Okpalaugo did just that.
Okpalaugo had 23 sacks in 31 CFL games before coming back to try the NFL once again. He also had tryouts with the Jets and Seahawks before signing with the Cardinals.
"When he came and worked out, I loved how quick his feet were," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. "Now, when (outside linebackers) are in individual (drills), I had kind of called him out one day saying, 'Man, I loved that he had DB feet when he worked out.' Now they call him 'DB feet' because they notice it. He gets a little harassment from those guys. But he's really smooth, a really good athlete, and he's learning. He works his tail off.
"I have big expectations for him. I'm excited for training camp, for him to have pads on, get one-on-ones and really get to see
him rush the passer."
When Okpalaugo signed, the Cardinals were still desperate for a pass rusher. A few weeks later they traded for linebacker Chandler Jones, and suddenly, the desperation was gone. The Cardinals don't need Okpalaugo to pan out as much as they did when he arrived, but he certainly could help a unit that General Manager Steve Keim has tried to significantly upgrade.
Okpalaugo said he was comfortable not only with the opportunity in Arizona but the good things said about the organization from players like former Cardinals cornerback A.J. Jefferson – also a Fresno State product – and safety Matt Ware, with whom Okpalaugo played with in Toronto.
Jones' arrival changes needs, though. Veterans Alex Okafor and Kareem Martin are fighting for roster spots too, along with Shaq Riddick and Zack Wagenmann. Okpalaugo is trying to learn a new position, dropping into coverage for the first time and focusing on stopping the run after seeing little of it in the CFL.
Meanwhile, knowing Wake had a 14-sack season in 2010, 15 sacks in 2012 and 11½ in 2014 (he had seven in a 2015 season shortened with an Achilles injury), Okpalaugo at least has goals to seek as the latest CFL refugee.
"I'm learning every day," he said.
All eight one-hour episodes of "All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals" will be available to all Amazon customers – for free -- from July 1 through August 31 via the Amazon Video app for TVs, connected devices including Fire TV, mobile devices and online at Amazon.com/allornothing. After August 31, you must be an Amazon Prime member to stream the show. For a list of all Amazon Video compatible devices, visit Amazon.com/howtostream.