Arizona Football

Former Arizona Wildcats standout Tafoya offers Wright insight as seventh-round pick

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Joe Tafoya, left, and Scooby Wright are two of the best in Arizona history when it comes to sacks. Now they share the same path toward an NFL career as seventh-round picks.

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Joe Tafoya, one of the most aggressive pursuing defenders Arizona has produced, had 16 sacks over a two-year stretch (1999 and 2000). The former defensive end ranks fourth in Arizona history with 24.5 career sacks.

His 18 tackles for lost yardage in 2000 — which is seventh in program history — were the most in a season for Arizona until Scooby Wright’s 29 in 2014.

These achievements and consecutive All-Pac-10 second-team honors netted Tafoya only a seventh-round draft selection (234th pick overall) in 2001 by Tampa Bay, which released him in fall camp that year after negotiating an injury settlement. Tafoya suffered a shoulder injury at Arizona, a reason given for his stock falling in the draft. He reportedly had a lower leg strain at the time of his release by Tampa Bay.

“It was really heartbreaking, because then you start thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m just not good enough to make it,’ and you start doubting yourself,” Tafoya, the last defensive end taken in 2001, told Bleacher Report in a 2012 article. “I sat there on my couch and I watched all these other guys that I was ranked higher than and they didn’t have the same statistics that I had, (but) for whatever reason, someone else saw them as a higher prospect than me.”

Tafoya was signed to Chicago’s practice squad after his release by Tampa Bay and was promoted to the Bears’ active roster that same season. He ended up playing six seasons in the NFL over a seven-year span, tallying nine starts in 76 games.

The average career span in the NFL is 3.3 years. Tafoya beat the system and lasted longer than most. He proved his value, highlighted by a Super Bowl appearance with the Seattle Seahawks following the 2005 season.

Tafoya watched Saturday as Wright — an All-American and top defensive player in the country in 2014 — dropped to the seventh round in this year’s draft, four picks removed from being an undrafted free agent. Cleveland claimed him as the 250th pick overall. He was the 12th inside linebacker taken, the 33rd linebacker overall.

Wright’s knee injury that kept him out most of last season was one factor for the slip, but Tafoya is not buying it. He knows how Wright feels.

“I was surprised he wasn’t taken earlier given the incredible college career he had,” Tafoya messaged me Sunday night. “My advice is to ignore all outside influences and focus completely on becoming the best professional football player he can become.

“The window is short! You work so hard for that one chance … and the Browns are going to give it to him. Seize the moment.”

Wright becomes the 18th Arizona player to be selected in the seventh round. The average career span in the NFL for those players is 3.8 years. New York Jets placekicker Nick Folk, who will play in his 10th season in 2016, is the most successful seventh-rounder the Wildcats have produced.

The other Arizona seventh-round picks with the most NFL experience are linebacker DaShon Polk and quarterback Fred W. Enke (each with seven years) and then Tafoya.

Tafoya, 37, is now a successful businessman in the Seattle area and leader of the Seahawks’ 12th Man, a fan organization active with its support of the NFL franchise. He has progressed to where he is today because he never doubted himself coming out of Arizona’s program. He believes Wright will do the same thing.

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NFL AVERAGE CAREER SPAN BY ROUND
Source: Pro Football Reference

1st Round – 8 years

2nd Round – 4 years

3rd Round – 3 years

4th Round – 5 years

5th Round – 4 years

6th Round – 3 years

7th Round – 3 years

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“Forget the draft, it’s over,” Tafoya messaged me about advice he would give Wright. “Time to get real serious about learning every role you will be expected to play on defense and special teams. There is little room for mental mistakes.

“Earn respect don’t expect anyone to care what you did in the past.

“Don’t be afraid to stand out. Always remember that this is a business focused on entertainment. Do what works for you.

“Find a successful veteran and quietly study their every habits; eating, exercise, stretching, film study, relationships, etc.

“Finally, save your money!!!!”

What better person for Wright to learn how to scratch and claw his way to a respectable career than Tafoya? He was one of the last cuts as a rookie by Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy after Dungy decided to instead keep unsuccessful quarterback Ryan Leaf on the 53-man squad.

Tafoya can look back with pride for how his career and life have evolved because Chicago took a chance on him after everybody else, including the team that drafted him late, gave up on him.

ARIZONA WILDCATS TAKEN IN THE SEVENTH ROUND OF THE NFL DRAFT

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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