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J.J. Taylor, Jace Whittaker making NFL rosters a sign of hope for Arizona football

NFL: Arizona Cardinals Red & White Practice Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As of Week 1, there are nine former Arizona Wildcats on NFL teams. Be it part of the 53-man roster or on the practice squad, they are in the league and getting paid as professionals.

That total ties the program for last in the conference, with Washington State, a full three behind the next lowest, which is Arizona State.

Though Arizona is not known as or expected to be an NFL factory like Ohio State, LSU or Washington, the fact that they have been so inept at sending guys to the next level is pretty disturbing.

It’s also not surprising.

The last player Arizona had get chosen by an NFL team over the course of the three-day draft was PJ Johnson, who was taken by the Detroit Lions. The productive defensive lineman was taken in the seventh round with the 229th overall pick, and since then has had trouble sticking in the league.

The last player to don an Arizona uniform and be taken in either of the draft’s first two days, rounds 1, 2 and 3, was QB Nick Foles all the way back in 2012.

While it is possible for players picked in the later rounds, or not at all, to have successful NFL careers, the odds are stacked against them. For a program trying to rebuild itself, Kevin Sumlin and Arizona need to show that they can develop NFL-caliber players.

That’s why J.J. Taylor and Jace Whittaker, neither of whom were chosen in the 2020 NFL Draft, are vitally important.

Neither player was recruited by Sumlin, true, but each earned their opportunity by way of what they accomplished under his leadership. Neither was particularly highly-rated coming out of high school and while it would be silly to credit their development solely to the current coaching staff, no doubt it had at least some role in getting them to where they are today.

With any luck, Taylor and Whittaker will be the first of many recent Wildcats to have success at the NFL level.

The future of the program may depend on it.

It’s not breaking news that the programs with the most NFL talent are generally the most successful. Unfortunately for Arizona, the best way to attract NFL talent is to consistently send players to the league.

Arizona State, for instance, has hyped up the fact that they’ve had receivers taken in the first-round of the draft in two consecutive years (N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk). While neither has made a real impact at that level as Harry was hurt for much of his rookie season and Aiyuk is entering his, the school has absolutely hyped itself as a place where receivers go to become first-round picks.

It’s clearly working, as they’ve added two four-star receivers to their 2021 class, with them being set to join three other recruits of a similar star ranking who arrived in 2020.

Is that to say any of them will pan out? Of course not, and there are many tales of high star players who did not pan out while low-star players turned into stars.

But still, the odds of finding impact players go up when you add those who are most highly rated.

Winning is one of the easiest ways to attract players like that; proving you can develop guys and turn them into NFL players is the other.

Sumlin didn’t have much trouble with the latter option while at Texas A&M, producing 18 NFL Draft picks, seven of whom went in the first round, in six seasons.

While A&M did not win big after Sumlin’s debut season, they attracted top talent because players believed College Station would be a pit stop on the way to the NFL.

Whether highly-regarded when they arrived in college or not, though, players getting to the NFL never looks bad for a coach.

That’s why Sumlin almost needs Taylor (Patriots) or Whittaker (Cardinals) — preferably both, actually — to not only stick with their teams, but play.

To Sumlin’s credit, at least, the type of players he and his staff are recruiting look more like future pros than those that Rich Rodriguez and his staff brought in. One could argue about the talent levels they each landed, sure, but a glimpse of the sizes featured on the roster now shows size along the lines and height at positions like linebacker and receiver.

There is also the quarterback room, which is led by Grant Gunnell and Will Plummer and next year will add Clay Millen. It would not be a surprise to see at least one of those three get a shot at the NFL when their Arizona careers are done.

But that’s all down the road. Thus far Sumlin has struggled to win games at Arizona, and in turn has struggled to bring what is considered to be elite talent to Tucson.

Until the Wildcats start winning on the field, the best way to attract talent will be to prove they will be developed into NFL-caliber players while in the Old Pueblo. But until the Wildcats have NFL-caliber players, it will be difficult to start winning on the field.

It’s a vicious cycle, but one that the program can break out of if Sumlin’s players who have made it to the NFL can break out.