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DT Jay Tufele leads Bengals Supplemental Draft In Passion Play

Jay Tufele in last Sunday's pregame warmups.
Jay Tufele in last Sunday's pregame warmups.

When the Bengals made three waiver claims at the cut-down date two months ago for the final rosters, they were calling it the 2022 supplemental draft. 

Guard Max Scharping (2019, second round), tight end Devin Asiasi (third round, 2020) and defensive tackle Jay Tufele (fourth round, 2021) all had been taken in the first 106 picks of their drafts and still on their rookie contracts. 

A month into the season they were all active on game day and none more active than Tufele. In the last two weeks, in the vacuum left by injured nose tackles D.J. Reader and Josh Tupou, he's racked up 12 tackles, two of them for losses, in his first two games and 44 snaps for the Bengals. 

Waivers can be almost magical fresh starts for teams as well as players. 

"He's a positive guy trying to do the right thing," says defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. "He's active. Just trying to fit in." 

The quiet, passionate Tufele, a native Samoan who has also been known to "scream his spirit," in a traditional chant, had been well known to the Bengals when he came out of USC just last season as the top pick in the fourth round to Jacksonville. It will be recalled that's the Bengals BMG Draft, even though it will forever be known as the Ja'Marr Chase Draft. 

But for Bengals scouts like director of pro scouting Steven Radicevic, linemen on both sides of the ball were needed as much as another playmaker for Joe Burrow. Football, they said in the months leading up to the draft, is a Big Man's Game. Hence "BMG," and seven of the 10 picks in 2021 devoted to offensive and defensive linemen.    

Radicevic, the former UCLA defensive tackle, liked Tufele's motor coming out and he was being discussed with that 11th pick in the fourth, five picks after the Jags took Tufele. But they had also been eyeing the intensity of Tulane edge Cam Sample and had no problem taking him in a round they later took defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin, Chase's LSU teammate.

So when Tufele surfaced on the waiver wire at the end of this training camp after injuries had limited him to 54 rookie snaps, the fresh scouting reports came in handy.

"He didn't play his last year (at USC) because of COVID," recalls Bengals defensive line coach Marion Hobby. "He's got a motor. He's got a motor in practice and in games and it's running."

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor had seen this play out the year before when they claimed linebacker Joe Bachie from the Eagles after giving him good marks leading up to the 2020 draft.

When Taylor got together with director of player personnel Duke Tobin and his scouts the night of the final cuts a few months back to hash over the waiver wire, it could have been April and another encampment in the draft war room.

"They're just so well researched on the types of players they want coming out of college," Taylor says. "A lot of it stems back to that: Just making sure that even if we don't get them in the draft, there's still so many guys that come back to us … Guys that we really liked. I remember talking about them, but we just didn't get them. Now they're back to us. Duke does a really good job of having conviction with the guys he likes and having conviction to get them back."

Waivers can also be fresh starts players as well as teams.

That's what one of Tufele's older sisters back in Salt Lake City, Noreen (he calls her "Nini,'), tried to tell him after the Jags cut him.

"Change can be good," says Noreen, who works with autistic children in the family's hometown. "I told him that it hadn't worked out the way he wanted with the Jaguars, 'but this can be the team for you.'"

It has been a tough two years for the family. Noreen's near death experience with COVID in 2020 is the reason he opted out of his senior year in Los Angeles. And, at the end of last season they suddenly lost their father, Line (pronounced Li-nay) to a brief illness that left Jay without his No. 1 fan.

"I think about him on game day. I think about him every day," Jay Tufele says. "He was my No. 1 fan since I was a kid. He loved watching me live the dream. Every day I try to honor my dad."

Noreen remembers when the family moved from American Samoa to Salt Lake around 2000. She was about five and Jay was nearing two. They remember their father going to work every day in the warehouse.

"A hard hat," Jay Tufele says. "He taught me hard work."

"I can see how he takes after my dad, being the oldest boy," Noreen says. "He's quiet, but he's a man of his words. He sets a good example for his little brothers."

Noreen remembers when Jay flew in from Jacksonville when their dad took the turn for the worse. She thought Line was hanging on to say good-bye to him. After they hung out all day, Line passed early the next morning. Before Jay left, he told him in Samoan to live with his heart.

"You can see that when he plays," Noreen says. "He plays with his heart."

Before he went out to help hold the Falcons' feared running game to 2.7 per shot, he did what he does every Sunday. He called his mother before she and the family went to church and they said a prayer together.

"We had a really good scheme leading up to the game. We had the mentality of going in and stopping the run," Jay says. "It felt good to be out there with my brothers. My big thing is I don't want to let anybody down."

Waivers can be magical fresh starts for everybody. On Sunday, the Bengals ended up with Sample, Tufele and Shelvin all on the field. Tufele took 21 snaps, Sample 19 and Shelvin 15.

At some point, Reader and Tupou are going to be back. But Tufele is taking advantage of his shot by leading with his heart.

"For whatever reason," Taylor says, "Jacksonville moves on. New staff, they move on. So now it's an opportunity for us to go get a guy that we really liked."