The well-deserved night of celebration has passed. That “surreal” feeling has been shaken off. The dream is now a reality, and it’s time for former Utah football co-captain Filipo Mokofisi to get down to work.
Shortly after the NFL Draft concluded on Saturday, Mokofisi agreed to a free-agent deal with the Green Bay Packers. Thursday morning, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive lineman set out for Wisconsin to have his physical before spending the following two days in the team’s rookie orientation and minicamp.
Mokofisi, a Salt Lake City resident and former Woods Cross High School standout, and several of his former Utah teammates will begin chasing NFL careers this weekend as undrafted free agents or minicamp invitees hoping to show enough potential to garner a highly coveted roster spot on an NFL team.
“You work hard to get to this point, but now you’ve got to work twice as hard to even make a spot on the team to make your money,” Mokofisi said. “Now, I’ve got to push forward and put it into another gear and work even harder to see if I can make the team.”
Mokofisi, a three-year starter who played both tackle and end, started 35 of the 48 games he played and earned a pair of honorable mention All-Pac-12 selections including this past season. Since season’s end, he has trained in Herriman with former Ute Ron Tongaonevai at Laionebuilt Fitness. He and Ute offensive lineman Salesi “Leka” Uhatafe, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons, trained there together.
Mokofisi went into the draft knowing at best he’d be a late-round selection and more likely an undrafted free agent. He’d interacted with NFL teams at the Utes’ pro day, and he’d worked out for several teams. The Saturday before draft week, he and several classmates — including sixth-round draft pick Kylie Fitts — worked out for the Indianapolis Colts on campus in Salt Lake City.
There were four or five teams Mokofisi felt good about as potential landing spots including the New York Giants, Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts, but there are no guarantees once the draft starts and plans change. He admitted being surprised when Green Bay came calling because he hadn’t heard from the Packers directly before the draft.
“I just thought if you get your name called, you get your name called,” Mokofisi said. “That’s always a dream for everybody, every football player, that’s your dream to get called. I think everybody wants to, but when reality hits and your name isn’t called you’ve got to go where it best fits you.”
Mokofisi’s agent, Deryk Gilmore, said there were as many as six teams that expressed interest right after the draft. According to Mokofisi, Green Bay offered the most, the depth on the defensive line wasn’t overwhelmingly daunting, and he received a phone call from the Packers’ position coach, who assured him the competition for a roster spot would be pretty wide-open.
Five of a reported 15 rookie free agents who attended last May’s rookie minicamp and orientation with Green Bay remain on the current roster.
While it seems like an uphill battle on paper for players who weren’t drafted with each team bringing in a bevy of draft picks, eight Utes signed undrafted free-agent deals last year and five of them finished the season with NFL teams either on the active roster or on the practice squad.
After signing with Green Bay, Mokofisi had a phone conversation with former Utes defensive lineman Jason Fanaika. Fanaika, who played defensive end for the Utes (2014-15), went undrafted and signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016. He spent time with the 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins during his rookie season. He also had a short stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.
“He told [me] all about it,” Mokofisi said. “It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is, but he said you’ve just got to go in and work. You’ve got to grind, and that’s what we’re good at at Utah, working and grinding. So I’m going to just do the same thing that I’ve always done.”
First-year Arizona State coach Herm Edwards served as coach of the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs after an 11-year playing career that started as an undrafted free agent. He never forgot his own path when he was running pro teams.
“I just think that I have a soft spot for free agents,” Edwards said. “There’s guys in the draft that I knew they we were not going to draft, but I wanted to sign them as a free agent because I felt like they could make our football team. When I was in New York as well as in Kansas City as the head coach, a bunch of those free agents actually made our team.
“Sometimes height, weight, speed, or there is something that you look at or the guy got hurt or something puts him in the category of being a free agent, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play football. I think where you go has a lot to do with it.”