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A Premium On The Pick

Posted Apr 23, 2013

Some positions are more important than others to nab at draft time

The Cardinals spent the No. 5 overall pick in 2007 on Levi Brown, a left tackle -- and one of the premium positions in the NFL right now.

To many who spend their Spring days leafing through draft guides, pouring over their team’s roster and dissecting the value of every player to put on a college football uniform last year, it’s difficult to tell them that a team’s certain needs don’t just grow on trees.

But there’s no other way to put it: certain needs, and the positions that fill them, just don’t grow on trees.

As every summer bows out to fall, scouts began scouring college campuses for the next great first-round pick. Every team has different needs, but the search, which culminates every spring with the NFL Draft, when scouts come home either empty handed or with their pockets overflowing, tends to focus on four positions.

With the 2013 draft a couple days away, top-rated left tackles, quarterbacks, cornerbacks and pass rushers have reached mythical status in war rooms. Those positions are reliable cornerstones to build a franchise with postseason aspirations. They defy the trends du jour. In order to win, a team needs a good left tackle, quarterback, cornerback and pass rusher. They’ve all been put on the same pedestal from which Commissioner Roger Goodell announces the first round.

Rightfully so.

Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said last week they’re the hardest positions to find in the draft. Yet, at the same time, they’re also the hardest to restock during free agency. Once teams find a high-quality left tackle, quarterback, cornerback or pass rusher, they tend not to let them go. And if they do, those players don’t usually wait in free agency for more than a few hours.

“I think there are always positions you’d like to get,” Keim said. “You obviously put a premium on those type of players but at the same time, I don’t think you ever want to get into a situation where you’re forcing a pick.”

Keim and first-year Head Coach Bruce Arians share a draft philosophy: Draft the best players available. But Arians was clear, he’ll lean toward a “need position” before drafting the best player available if they’re just going to add bulk to an already strong position.

But what positions do the Cardinals need to fill? That depends on who you ask.

According to some draft pundits, the Cardinals will eye a tackle at their seventh pick. Others say a pass rusher. But what happens if the best tackles or the highest-rated pass rusher is off the board by then?

“If your board is set properly, you normally have a decision to make between three to five guys that are going to be all clumped together at that spot,” Arians said. “I think they’ve done a great job of setting the board. But if all the offensive linemen go flying off the board like all the prognosticators say, you still don’t (say), ‘Hey, we’re going to get a tackle.’ He might be a third-round grade, you need a tackle, that’s when you start having a big problem.”

The Cardinals enter the draft with a past first-round pick at three of the four positions Keim labeled as premium. They chose tackle Levi Brown fifth in 2005, cornerback Patrick Peterson fifth in 2011 and traded last month for quarterback Carson Palmer, who was the first pick overall in 2003. Only missing is a pass rusher. The Cardinals have to go back to 1996, when they drafted defensive end Simeon Rice third overall, to find the last top-level pass rusher in their draft history.

Keim and Arians said they were impressed with the depth at lineman, safety and cornerback in this year’s crop of prospects. After grading the top linemen available, Keim hinted that close to 10 of them were of first-round quality.

During free agency the Cardinals focused on addressing immediate needs, which included the premium positions Keim mentioned. They signed a quarterback, two cornerbacks and a pass rusher. Keim calls free agency “shopping for your groceries,” but with the haul the Cardinals landed, they were shopping at Whole Foods. Despite plugging important holes with free agents, Arians and Keim still understand the draft is where they can find a cornerstone at one of those premium spots and start building for the future.

“There has been a big sway in value in the last eight years,” Arians said. “You never saw offensive linemen go in the top six picks. It was running backs, receivers, glory players, quarterbacks. Now, there is such a value on both sides of the ball that in the last few years you’re seeing a ton of offensive linemen and defensive linemen drafted in the first round, where people are having success in low rounds getting good backs and finding good receivers.

“So there has been a nice change in philosophies over the last few years and you’ve got to stay up with that kind of thing, too.”


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