Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu was the first of several fabulous third-round picks by Bruce Arians and Steve Keim.
Bruce Arians knows all about being overlooked.
The Cardinals coach served as an NFL assistant for two decades before finally getting his chance to lead a team at the age of 60. He has since thrived, and maybe that's why Arians feels a kindred connection to the underdogs in the NFL draft.
Every team in the league would love to have a bevy of first-round picks, but that's not reality, and the key to franchise stability is hitting on later choices.
For the Cardinals, their sweet spot has been the third round. The players there have perceived flaws, but the type of talent to be difference-makers.
The Cardinals took a chance on the off-field concerns of safety Tyrann Mathieu in 2013, and it worked out fabulously. They gobbled up little-known small-school wideout John Brown in 2014, and he immediately made an impact. They found one of the most talented running backs in the NFL in 2015, as David Johnson went from the pride of Northern Iowa to national stardom.
While there will be misfires – linebacker Kareem Martin is a backup and the jury is still out on cornerback Brandon Williams – finding impact pieces at that point is invaluable.
"That's my round," said Arians, who also helped find Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and T.Y. Hilton in the third round with other teams. "I love that round. Usually, for whatever reason, really good players that didn't fit somebody's eye fall right there. And if you love them, go get them. I think that's a round where you don't have to worry about reaching. Just take the guy you love."
It's easy to poke holes when evaluating third-round prospects, and the key is deciphering the legitimate red flags and what can be overcome. Arians and General Manager Steve Keim have thus far done a masterful job at cutting through the noise.
"I think the one thing that I've thought about over time, sometimes when you look at second-round picks, third-round picks, maybe the bells and whistles aren't there," Keim said. "When I say that – they didn't play at Ohio State and they didn't jump 42 inches, but they're good football players, and they have the passion and the necessary skills."
As Keim has gained experience as a general manager, he has put more emphasis on the makeup of a prospect.
Johnson had one of the finest individual seasons in the NFL a season ago, yet he continues to push himself in the weight room during the offseason. Mathieu is a former All-Pro who earned a lucrative second contract, and while he's had no off-field slip-ups in the NFL, he is now intent on proving he won't be injury-plagued throughout his career.
Despite their success, there is still that insatiable hunger to prove the doubters wrong.
"A lot of times these first-round picks almost come through the door and feel like they should be given something," Keim said. "Sometimes these third-rounders have to fight for it, and have fought for it their whole lives. I think there's something to be said for that, to have that natural chip that continues to sit on your shoulder."
Keim likes the third round because that's when team evaluations of prospects begin to diverge. The Cardinals have a board of 120 of their favorite prospects, and the differing opinions give them a better chance at securing desired prospects.
"We feel like in every round we can get a guy with some value," Keim said.
The third round is an important one because the available players still have enough athleticism to become stars. Later-round picks can certainly become contributors, but the ability to find game-changers becomes more limited when the deficiencies grow.
Next week, there will be a lot of focus centered on what the Cardinals do at No. 13 overall. Arians will be just as intrigued with his pick at No. 77.
"You pick a guy that you like," Arians said. "This guy is going to make our team. You don't have to have all that (expletive) that is going around like, 'He is not the first round guy.' This is a guy that we really like, he is going to make our team and normally you'll have really good third round pick every year."
Images of the 16 games set for the 2017 regular season