Cardinals coach Bruce Arians (left) and GM Steve Keim discussed the draft at a press conference last week.
Each day over the past few weeks, the Cardinals' personnel department met in the draft room for a series of deep, and sometimes heated, conversations.
Eventually a big board of 120 prospects was created, and General Manager Steve Keim will head into the start of the NFL draft on Thursday with a well thought-out plan. There is one caveat, though: the Cardinals' success last year leaves them far down among teams choosing in the first round, making contingencies a must.
"When you're picking so late, it's so hard to forecast what happens the 28 picks prior," Keim said. "The thing I will tell you is that we will be prepared. Coach (Bruce Arians) and I have talked through scenarios of trading up, trading back, drawing a line in the sand of here's an area where after this player we'd be willing to go back and roll the dice to acquire more picks."
As Arians and Keim head into their fourth year together, the team is in good shape. Most of the key cogs from last year's 13-win squad return, and additions like outside linebacker Chandler Jones, guard Evan Mathis and safety Tyvon Branch have strengthened the nucleus.
It gives the Cardinals options throughout the draft. Cornerback and center stand out as areas of greatest need, but if a potential star at, say, linebacker or defensive tackle pops up, there's little doubt the Cardinals would consider him at No. 29.
Last year was a prime example, when the team eschewed more immediate help to select tackle D.J. Humphries in the first round and kept him on the bench all year.
"Take the talented player," Arians said. "You'll miss on the needs. The needs will get you broke and fired."
While the Cardinals pledge to be flexible with their six scheduled picks from Thursday through Saturday, some positions make more sense than others. Alabama center Ryan Kelly has been commonly linked to the Cardinals in mock drafts, and he could be in consideration if still on the board in the first round. If not, the team could always look to fill the spot later on, and get creative while doing so.
"Most All-Pro centers were (college) guards," Arians said. "I think back to Jeff Hartings, Tim Grunhard, they were all guards converted to center, so when you say a college center, there might be three college centers, but there are 15 potential centers."
Cornerback is a need because Jerraud Powers, last year's starter opposite Patrick Peterson, is currently a free agent. Peterson has a big contract and safety Tyrann Mathieu could follow, which is why finding a cheap rookie contributor in the secondary would be welcome.
The best value in the draft might be at defensive line, a place Keim sees more depth than in years past. Potential quarterbacks of the future will be considered. There is also the crucial decision that must be made on players who are athletically impressive but drop due to character concerns.
If the front office doesn't feel confident in a player at No. 29 (the Cardinals technically have the 30th pick of the first round, but choose a slot higher because the Patriots forfeited their choice as part of the "Deflategate" punishment), trading down is an option. The Cardinals dealt their second-round pick in the Jones trade last month and they could get one back by moving out of the first round. Keim has shown his willingness to trade down in the past, dealing the No. 20 pick in 2014 for No. 27 and No. 91 – picks that became safety Deone Bucannon and wide receiver John Brown.
Myriad scenarios will run through Keim's head as the draft unfolds, but there's one thought that will stick out each time the team is on the clock.
"If the guy is an impact player, I don't care what position he plays," Keim said. "To me, you take him and you don't look back. Because of the amount of misses in the first, second, third round, and the risk involved with every player – I don't care if it's character, ability, whatever it is – if you feel strongly that this player can do it then take him."
Images of the players who have been drafted at No. 29 overall dating back to 1980