GM Steve Keim (left) felt good about safety Tyrann Mathieu's football character, and that belief has paid off.
General Manager Steve Keim took a trip down memory lane Tuesday, speaking wistfully about one of the most notable draft picks in Cardinals' franchise history.
"Eighteen years ago today, we drafted Pat Tillman in the seventh round, and I can only hope that the players that we select next Thursday through Saturday possess the same type of passion, intangibles and love for the game," Keim said.
Tillman, who was killed in action in 2004 after leaving the NFL for the Army, epitomized the character the team looks for in a player. And now, "the head and the heart," as Keim likes to say, will be more carefully considered than ever before.
Keim and coach Bruce Arians unveiled a pair of new categories in which draft prospects were graded this year as the Cardinals compiled their big board of 120 names. It helped determine which players with alleged character issues will be options when the team is on the clock.
"It is essentially a checks and balances system, where players are graded from 'A' to F' on personal character and graded from 'A' to 'F' on football character," Keim said. "So, there may be players who have had some issues in the past. Off the field, a lot of these college kids make mistakes, and it's a great balance to understand, 'OK, he's made some mistakes, but his football character is tremendous. He's been a hard worker. He's got great intangibles. He's a great teammate.' So if we're willing to take a risk, it's going to be a risk on a guy who has great football character."
The description fits safety Tyrann Mathieu perfectly. He failed multiple drug tests and was booted from LSU before his junior season, but his love for football shined through in pre-draft interviews with the Cardinals. While the team didn't put a grade on it back then, players like Mathieu are who the Cardinals are trying to find.
"I think that was probably the only thing that got me to Arizona," Mathieu said. "Just sitting down and talking with them, obviously I told them the truth, but when it came to football, it was clear-cut I was passionate about it, I really loved it and that I would really try my best to do anything I could to stay on the football field."
Over the past few weeks, the Cardinals' draft team had lively debates on prospects as the rankings were finalized. In order to get the clearest picture, Keim said assistant coaches hit the road for more individual time with prospective draft picks than in the past.
They were looking for all the requisite physical traits, but the mental ones as well.
"There's no question that NFL playbooks can be quite tricky," Keim said. "These guys have to go through a learning process, especially with some of the spread offenses and the different ways these guys are taught to play the game. When our coaches go out and they come back and we talk to them in meetings, we want to understand how far along is this guy mentally. Is he going to be a rep guy? Is he going to take some time to grow and develop? Again, leave no stone unturned in this process."
The Cardinals are intent on correctly pegging a player's mental makeup so the player can succeed on the field and be an asset in the locker room. Past mistakes are scrutinized, but they all don't fit into the same box. While some players can be high risks, for others a misstep can be a valuable lesson.
"A lot of guys get in trouble," Mathieu said. "But once they hit a wall and realize football is a great opportunity, to do great things for their family, be a part of something bigger than me, I think that's when most guys turn the curve and kind of change."
The character grades were first discussed last offseason and then implemented this year.
"There's no doubt that the culture in your locker room is so important these days," Keim said. "I think coach (Arians) could easily speak that we have a tremendous group of guys right now that love the game. But the biggest thing is that leadership comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. Some guys are vocal guys. Some guys lead by example. It doesn't matter what type of leader you are, as long as you possess those qualities where guys look up to you, guys follow you. Those are the kind of players that we're looking for."