The Cardinals drafted safety Deone Bucannon (36) in the first round last year, and he ended up playing a lot as a nickel linebacker all season.
The Cardinals had some time to ease Deone Bucannon into their defensive gameplan when he was drafted.
The team was looking for a long-term answer at safety, but it's not like the position was barren. Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu were in place, and Tony Jefferson provided some depth. Bucannon's playing time was to be determined.
But when linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the year post-draft and the Cards had no obvious replacement for Washington in their nickel package, Bucannon was there. The Cardinals needed their first-round draft pick to play right away – a lot – after all.
"Coming in, you never know," Bucannon said. "I just wanted to come in, work, and show coaches why they should put me on the field. It's hit or miss. You never know what coaches might have in mind."
With 11 wins and a playoff appearance in 2014, the Cardinals are scheduled to pick 24th in Thursday's first round of the NFL draft. That deep
into the first round creates a wide berth of players that can be picked (Bucannon ended up a surprise at 27 last season) and usually means the team doesn't need immediate help.
But Bruce Arians – unlike predecessor Ken Whisenhunt – has not been shy of playing rookies immediately. While Whisenhunt preferred to work first-year players in slowly, Arians found his first gig as interim head coach of the Colts in 2013 dependent on rookies playing. Not only did the Colts have Andrew Luck at quarterback, the Colts had no tight ends until drafting them in the second and third rounds.
"You can't find a diamond in the rough standing on the sideline," Arians said. "You can only find him if he's out there practicing showing you what he's got. Can he learn? Can he handle the volume? And then go out and play fast."
Playing immediately depends on the scenario. If the Cardinals took a pass rusher, it'd be surprising not to see him in at least some sub-packages right away. A first-round tackle could push Bobby Massie as starter right away. A running back, regardless where taken, figures to split time with Andre Ellington.
Last season, wide receiver John Brown quickly worked his way into the mix in the offseason. Tight end Troy Niklas would have played early if not for injuries, and once Darnell Dockett got hurt, the Cardinals needed defensive lineman Ed Stinson.
It doesn't always work that way. When Kevin Minter was drafted in the second round in 2013, it was to play alongside Washington. When the Cards managed to sign veteran Karlos Dansby soon after the draft, however, Minter's year was relegated to special teams. First-round guard Jonathan Cooper would have started that year had he not gotten injured; third-round safety Tyrann Mathieu played a major role from the beginning and was soon a starter.
"You come in, being a high pick, you think you'll play, but obviously stuff changes," Minter said. "You just have to keep grinding. Most of the time, it's not the physical aspect. It's the mental part. It's hard to beat experience. Young guys have to understand that."
That's a big factor for Arians when he looks at the draft picks – both when screening prospects ahead of time, and after they arrive.
"I think you always look at football I.Q.," Arians said. "Is he a slow learner? Test scores don't have a damn thing to do with learning football. I learned that a long time ago. Don't put a lot of stock in low test scores or high test scores. One of the dumbest players I've ever had got like a 36 on (the Wonderlic) and he couldn't learn football. He might have been an engineer or some (expletive), but he couldn't learn football."
Bucannon turned out to be a godsend given Washington's suspension. The Cardinals needed their abundance of safeties, even if Bucannon wasn't exactly playing where he thought he might.
"When I was going through the draft process, I was never even thinking, 'Am I going to play, am I not going to play?' " Bucannon said. "It is always, 'I just want to get drafted.' "
Images of the players who have been drafted with the No. 24 overall pick dating back to 1980. The Cardinals have the 24th pick on Thursday.