Tackle L.J. Shelton was the latest first-round pick by the Cardinals since the franchise moved to Arizona. Shelton was the 21st pick of the 1999 draft.
INDIANAPOLIS – Eventually, once a team sorts through its draft prospects and picks apart all the potential rookies, the organization compiles a mock first round – just to have an idea of what players might be available with the team's initial selection.
Picking in the top 10, the Cardinals would always have a good idea what was coming. Even choosing 16th, as they did last year, the same semi-confidence applied. But after making it to the Super Bowl – and moving from the 21st pick in the first round to 31, all that has changed.
"That's the worst thing, trying to do a mock draft," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "There are so many variables. You always have an idea (most
years) even though there are surprises, but, man, when you are picking at 31?"
With the scouting combine underway and the honing process for April's draft in motion, the Cards find themselves in new territory. Since moving to Arizona, the Cardinals have never drafted later than 21st, and that year – the 1999 draft, following the 1998 playoff year – the Cards also made the eighth overall pick thanks to a trade the previous draft.
Except in seasons where the Cards traded away their first-round pick or lost it after making a pick in the supplemental draft, the latest the Cards have ever selected was 22nd, when defensive tackle Mike Dawson was the choice in 1976.
"We are going to line them up the best we can, follow the same procedures we normally do and try to improve the team," general manager Rod Graves said. "We'll take the same approach and draft accordingly. It makes a big difference to be in the position we are in, but I'd rather see us be where we are now than in the top 10."
This early in the draft process it is impossible to know what direction the Cardinals will want to go in late April. Free agency must first play out, and Graves acknowledged he'd be "less than honest" if specific positions didn't play a factor in who the Cards select.
The Cardinals will likely look for a running back in the draft, a pass rusher, a cornerback, a tight end and help on the offensive line. But that means little until they get to 31.
"The best way to prepare for the draft is by what we have done, not by position but where they fit with the other guys who can be drafted," Whisenhunt said.
The team that knocked off the Cardinals in the Super Bowl has more experience with a later draft position. But Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said teams begin to prepare well before they know their draft spot.
"We will make some adjustments knowing we have the 32nd pick," Colbert said. "Having said that, I am confident there are definitely 32 guys that can help us. I am sure there are 64 and there are 96 that can help us in some form or fashion."
There are other reasons preparation work can't deviate. Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim said even choosing later, there is always a chance a trade might happen or a player could slide – things that happen every season. Besides, "you just have to cover all your bases," Keim said.
For example, the Cardinals figure quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Matt Stafford will be taken long before they pick, and the Cards aren't in the market for a first-round QB anyway. But the Cards keep a file on all the available players for future reference, in case they become free agents as pros.
There is a side economic benefit from picking later. The contract money at the end of the first round is significantly lower than at the beginning, taking away some of the pressure in the choice itself and the cost of keeping the player long-term – since his first contract will be lower to begin with.
"I've compared it a little bit to playing blackjack," said new Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whose team is in the opposite position drafting No. 1 overall. "You can go play blackjack in Vegas and play the five-dollar table and play for a couple of hours and make a lot of bad decisions and lose $100 and have some fun.
"If you go play at the $5,000 or $10,000 table, if you make bad decisions, you're walking home, you're not flying home."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 2/19/09.