Coach Bruce Arians (left) sits next to (l to r) scouts Malik Boyd, Mike Boni and John Mancini during a recent meeting in the draft room.
For 362 days a year, Cardinals scouts work in the shadows.
Some of it can be fun, like watching Ohio State-Michigan at a sold-out Horseshoe in Columbus. Most of it is grueling, like visiting a college campus all day, driving a rental car four hours to a hotel, and then filling out evaluations through the night.
It's a nomadic existence, especially during college football season, when they make practice stops every day of the week and watch games on Saturdays.
"You wake up some mornings and you literally don't know where you are," said Dru Grigson, the Cardinals' Director of
College Scouting. "I'm not kidding. I've woken before, sat up in bed and said, 'I'm in …? I'm in … ?' And then you realize, I'm in South Carolina today. I'm at Clemson. Literally, you don't know."
Of Mike Boni's eight years working as a scout, nearly half have been spent on the road.
"I looked the other day and my Marriott total stays is over 1,300," Boni said. "That's like three-and-a-half years of my life in a hotel already."
Oh, but how those other three days speak to them. The NFL draft will have its first round on Thursday, its second and third rounds Friday and the final four on Saturday. For scouts, it's their time to make an indelible mark on the franchise.
The Cardinals enter this year with six selections, and the buttons they push can either greatly help or hinder the franchise's progression.
Last year was the first with General Manager Steve Keim at the helm. Every year, the personnel department puts together a list of 120 players it wants to draft, in order from highest to lowest priority. By that time, the scouts had watched a player's tape, seen them live, interviewed the player, talked to the coach and examined the production -- done everything to feel prepared for each selection.
There is always the human element, though. Last year, in the fifth round, the Cardinals chose Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor. Forty-seven picks later, they were on the clock again, and another running back sat atop their board.
With five minutes before their pick expired, Keim and the group had a decision to make: Choose Andre Ellington, or take the next-best player at another position?
"You start to look up and he's still on your 120 list, and like Steve said, he was sticking out like a sore thumb," Grigson said. "You start going: 'What's going on? Why is he there?' Then you start questioning yourself. But like Steve and I talked about, you trust your evaluation. We had just taken (Taylor), but we're like: 'That's the best player.' People across the league say they're going with the best available player. That's the best way to prove it."
Ellington led the NFL in yards-per-carry as a rookie in 2013, and while a selection like that is the ultimate feather in a scout's cap, hitting on a depth guy can be just as satisfying. Grigson remembers being bullish on linebacker Reggie Walker in 2009, a player the Cardinals signed as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas State. The Texans were the only other team to show interest in Walker, yet he made the team and has carved out a five-year NFL career.
Last April, Boni was diligent in getting Tony Jefferson into Cardinals camp after the former Oklahoma star surprisingly went undrafted. Jefferson earned a spot on the active roster and then, due to injuries, started at free safety and registered three tackles in the memorable road upset of the Seahawks on Dec. 22.
"I'm not the only one in our organization who liked him coming out, but he was someone who had (119) tackles (his final year of college)," Boni said. "He didn't run fast at the Combine and he didn't run at his Pro Day, but he was fast enough on tape. Some guys don't run the 40 fast, but he was instinctive, a good tackler, good in coverage. He's one of those guys where it's like, why did he not get drafted? He just didn't run fast."
While players like Ellington and safety Tyrann Mathieu are off to promising starts, a team's draft sometimes can't be accurately gauged for years. Sure, pundits will race to slap 'A' through 'F' grades on every selection, but it takes time for the white noise to clear. Even after one full season, four of the Cardinals' top five picks from 2013 – offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, linebacker Kevin Minter, linebacker Alex Okafor and offensive guard Earl Watford – are unknown commodities, and that lack of clairvoyance can be an odd feeling for scouts after the selections are made.
"That's the surreal part," said Keim, who began his career as a regional scout. "After every draft, because you have put in 12 months and so many miles driven and airline miles, after you have six or seven or eight picks, it's a surreal feeling because you are like, man, I just worked for a year busting my tail for that? But at the end of the day, those guys are rewarded when we have success as a team and when the players they contributed to (scouting) have had individual success."
It might seem like this is the most frenetic time for scouts, as they work in concert with Keim and Vice President of Player Personnel Terry McDonough to build the draft board and mock out scenarios. In actuality, it's mostly quiet. The college prospects finished their seasons long ago and wrapped up their individual workouts by March.
"To be honest with you, this is the easy part," Grigson said. "We know everything. All the hay is in the barn and we're ready to make decisions."
In some organizations, the area scouts are used strictly for information gathering. They find the best players and relay that up the chain of command, but don't have a voice in the evaluation process. Keim, who made his way up the ladder through scouting, makes sure to consider everyone's opinion.
"I just know I started at the bottom," Keim said. "I have an appreciation for scouting because I truly believe it is the lifeblood of your organization."
The gesture is not lost on guys like Boni. Before May ends, he will already begin parsing through the draft-eligible players for 2015. In a few months, the college football season will be here, which will put him back on the road.
This is the payoff, and it feels good to be heard.
"Here, we can get guys pushed up or down, just based on our opinion," Boni said. "Just knowing that you had a voice and you're a piece of the puzzle in the whole thing is pretty interesting."