Looking younger in these 2004 pictures, Larry Fitzgerald (11), Darnell Dockett (90) and Karlos Dansby have fulfilled their promise as a draft class.
Never once did the Cardinals' draft class of 2004 come together when they first arrived in Arizona and talk about being the cornerstones of a Super Bowl team. They were never that specific.
But that didn't mean they didn't talk.
"We always had confidence in the way we played the game," said linebacker Karlos Dansby, the second-round pick that season. "We always had the swagger."
Four of the Cards' seven picks that season will not only start in Super Bowl XLIII but play crucial roles – wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the No. 1 pick, on offense,
and Dansby, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (third round) and defensive end Antonio Smith (fifth round) on defense.
The other three picks in that class all started for the Cards at one time or another: center Alex Stepanovich, center Nick Leckey and quarterback John Navarre. All three are long gone.
But the four that remain are more than enough to validate that draft weekend.
"We definitely think this is the best draft class the Arizona Cardinals have ever had," Dockett said. "We are going to stick to that. If anybody wants to prove me wrong, I'm going to sit down and have a discussion with them."
Coach Dennis Green had just arrived and the Cards, who had suffered through an awful 2003 season in coach Dave McGinnis' final year, desperately needed a talent upgrade. Fitzgerald, Dansby and Dockett were all named starters from the day they signed NFL contracts.
"I think we did need them," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was going into his second season in 2004. "We had a lot of guys that were comfortable, so you bring in new guys to push them. It's a good thing."
The Cardinals' first choice that year came with a tinge of controversy. The team needed a franchise quarterback, and the scouts liked a big, strong-armed guy coming out of Miami (Ohio) named Ben Roethlisberger. Besides, they already had a number one receiver in Boldin.
But Green deftly maneuvered around such questions. He went on record saying he thought inexperienced incumbent Josh McCown would be a good NFL starting quarterback, basically eliminating the need to spend the early pick at the position. And it cleared the way to take Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, of course, has turned into arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. McCown didn't work, but because he struggled in 2004, the Cards went out and signed Kurt Warner the following offseason.
Smith didn't make nearly the impact early on as his draftmates. Smith was on the practice squad most of his rookie season and spent more time on the practice squad in 2005. But he became the starter that season and the next when Bertrand Berry suffered season-ending injuries, and became a full-fledged starter when coach Ken Whisenhunt arrived in 2007.
That was also the time Smith started to feel – along with the other guys from 2004 – they were gelling into something special as a group.
"I knew we had some pretty good athletes," Smith said about his time as a rookie. "But I didn't know we would become the best draft class to come to Arizona."
Fitzgerald quelled any doubts about his status in his second year, when he reached the Pro Bowl. His spectacular postseason showing has garnered extra attention, but he was already one of the few Cardinals to have already developed national notice.
"I figured we had something really special," Fitzgerald said. "I felt like we were one of the key pieces of the foundation here that got us turning around and I'm just happy to be a part of that and I'm just happy those guys are still here."
Safety Adrian Wilson said it took some time for the '04 class of defenders to develop. Dockett turned in a Pro Bowl season in 2007; Dansby had to get past some questions about his practice habits and health, which seemed to turn when Whisenhunt arrived.
The four help comprise part of the core that has gotten the Cards to Tampa. That's all you can ask from a draft.
"They're playmakers," Berry said. "That was an unbelievable class for us."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 1/24/09.
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