After a win, Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams (35), a 1991 third-round pick, and wide receiver Frank Sanders (81), a 1995 second-round pick, are all smiles on the Sun Devil Stadium turf.
The draft, now a month away for the Cardinals, is the time when the team looks for the foundation pieces of the future. With a salary cap, it's impossible to have sustained success without draftees who can come in and contribute – at varying levels – for relatively cheap prices over a few years. And when they finish out a contract, it's easy to identify the guys around whom you want to build. They get the contract extensions and become the most recognizable faces of the franchise.
Not every draft comes out the way it is expected. Certainly, not every player becomes someone you want to keep. Or even play. But the best picks are memorable.
With that in mind, I went back through the franchise's drafts since moving to Arizona in 1988 for a top 10 list of the Cardinals' best draft picks over that time. Obviously, this is a subjective list. It also is weighted for where the player was taken. As good as Larry Fitzgerald has been, for instance, he was a No. 1 draft pick and the third pick overall – he was supposed to be a good choice.
With that in mind, here is my top 10, in reverse order:
10: PATRICK PETERSON, CB, First round, 2011
Peterson has made three Pro Bowls in three seasons and might be on his way to becoming one of the best players in franchise history. He was an excellent pick in a draft loaded with them, especially at the top. But again, like Fitzgerald, Peterson was the fifth pick overall and falls into the no-brainer category. That doesn't make him any less of a good draft pick. It does make it tougher to be higher on this list.
9: CALAIS CAMPBELL, DE, Second round, 2008
When Campbell was drafted, it was as the replacement-in-waiting for soon-to-be free agent Antonio Smith, who left after the 2008 season. It took a little while for Campbell to get going, but he has flourished in a 3-4 alignment and shown why the Cards wanted him. Better yet, he is a great representative for the team off the field, which only adds to this best-pick momentum.
8: LARRY FITZGERALD, WR, First round, 2004
OK, so Fitz was drafted high. Robert Gallery was the pick before him, and I'm pretty sure Gallery isn't making it into the Raiders' top 10 best picks lists, so it was no guarantee. But if you take out the pick status and simply factor in production on the field and perception/recognition off the field that Fitzgerald has provided – and if you chose to have different criteria than me – there is easily a case to be made that Fitz has been the team's best draft pick in Arizona.
7: KARLOS DANSBY, LB Second round, 2004
Dansby was practically a first-round pick – he was the first selection of the second round – but is part of easily the best draft class the Cards have had in Arizona and arguably in franchise history. Dansby still hasn't made a Pro Bowl (and he's now left the franchise for a second time) but he did contribute his finest season last year in his return trip to Arizona and he was a major reason the team made it to the Super Bowl once upon a time.
6: DARYL WASHINGTON, LB, Second round, 2010
Here's why I like Washington a notch ahead of Dansby – because he was a guy the Cards were hoping to get in the second round but they made the trade to move up and get him. They believed he could be a difference-maker and he has proved to be that. Washington, assuming he will be able to put these off-field issues behind him, has a chance to make a lasting impact for this team. His presence is the reason the Cards were prepared to let Dansby go this offseason.
5: DARNELL DOCKETT, DT, Third round, 2004
That 2004 class was something. Dockett lasting until the third round that year – which had more to do with concerns about his personality/behavior more than his football talent – turned out to be a gift to the Cards. Dockett has butted up against controversy a few times in his decade in the desert, but he's never been in trouble and has provided some Pro Bowl-worthy play most of his career. He's been a cornerstone of the defense since he showed up.
4: ANQUAN BOLDIN, WR, Second round, 2003
Q was magic from his first game as a Card, grabbing 10 receptions for 217 yards and soaring from there. He set NFL records as a rookie, he became the leader in the locker room, and he merged his game with Fitzgerald's once Fitz showed up. His production allowed the first-round moves for the Cards – eschewing Terrell Suggs at No. 6 in a trade-down that netted Calvin Pace and Bryant Johnson – to be absorbed a little more. It's too bad Boldin's tenure in Arizona came to a rocky end, with contract anger and a trade. But it was seven impressive seasons for Q while he was here.
3: LARRY CENTERS, FB, Fifth round, 1990
For a while there, Centers was the center of the Cardinals' offense, a fullback who caught the ball a lot – 101 receptions in 1995 for his career-high – and he made three Pro Bowls, two while with the Cards. The jack of all trades became the heart and soul of the team, once providing his own slogan: "Larry runs, Larry catches, Larry blocks, Larry Centers." It didn't go over well with fans when Centers was released for salary cap reasons after the 1998 playoff season, but that end didn't diminish how Centers had become one of the most valuable draft choices the team had made.
2: ADRIAN WILSON, S, Third round, 2001
Wilson was raw when he came out of North Carolina State and had battled injuries, but the Cards took a flier on him and he emerged as one of the players upon which the franchise's turn to respectability was built. He made multiple Pro Bowls. He gained attention with some massive hits over the years. He became a star who probably never got the full attention he deserved because he played at the same time as Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, but he never wanted to leave Arizona to chase fame. He wanted to be a lifetime Card, a plan short-circuited by the realities of the NFL and age. But in a draft class that turned out pretty good (Leonard Davis, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Renaldo Hill and of course, Bill Gramatica) Wilson has been one of the best selections the Cards have made.
1: AENEAS WILLIAMS, CB, Third round, 1991
Of course, it seems impossible not to put the lone Hall of Famer the Cardinals have picked since moving to Arizona at the top. Then-General Manager Larry Wilson talked about Williams being a 10-year starter the day the Cards drafted him, but no one would've guessed then that would have also meant an eventual Hall of Fame berth. Hall of Fame Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin still says no one was tougher on him than Williams, who played at a high level despite years of losses. Williams still relishes the 1998 playoff ride and the way the fans responded to it, and it was only fitting Williams got a chance at one playoff berth with the Cards. He basically forced his trade to the Rams in 2000, ready to move on to a winning situation, but he remains a Cardinal in most eyes and is still the best pick the organization has made since 1988.
There are others who were considered. One year does not a career make, but 2013 picks running back Andre Ellington (sixth round) and safety Tyrann Mathieu (third round) figure to eventually earn their way somewhere on here. Justin Bethel, picked in the sixth round in 2012, could get in there too. Number one selections defensive tackle Eric Swann (1991), linebacker Eric Hill (1989) and defensive end Simeon Rice (1996) produced, but as No. 1 choices, their evidence had to be overwhelming. Quarterback Jake Plummer (second round, 1997) did pilot the team to the playoffs, using at times wide receiver Frank Sanders (second round, 1995).
There are other late round gems too, like guard Reggie Wells (sixth round, 2003), wide receiver Steve Breaston (fifth round, 2007) and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (seventh round, 2009). The ultimate desire is for every pick in a class to at least have a chance to be one of those guys.
It's why everyone pays such close attention every year when the new class is chosen.