The 5: Arizona Cardinals’ best draft steals
TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals GM Steve Keim and his scouting staff have developed a reputation for finding quality players in the later rounds of the NFL Draft, particularly the third round. It’s a necessity when building a successful franchise, and NFL history is littered with guys who made their bosses look like geniuses.
Hall of Famer Deacon Jones was a 14th-round pick. Quarterback Roger Staubach went in the 10th-round. New England QB Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. QB Joe Montana went in the third round. Cardinals Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson went in the seventh round, while tight end Jackie Smith, another Hall of Famer, was a 10th-round pick.
Here, in our opinion, are the five best draft-day steals (no particular order) in Arizona/Phoenix Cardinals history (Chicago and St. Louis years excluded). For this list, we have eliminated first and second-round picks because teams typically expect a major impact from those players. That discounts three-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin, a second-round pick (54th overall).
Whittling the list to five was difficult, especially with a couple recent third-round picks throwing their names in the hat. Ultimately, we left safety Tyrann Mathieu out of the top five due to recurring concerns over his health, but he could displace one of our top five with a return to form.
1. Larry Centers, FB, Stephen F. Austin, 1990, 5th round (115th overall)
Centers played 14 NFL seasons, nine of them with the Cardinals. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. In 1995, Centers had one of the best seasons ever logged by a fullback, catching 101 passes for 962 yards. The 101 receptions were an NFL record for the most in a single season by a back until Chicago’s Matt Forte broke the mark with 102 in 2014. Centers followed that season with 99 catches for 766 yards and seven touchdowns, while also gaining a career-high 425 yards with two rushing touchdowns in 1996. Centers finally made the playoffs in his final year in Arizona (1998) and then won a Super Bowl with New England in 2003.
2. Adrian Wilson, SS, North Carolina State, 2001, 3rd round (64th)
Wilson is still one of the franchise’s all-time icons after a 12-year career in the Valley. He made the Pro Bowl five times, he has the most sacks by a defensive back in a single season in NFL history (8, 2005), he is one of just six players in NFL history with 25 interceptions and 25 sacks and he set the tone for the Cardinals defense with his hard-hitting, no excuses approach. He was welcomed into the Cardinals Ring of Honor in 2015.
3. Aeneas Williams, CB, Southern, 1991, 3rd round (54th overall)
With a name from Greek mythology, Williams was destined for greatness. He made eight Pro Bowl appearances, grabbed 55 interceptions in his 14-year career and earned a reputation as one of the league’s best lockdown corners. He also made a name for himself with several signature plays. In 1998, Williams helped the Cardinals win their first playoff game since 1947 by intercepting two passes from QB Troy Aikman in a 20-7 win over the Cowboys, and he added another pick in a 41-21 loss in the divisional round. In 2000, he tied an NFL record by returning a fumble 104 yards for a touchdown in a game against the Redskins and, in Week 3 of the 1999 season, he delivered the hit that ultimately ended 49ers QB Steve Young’s career.
4. Darnell Dockett, DL, Florida State, 2004, 3rd round (64th overall)
The franchise may not have loved Dockett’s infamous antics off the field (and sometimes on the field), but there was no doubting Dockett’s motor and heart when he was healthy. In 10 NFL seasons, Dockett made three Pro Bowls and in 2007, he posted a career-high nine sacks. His powerful backstory made it hard not to root for Dockett in spite of his myriad missteps.
5. David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa, 2015, 3rd round (86th overall)
Some believe Johnson is already the best all-around running back in the NFL, and the stats bear that out. Johnson’s 2,118 combined rushing and receiving yards were the most in the NFL last season, but the third-year player admitted this week that he has much work to do in pass protection. “I had so many errors that hurt our team,” Johnson said. “I definitely missed a lot of blocks and I missed a lot of linebackers and hurt Carson, got him sacked or made him rush the throw.” There is still upside in Johnson’s game.
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, 2013, 3rd round (69th overall)
Pat Tillman, SS, ASU, 1998, 7th round (226nd overall)
Steve Breaston, WR, Michigan, 2007, 5th round (142nd overall)
Antonio Smith, DE, Oklahoma State, 2004, 5th round (135th overall)
Renaldo Hill, CB, Michigan State 2001, 7th round (202nd overall)