TEMPE, Ariz. — It seemed as if no one expected the Arizona Cardinals to select Rodney Gunter with their fourth-round pick last Saturday.
“I didn’t know it at all, like, they gave me a call in the fourth round, before they called my name, and was like, ‘Rodney, hey, watch the TV, your name is getting called.’ I hit my knees and I started praying. It was so unreal, I passed out for like three minutes.”
It was very real, for both Gunter and the Cardinals, though he said upon waking up he absolutely thought it was all a dream.
Arizona wanted the defensive lineman so much, the team traded picks in the sixth and seventh-rounds just to move up seven spots in order to select him. They feared others were ready to pull the trigger, a notion that was confirmed after the pick was made.
“In this business enough people talk that occasionally you get enough intel that tells you where a guy is going to potentially go, and I had a little birdy tell me where he was going to go if we didn’t take him,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. “And I got a call that confirmed that from the GM afterwards. I won’t name any names, but I was glad that we did what we did.”
Gunter is receiving a considerable amount of hype, especially when you consider his draft slot as well as his body of work. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound defensive lineman played just one year of high school football before attending Delaware State, where he was a second-team All-MEAC selection in 2014 after tallying seven sacks and 13 tackles for loss as a senior.
The Cardinals have high hopes for the player they chose with the 116th overall selection, as head coach Bruce Arians says he can play all three defensive line positions. They’ll find a spot for him because, as Arians said, he is so explosive.
Chatting with the media shortly after being picked, Gunter raised some eyebrows when he said he “potentially could be the next J.J. Watt.”
Watt, of course, is a three-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection who has been named the AP Defensive Player of the Year twice, in 2012 and again in 2014. The 11th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft has collected a whopping 57 sacks in just four seasons as a pro.
No one is expecting that kind of production from Gunter, and while he made sure to clarify that he did not say he will be the next Watt or anything like that, he would like to have similar game.
The Cardinals certainly wouldn’t be opposed to him developing into that kind of player, and in a way, it seems like they expect him to. While not directly comparing him to any of the all-time greats, the names Michael Strahan (Texas Southern) and Leon Lett (Emporia State) have been brought up when talking about small-school players who went on to become stars in the NFL.
They are part of the reason the Cardinals so bullish about Gunter and his future, regardless of his past. The organization’s confidence has since been transferred to the player.
“They really convinced that no matter where you are, the conference you play in, if you’re a player, they’re going to find you,” Gunter said.
That’s the idea, and while the Cardinals are not the only team to take chances on players who did not play in power conferences, they’ve also made no secret about their appreciation for those kinds of talents. Take a look at their roster and you will see impact players from Pittsburg State, Hillsdale and Presbyterian.
And in the 2015 draft, along with Gunter, the Cardinals took running back David Johnson from Northern Iowa and receiver J.J. Nelson from UAB.
The Cardinals obviously think Gunter will be the next relatively unknown player to make his mark in the NFL, and going forward it will be up to him to prove them right. He said he’s ready to work to reach the level the Cardinals think he can.
“I just want to contribute to the team,” he said of his expectations for this season. “I want to be a major contributor to the team. That’s all. Get some playing time on the field.”