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Cardinals’ 1998 heist of Chargers rated fifth-biggest draft trade ever

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham scrambles out of the grasp of Arizona Cardinals' Andre Wadsworth, right, during the second quarter of action in the NFC divisional playoff game in Minneapolis, Sunday, Jan. 10, 1999. (AP Photo/Mark A. Duncan)

With the Tennessee Titans making a trade with (or more to the point, fleecing) the Los Angeles Rams in a draft trade earlier this week, Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com took a stroll down memory lane and ranked the top five such trades in NFL history.

Of course, Mike Ditka punting on his whole draft to move up and select running back Ricky Williams in 1999 and the Dallas Cowboys pulling the wool over the Minnesota Vikings’ eyes in the Herschel Walker trade in 1990 top the list.

But the Arizona Cardinals landed in the top five as well, coming in at number five.

5. Chargers move up with help from Arizona Cardinals

Year: 1998

Chargers got: No. 2 overall pick, which they used to draft quarterback Ryan Leaf.

Cardinals got: Two first-round picks, a second-round pick and two players. The Cardinals used those picks to draft defensive end Andre Wadsworth, safety Corey Chavous and receiver David Boston.

Comment: Everyone knows the Chargers made a big mistake in selecting Leaf, but it’s largely lost on history how much they gave up to move one spot to be in position to draft him in the first place. The Cardinals didn’t maximize those picks in terms of long-lasting impact, but in exchange for moving down one spot, they acquired the No. 3 and No. 33 picks in the 1998 draft and the No. 8 pick in 1999. Yikes.

The Cardinals felt they had their quarterback in place with Jake Plummer manning the position, so that gave them the flexibility to deal with teams desperate to move up to get Leaf or Peyton Manning. Yes, there was a debate at the time to which quarterback would make the better pro.

The Chargers ended up getting 18 starts out of Leaf, in which they went 4-14. His statistics were among the worst in NFL history — he threw 14 touchdown passes against 36 interceptions, completed only 48 percent of his passes and had a QB rating of 50.

In fact, Leaf’s 1998 QB rating of 39.0 is the third-lowest by any quarterback who started nine or more games in a season since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

Oops.

The picks the Cardinals acquired weren’t exactly world-beaters, but they were certainly better than Leaf.

Wadsworth was viewed as a can’t-miss prospect in 1998 after a dominant career at Florida State. He was a consensus All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in ’97 when he had 16 sacks for the Seminoles, who went 11-1 and pounded Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

After a lengthy holdout, Wadsworth signed a $42 million deal with the Cardinals the night before their season-opener in Dallas. He had a decent rookie campaign, finishing with five sacks and adding two more in the Cardinals’ stunning playoff victory over the Cowboys.

However, his career was short-lived due to knee injuries. He was released following the 2000 season and never played in another NFL game.

Chavous, whom the Cardinals got with the 33rd pick, was solid but unspectacular during his Arizona career, which lasted four seasons. Chavous became a full-time starter in 2001, his last year with the Cardinals. He was a favorite of the media, especially sports talk radio hosts, because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the game, including detailed scouting reports of college players. He’d go on to play seven more years in the league with the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams.

The next year, the Cardinals got Boston, the wide receiver responsible for breaking the hearts of ASU fans everywhere by catching the go-ahead touchdown pass late in Ohio State’s 1997 Rose Bowl win.

Boston would play four seasons in Arizona, including a stellar 2001 campaign that saw him lead the NFL with nearly 1,600 receiving yards. He was known for his muscular physique, which turned out to be unnaturally enhanced. Boston was slapped with a four-game suspension for steroid use in 2004 while a member of the Miami Dolphins.

If nothing else, this trade showed the harsh reality that draft picks on paper are often far more attractive than the players picked in those slots.

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