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The 5: Best draft classes in Cardinals history

Arizona Cardinals first-round draft pick Larry Fitzgerald, Jr., makes a reception during mini camp Saturday, May 1, 2004, in Tempe, Ariz.(AP Photo/Paul Connors)

The NFL Draft is right around the corner, and the Arizona Cardinals are hoping for what every team is — a crop of new players to significantly help their Super Bowl chances.

The Cardinals own six picks in this year’s event.

Once regarded as a franchise that was behind the curve when it came to draft strategy and results, the Cardinals have made great strides under general manager Steve Keim.

But they didn’t always swing and miss — here are the top five Cardinals draft classes since the AFL merger.

5. 1985 – Freddie Joe Nunn, Lance Smith, Ron Wolfley, Jay Novacek, Lonnie Young

wolfleyIn terms of sheer depth, this may have been the best haul in Cardinals history. Nunn was a fearsome pass rusher out of Ole Miss that the Cards nabbed with the 18th overall pick. He played nine seasons with the Cardinals and had 67.5 sacks, including a career-high 14 in their first season in Arizona. Their third-round pick, Lance Smith out of LSU, was a fixture at right guard for nine seasons on the Cardinals’ offensive line. He started every game from 1988 to 1993. Wolfley, a fourth-round pick out of West Virginia, became a fan favorite and a four-time Pro Bowler on special teams. He’s the Cardinals color analyst on radio and of course, co-hosts the Doug and Wolf Show mornings on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. The Cardinals got Novacek, a tight end out of Wyoming, in the sixth round. He backed up Rob Awalt for a lot of his time with the team but went on to be a big part of three Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl-winning teams in the 90s. In the 12th round, the Cardinals found a hidden gem in safety Lonnie Young out of Michigan State. Young would go on to start in the Cardinals’ secondary for six years before moving on to stints with the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.

4. 1981 – E.J. Junior, Neil Lomax, Stump Mitchell

NEIL LOMAXThe Cardinals had 13 picks in the ’81 draft and got a solid starting linebacker with the fifth overall selection, taking E.J. Junior out of Alabama and passing on Pittsburgh All-American linebacker Hugh Green, who went two spots later to Tampa Bay. Turned out to be the right choice; Junior had a better pro career (two Pro Bowls) and played eight years with the Cardinals, including their inaugural season in Arizona in 1988. In the second round, the Cardinals took a shot on quarterback Neil Lomax out of little Portland State where he played for Mouse Davis, the innovator of the run-and-shoot offense. Even those who turned their nose up at the offense couldn’t ignore Lomax’s numbers. He left PSU as the all-time NCAA leader in career passing yards with 13,220. Lomax took over as St. Louis’ starter midway through the 1981 season and held on to the job for eight seasons until his career was ended by an arthritic hip. He led the Cardinals to a 7-4 start in 1988 before his injury sidelined him for two games. The Cardinals went the small-school route later in the draft, selecting running back Stump Mitchell out of The Citadel in the ninth round. Mitchell learned behind Ottis Anderson for four years, contributing on special teams and as a change-of-pace back. He’d start eight games in 1985, running for 1,006 yards and seven touchdowns. In all, Mitchell played nine years with the Cardinals and is the franchise’s second-leading rusher with 4,649 yards. He is currently the running backs coach on the staff of head coach Bruce Arians.

3. 1982 – Luis Sharpe, David Galloway, Tootie Robbins, Earl Ferrell

Luis Sharpe

Luis Sharpe

The Cardinals found four solid starters in this draft class. Sharpe, a tackle out of UCLA taken with the 16th overall pick, would play 13 years with the team. He made three Pro Bowls and was considered one of the best left tackles of his era. Galloway was a defensive lineman from Florida taken in the second round who would go on to play eight years with the Cardinals, racking up 36 sacks. Tootie Robbins became a fixture at right tackle, opposite of Sharpe, for the next decade after being picked in the fourth round out of East Carolina. And Ferrell played the fullback role in the backfield with Mitchell for eight years but was the team’s leading rusher in their first season in Arizona with 924 yards.

2. 1979 – Ottis Anderson, Joe Bostic, Roy Green

Ottis Anderson

Ottis Anderson

The Cardinals got Anderson out of Miami with the eighth overall pick, and he lit the league on fire. In his first game, he destroyed the Dallas Cowboys, racking up 193 yards on the ground. He was far from a flash in the pan, though. Anderson had 1,605 yards in his rookie campaign, which was third in the league behind only Houston’s Earl Campbell and Chicago’s Walter Payton. He was named the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Anderson ended up playing seven and a half seasons with the Cardinals before he was traded to the New York Giants in 1986. He is still the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 7,999 yards. Bostic was a third-round pick (64th overall) out of Clemson. He became a fixture on the Cardinals’ O-Line, starting 115 games over the next decade. In the fourth round, the team took a shot on Roy Green out of a tiny school called Henderson State. Green started his career as a kick returner and defensive back, but transitioned to wide receiver. He led the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions in 1983 and followed that up by leading the league with 1,555 yards receiving the next year. He was a two-time Pro Bowler, a fan favorite and is still in the top five in every major receiving category in team history.

Little-known fact: The 1979 draft class also included Kirk Gibson, a wide receiver from Michigan State picked in the seventh round. Gibson opted to play baseball and went on to lead the 1984 Detroit Tigers and 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers to World Series title. Of course, he eventually made it to Arizona as the manager of the Diamondbacks and led the team to a National League West title in 2011.

1. 2004 – Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith

Darnell Dockett

Darnell Dockett

What a haul! In their seven-player class of ’04, the Cardinals found four key pieces of a team that would go on to win the NFC Championship and earn a trip to Super Bowl XLIII just five years later. Fitzgerald — you know all about him. Dansby became a solid playmaker who registered 32 sacks, 14 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries and two touchdowns in two stints with the team. Dockett was the heart and soul of the Cardinals’ defense in his 11 years in the desert, compiling 40.5 sacks — and who could forget his three-sack performance in the Super Bowl? And Smith, a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, developed into a starter who had 14.5 sacks in five years with the Cardinals.

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