TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals used their first three picks in the 2016 NFL Draft on players who hail from the SEC.
Known as the country’s premier college football conference, it makes sense to pluck talent from schools like Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Missouri.
However, with the first of their fifth-round picks (No. 167 overall), they turned to a lesser-known player and college, tabbing safety Marqui Christian from Midwestern State.
Last season, Christian won the Cliff Harris Award as the nation’s top small-college defensive player as he racked up 95 total tackles, forced three fumbles, recovered two fumbles and broke up three passes.
If that style of safety reminds you of someone, say the Cardinals’ Deone Bucannon, then you’re smart to make the comparison. Christian said that’s how the team sees him, too.
“They kind of talked as a hybrid-type guy; a safety playing down in the box, just using my different talents — blitzing off the edge, man-to-man in the slot, zone, interchangeable at safety, maybe playing deep,” he said of his expected role. “Basically, a hybrid role, an interchangeable safety role, playing down in the box and then sometimes playing high and patrolling the middle some.”
The ability to do all that would make Christian quite valuable, and no doubt the Cardinals are hopeful he will develop into that kind of an impact player. Like many NFL players who come from smaller schools, the biggest knock against him was the competition he faced and not his own skill set.
“He is a guy that really came onto the scene late for us,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said before praising the team’s area scouts who discovered Christian. “But the closure that came in late in the process was a guy named Adrian Wilson, who went to the NFLPA game and came back with his jaw dropping.”
Wilson, of course, is a former Cardinals safety who did his best work in the box and is now a scout for the team. If Bucannon is the one who Christian is supposed to model his game after, it could be argued Bucannon’s game was first seen in Wilson.
Keim said the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Christian has all the physical tools the Cardinals look for in a safety, and a 4.46 40-yard dash at his Pro Day as well as solid times in the shuttle and 3-cone drills are evidence he has the speed and quickness the team covets.
Which is why, while Christian expects to see a lot of time in the box, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians believes he can play all over the field.
“He can do everything,” he said. “He can cover a lot of ground. He’s a 4.4-guy, can play man-to-man, can be interchangeable — which we like to do with our safeties — and he will strike you.”
Christian said he has plenty of experience blitzing from his time in college, and once he learned of the Cardinals’ interest in him, he studied their scheme. He saw how Arizona prefers to play man coverage and go after the quarterback, which seems to fit his style.
Christian said he needs to improve by learning how to shed blockers and add enough weight to take on NFL players.
What Christian becomes is anyone’s guess, but for now, what exactly do the Cardinals have in the small-school prospect?
“A tough player, instinctive, fast, strong, quick, a leader, smart, dependable, great character, consistent; just an all-around great guy, full speed and intense,” he said. “I only know one speed and that’s full speed. Also, a hard worker. A guy that’s ready to come in and learn and help the team get to the championship next year.”
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