The amount of study, scouting and preparation that goes into any NFL Draft is staggering.
Teams have files on hundreds of players — scouting reports, interview results, personality profiles.
However, the draft is only part of filling out a roster every year. When “Mr. Irrelevant’s” name is called to end each draft, NFL front offices go into scramble mode to attract undrafted free agents to come to rookie minicamp, and hopefully, training camp.
The only quarterback to ever lead the Arizona Cardinals, Kurt Warner, is one of the best undrafted free agent stories in NFL history. He was not drafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994 and went to camp with the Green Bay Packers. He didn’t make the team, but eventually caught on with the St. Louis Rams, leading them to two Super Bowls while winning two Most Valuable Player awards. He recaptured some of that magic in finishing his career in Arizona.
But he wasn’t “discovered” by the Cardinals.
With rookie minicamp starting in Tempe Friday, we thought it was a perfect time to look back on some of the hidden gems unearthed by the Cardinals after the draft.
In this edition of “The 5,” we’ll focus on the five best undrafted free agents in Cardinals history.
5. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma (2013) – Jefferson got a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board which only fortified his decision to leave Oklahoma after his junior season. He didn’t hear his name called among the 2013 draft class, so the Cardinals signed him. Jefferson made his mark in training camp and had two interceptions in a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. He ended up making the team and has become an integral part of one of the NFL’s best secondaries over the last three seasons. Jefferson has racked up 147 total tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and six pass break-ups in his career.
4. Marcel Shipp, RB, Massachusetts (2001) – The Cardinals nabbed Shipp in ’01 and the former UMass Minuteman made the team. However, Shipp didn’t make an immediate impact. As a rookie, he played on special teams, seeing action in 11 games. But in his second year, he stepped into the starting running back role, taking over for former first-round pick Thomas Jones. Shipp ran for 834 yards on 188 carries while scoring six touchdowns that season to lead the Cardinals in each category. He ran for 830 yards the next season. In 2004, Shipp suffered a devastating knee injury on the astroturf of the Walkup Skydome at training camp in Flagstaff, which sidelined him for the entire season. He’d play three more years with the Cardinals, but was never as effective. Shipp ranks fourth on the Cardinals’ all-time rushing list (since 1988) with 2,197 yards.
3. Kwamie Lassiter, S, Kansas (1995) – After an injury-plagued college career that lasted six years, Lassiter went undrafted in 1995. However, the hard-hitting safety made an impact in training camp and secured a spot on the Cardinals’ roster. Lassiter was a part-time player for his first three seasons, but elevated his game in 1998, intercepting eight passes, which tied for second-most in the league. He saved his best for last that year. Needing a win over the San Diego Chargers to secure the team’s first playoff berth since moving to Arizona, Lassiter picked off quarterback Craig Whelihan four times — all of which came deep in Arizona territory — to help the Cardinals to a 16-13 win. Lassiter was a fixture in the secondary until 2002, and finished his Cardinals career with 24 interceptions, which ranks third on the franchise list.
2. Lyle Sendlein, C, Texas (2007) – The Cardinals signed the former Chaparral Firebird as an undrafted free agent in 2007 after a distinguished career in Austin. Sendlein played sparingly as a rookie, but did start two games at center. In his second season, he took over as the full-time starter in what turned out to be a magical season in franchise history. The Cardinals won nine games, earning an NFC Wild Card berth and won three straight playoff games to advance to the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sendlein held down the center position for eight years, starting 122 of a possible 128 regular-season games in that span. In 2015, the Cardinals brought back the free agent center during training camp and he once again claimed the first-string spot, helping Arizona to a franchise-record 13 wins and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.
1. Ronald McKinnon, LB, North Alabama (1996) – The Cardinals’ 1996 draft class was highlighted by the selection of Illinois defensive end Simeon Rice with the third-overll pick. After the draft, they got another valuable piece on defense in McKinnon, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy — Division II’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy — in 1995 at North Alabama. (Side note: McKinnon is the only defensive player to win that award since its inception in 1986.) McKinnon made the roster in training camp of 1996 and saw action in all 16 games as a rookie. In 1997, he stepped in as the starting middle linebacker — a position he kept until 2004. In 2001, McKinnon registered a career-high 145 total tackles, two sacks and scored his one and only touchdown — a 24-yard return in a 17-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys at Sun Devil Stadium.
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