TEMPE, Ariz. — Every NFL team’s draft class has at least one guy who, though not picked early in the process, generates the kind of praise befitting a top talent.
Often times, the players end up performing at a level more commensurate to their draft status than the lofty expectations, but every now and then the preseason hype train ends up staying on track.
Last season, fourth-round pick Rodney Gunter earned the role, and one year earlier it was third-round choice John Brown who was getting some extra looks. And in 2013 sixth-round pick Andre Ellington showed flashes of star potential before ever playing a regular season game.
Of course, those three are not the only players to be talked up during the offseason, and some of the others who were did not exactly live up to the talk.
However, another young Cardinal seems to be heading on the same path, as fifth-round pick Marqui Christian almost has not been able to keep his name out of the headlines over his first week or so as a Cardinal.
Last week, unsolicited, Cardinals VP of Player Personnel Terry McDonough told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Christian’s name was one to remember.
“Everybody here was on board; Adrian Wilson went to the NFLPA game and really liked him,” he said. “You guys are going to love watching him play. He’s a lot like (Antoine) Bethea when he came out of Howard…same size, same speed, can really get off the spot from a standing position. He loves to hit.”
Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler who is a member of the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor, was asked to provide his insight into why he was a fan of the defensive back.
“I was just able to kind of see him at the All-Star game, go back and watch some of his tape from last year and this year, and I met the kid, had dinner with the kid,” Wilson explained to Bickley and Marotta. “It’s just one of those things where it felt right; the tape added up to who the person actually is, and I just brought the information back to Steve (Keim).”
Shortly after selecting Christian Saturday afternoon, Keim explained to the media how Wilson came back to him “with his jaw dropping” after seeing the prospect at the NFLPA Game.
Christian is aware of what people are saying.
“It’s always great, but you know you’ve always got to follow it up,” Christian said after his first rookie mini-camp practice last Friday. “So it’s good hearing and everything; I just put it on the back burner.
“I just focus on everything in front of me: stay in the playbook, stay hydrated and just try to learn as much as I can every day.”
It’s the proper perspective for a rookie who, at the time, had all of one NFL practice under his belt. Hype or not, there is still plenty to learn for a player who did not exactly come from a program that is used to developing top NFL talent.
But while a lot of the conversation about him might seem like hyperbole given that Christian played collegiately at Midwestern State, his 4.46-second 40-yard dash time and other Pro Day numbers did raise some eyebrows in the NFL community prior to the draft, and his production — Christian won the Cliff Harris Award as the nation’s top small-college defensive player in 2015 after recording 95 tackles, three passes densed, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two tackles for loss — are nothing to sneeze at.
The key for him going forward through OTAs, mini-camp and then training camp is to prove he can play like that at the sport’s highest level.
That process began last week.
“I just want to show them that I can do everything in the back end: play in the box, play deep, be rangy, be a quarterback in the backfield — get everybody lined up,” he said. “Communicate in the backfield and be a leader.”
Nerves were not an issue for the 21-year-old, who said once he got on the field it was all about playing the game he has been playing since he was four years old.
“I step out here on the field I’m just in my zone,” he said. “It’s just calming nerves.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians often talks about how he waits to see how players perform under the lights, because what they do in practice does not tell the entire story of what they are capable of. Christian, no doubt, will have his chance to prove what he can do, and if the early chatter is any indication, the belief is he will be pretty special.
In an AZCardinals.com video showing Christian signing his rookie contract Friday, Cardinals president Michael Bidwill tells the player about all the success the organization has had with players coming from small schools, citing Justin Bethel (Presbyterian) and Aeneas Williams (Southern University).
“So the idea is to sign this (contract) today and in a few year we’ll sign another one because you’ve had so much success, and a third one after that,” Bidwill says. “We’ll put some rings on our fingers while we’re winning Super Bowls and having a lot of fun winning games.”
If Christian follows in the footsteps of some other Cardinals who attended smaller schools and were chosen in the later rounds, all that may be a possibility.
That’s the plan, anyway.
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