Building Backwards – The Arizona Cardinals and Rod Graves

Rod Graves - USA TODAY Sports

How the previous Cardinals GM failed to put together a team that would sustain success.

When Rod Graves was promoted from assistant to the team's president to Vice President of Football Operations in early 2003, replacing the outgoing Bob Ferguson, he was the third GM the team had seen in the previous 5 years. What resulted was ten years of poor drafting, and an attempt to, as I will put it, build a football team backwards.

While the ideal way to build a football team remains debated, and while there are different ways to build a successful unit, but there are a few constants that have been around for the entire Graves stay as the top man in the Cardinals front office that ended after the 5-11 debacle in 2012.

Quarterbacks are the most valuable players on the field. This has not changed in the NFL for a long time, the scope of their impact may have grown, but the value of the position has not changed. From the John Elway draft down to Andrew Luck, number one picks have been used, and the big money spent, has been on Quarterbacks.

The offensive line is the heartbeat of the offense. Again, nothing too radical here, while the belief that one player can elevate and offensive line is, in my belief, incorrect, however the value of the offensive line as a unit cannot be understated. Their impact is felt in each and every snap of offensive football.

The pass rush is a cornerstone of defense. Whether you are manufacturing it or you have an elite edge rusher, being able to get pressure on the passer is a huge part of the ability to defend against the pass.

Three core beliefs of building a football team that seem to be pretty uncontroversial; three core beliefs of building a football team that were around the game of football before Rod Graves was hired as the GM of the Cardinals and most importantly and most damning for Rod Graves and the ownership of the Arizona Cardinals, three core principals of building a football team that were soundly ignored by Rod Graves during his 10 drafts in charge of the Cardinals.

The numbers on Rod Graves do not present a pretty picture; during his time in charge here he made 67 draft selections, 31 of those selections in the first three rounds of the draft. I have split the NFL positions into these into broad groups that include, skill position (TE/RB/WR), offensive line (C/G/T), defensive line (DE/DT), linebackers (OLB/ILB), defensive backs (CB/S), other (FB/K/P) and quarterback.

The Rod Graves draft selections break down as follows;

Skill Position

20

DL

14

LB

10

OL

10

DB

9

QB

4

Other

0

Selections in the first three rounds are as follows;

Skill Position

11

DL

5

LB

6

OL

2

DB

6

QB

1

Other

0

A heavy reliance on skill position players on offense, a complete lack of QB and OL draft selections at the top end of the draft, defensive balance on the three levels, but a lack of a true pass rusher taken early (Only edge rushers in the first three rounds under Graves were Calvin Pace, Daryl Blackstock and Cody Brown)

The issues with the drafting strategy jump off the page from the numbers provided. Quarterbacks and offensive linemen were underdrafted (just three combined in the first three rounds in 10 drafts and 14 total across 10 drafts to fill 6 starting positions). Skill positions were overdrafted (11 WR/TE/RB taken in the first three rounds over 10 drafts to fill 5 starting positions, 20 in total to fill those 5 starting positions). Defensive balance is fine, but an overdrafting for the MLB spot seems to crop up. Gerald Hayes/Karlos Dansby/Buster Davis/Daryl Washington were all taken in the first three rounds under Graves, contrasted with the lack of edge rushers drafted over the same time period.

It appears that Rod Graves just did not know what it took to build a quality football team. He ignored many of the most important areas of an NFL team (QB, OL, pass rusher) and stocked up on some of the most reliant positions in the NFL (WR/RB). In the 2003/2004 drafts, Arizona drafted three wide receivers in the first two rounds (Johnson/Boldin/Fitzgerald) while still ignoring the fact that they had nobody competent to throw those guys the football. Despite the obvious talent of Larry Fitzgerald, was it really a smart move to pass on a quarterback (Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger) to add another first round WR to the first round WR you drafted the year previous and the 2nd round guy who had just gone over 100 catches and 1000 yards for you as a rookie?

The reflection of these continued failings of the team's general manager was shown by the record of the team playing on the field, the perennial losing, the complete failings of the team pre and post Kurt Warner, the inability to string a period of consistent winning together. Those failings fall on Rod Graves, he is now gone, hopefully the future is brighter under the leadership of newly promoted GM Steve Keim.

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