Call us old-fashioned but reaching the end of a decade is a great time to look back at the previous ten years and with that in mind ROTB will be taking that look with some special top ten lists over the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned and chime in on what we missed, special memories or just your two cents.
As we all know building a team through the draft is the best way to win consistently and as we also know the Arizona Cardinals haven't always been known as one of the better drafting teams in the league. With the improved play on the field though, the winds of change are blowing throughout our draft evaluation as well. Of the Cardinals starting 22, fourteen starters have come via the draft over the past decade and it's quite possible that the number could grow by four or five next season if guys like Matt Leinart, Brandon Keith, Ben Patrick, Cody Brown or Gabe Watson are ready to step into the starting lineup. Here's a look at the top ten draft picks of this decade.
- Adrian Wilson - 3rd Round 2001 (64th overall) - By any definition Adrian Wilson has been a successful draft pick and considering that 64 players were selected before him, including three safeties (one even selected by the Cardinals), A-dub has been a steal. He's currently one sack from entering the exclusive 20/20 club (only ten members) and he's twice been named as a Pro Bowl starter (2006 & 2008). Wilson is also currently the longest tenured Cardinal and in his nine seasons he's started 116 games (including playoffs) amassing 677 tackles, 19 sacks, 22 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles and scored four touchdowns. He's also the only player in NFL history to have multiple 99 yard return touchdowns without the benefit of a kickoff return.
- Reggie Wells - 6th Round 2003 (177th overall) - Wells isn't a Pro Bowl level offensive guard but anytime you find a quality starter in the sixth round of a draft, you've made an amazing pick. He became a starter in just his second season and only a broken ankle in 2005 (missed seven games) have kept him off the field. Since that injury he's started 65 consecutive games (including playoffs) and was a team captain for the 2008 season. He's also been versatile, starting games at left guard, left tackle and right tackle and even took snaps at center during the 2005 season. A case could be made that Wells has offered the most "bang for the buck" (draft pick speaking), of any selection this decade.
- Anquan Boldin - 2nd Round 2003 (54th overall) - Boldin didn't waste any time proving to the NFL that he was a premier receiver. In his first professional game he had 217 receiving yards (NFL record) and since then he's set numerous records including most receptions for a rookie, most reception in the first 26 games of a career, fastest to 300 & 400 receptions and he's also set countless team records as well. He's a three time Pro Bowler, a team captain (2007) and endeared himself to Cardinals fans with his fearless, passionate playing style. Despite playing in 16 games only twice in his career, Q has amassed 570 receptions, 7,299 yards and 44 touchdowns
- Darnell Dockett - 3rd Round 2004 (64th overall) - Mr. Nine-O was a starter from his very first day in the desert but he didn't really have a breakout season until 2007. In his first three season's he'd start 47 of 48 games and while he was productive, he only managed six sacks. That all changed in 2007 though as he racked up nine sacks and set a career high in tackles. He's now mentioned as one of the best defensive tackles in the league and despite some inconsistency at times, it's hard not to at least put him in the top five at his position. In his six seasons as a Cardinal, Dockett hasn't missed a game while totaling 271 tackles, 26 sacks, four picks and six forced fumbles while being voted to one Pro Bowl.
- Larry Fitzgerald - 1st Round 2004 (3rd overall) - You might think it's awful hard to screw up the third overall pick but in the previous four years the Cardinals had five first round selections and the closest thing to a productive starter was Bryant "skillet hands" Johnson. Fitz was considered one of the best receivers to come out of the college ranks in quite some time and he certainly has not disappointed. In six seasons Fitz has established himself as arguably the best receiver in the NFL and his record setting performance during last year's post season run cemented his legacy as an all-time great. Despite still being just 26 years of age, Fitzgerald has already amassed 511 receptions, 6,966 yards and 56 touchdowns.
- Lyle Sendlein - Undrafted in 2007 - So technically Sendlein isn't/wasn't a draft pick but anytime an undrafted free agent turns into a starter, someone deserves a massive pat on the back. After not getting drafted in 2007 though he played in 12 games as a rookie, including two starts, and has since started 23 consecutive games (including playoffs). After struggling at times as a rookie, Sendlein has remarkably improved during his second year as a starter and he's looking like a guy who can anchor the center of the Cardinals' offensive line for quite a while.
- Gerald Hayes - 3rd Round 2003 (70th overall) - Hayes often gets overlooked by flashier players on the defensive side of the ball but he's developed into one of the most dependable defenders on the team. After two seasons playing mostly special teams, Hayes was supposed to start the 2005 season at middle linebacker before a preseason knee injury sent him to the injured reserve. Since that injury he's missed only two games and averaged almost six tackles per game and started 53 games. In his six seasons (not counting the one missed due to injury) he's amassed 389 tackles, five sacks, four picks and forced seven fumbles.
Steve Breaston - 5th Round 2007 (142th overall) - Breaston was drafted as a return specialist, a spot he excelled at as a rookie, but when the Cardinals used a third round pick on another receiver the following year, Boobs took it personally. Breaston onto the NFL-scene with 77 receptions for 1,006 yards in just his second year in the league and he's established himself as a legitimate deep threat. He's started twelve games over the past two seasons, filling in for an injured Boldin, and he's helped the Cardinals develop one of the most dynamic passing games in the league, not to mention the best trio of receivers.
- Antonio Smith - 5th Round 2004 (135th overall) - Smith is really the only guy on this list who didn't make an almost immediate impact but once he broke into the starting lineup, he was quite productive. He spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad and didn't become a full time starter until the latter half of his third season. While he never really was a play-maker, Smith was consistently productive and a great pick in the fifth round. Smith left this past off season for big free agent money with the Houston Texans but as a Cardinal he played in 62 games, 39 starts, and racked up 125 tackles, 14.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Tim Hightower - 5th Round 2008 (149th overall) - The 149th selection of the 2008 draft was followed by a collective "who?" from Cardinals fans and draft 'experts' alike but Hightower has quickly proved to be quite a hidden gem. After starting his rookie season as a very effective goal line/short yardage specialist, he emerged as the starting running back midway through the season and he's managed to keep the starting job despite a promising rookie, Beanie Wells, nipping at his heels. Through just two short years Hightower has proven to be a fairly complete back with the ability to swing out of the backfield, protect his quarterback as well as tote the rock. With the Cardinal's dual running back approach, he's not getting a ton of carries but he's on pace to surpass 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season and could approach double digit touchdowns for the second consecutive season.
One thing that is quite impressive when looking back at the past decade worth of drafts is how well the Cardinals drafted in the 2003 and 2004 draft. In those two years combined they turned fourteen overall picks into seven quality NFL starters and four Pro Bowl level players. Needless to say, a 50% success rate in the draft is a guaranteed formula for winning. With the past couple of draft classes looking very promising, hopefully we'll be able to look back in five years and see the same kind of success. Who is the best overall pick in your mind and who would be in your top ten?