Held back by pathetic quarterback play last season, the Cardinals decided to trade for Carson Palmer rather than take a chance on any of this year’s QB prospects in the first two rounds. For a team with plenty of holes on both sides of the ball and a star receiver going to waste this was probably a wise move, especially after Arizona used their first pick to provide some protection for Palmer and whoever winds up succeeding him. Chris Tripodi breaks down the Arizona draft class.
Jonathan Cooper/G/North Carolina (Round 1/Pick #7): One of the two elite guards who bucked typical draft trends this season, Cooper started the offseason as the #2 guard prospect. He gained steam over Chance Warmack late in the process thanks to his elite athleticism and ended up being drafted higher than the Alabama stud. Cooper is a quick, explosive and fundamentally sound lineman who is great blocking in motion. If there is one area to nitpick about Cooper’s game it’s a lack of lower body strength but he shouldn’t have a problem adding muscle in an NFL weight training program and once he does, Cooper has the ability to quickly develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber guard.
Kevin Minter/LB/LSU (Round 2/Round #45): With a hole at middle linebacker and Manti Te’o still on the board at 38th overall, the Cardinals decided to pass on the Notre Dame linebacker and trade down, picking up an extra fourth-round pick in the process. This was a shrewd move for Arizona as they still got the linebacker they wanted in Minter. With Daryl Washington’s season now in doubt thanks to a recent assault arrest on top of a four-game substance abuse suspension, Minter is assured a spot as a starter and should be a great fit in Arizona. His lack of sideline-to-sideline range will be masked in Arizona’ 3-4 defense, where his instincts and ability to quickly penetrate gaps in the offensive line will help him make an immediate impact.
Tyrann Mathieu/CB/LSU (Round 3/Pick #69): This pick was somewhat surprising and while we had Mathieu rated as a fifth-round prospect, Arizona may be a perfect fit for the troubled former Heisman candidate. On talent alone, Mathieu was worthy of a second-round pick but his dismissal from the LSU program prior to last season has been well-documented, as have his issues with marijuana which have reportedly led to more than 10 failed drug tests. On the field, Mathieu is a big play waiting to happen on defense and in the return game. At his best playing in a zone due to his lack of size (5-8, 186), Mathieu’s great read-and-react ability and break to the ball leads to turnovers and he has good enough speed to recover when he makes a mistake. The presence of former college teammate and good friend Patrick Peterson may have played a part in this pick and if Peterson and the Cardinals can keep Mathieu in line off the field, he has the talent to be the league’s best nickel cornerback.
Alex Okafor/DE/Texas (Round 4/Pick #103): A second-round prospect on our board, Okafor was very productive with the Longhorns and is a max-effort player. He doesn’t have the size (6-4, 264) to play as a 5-technique end or the speed (4.85) to be a stud edge rusher and struggled in Texas’ 3-4 last season, the same defense he’ll be joining in Arizona. On the surface this seems like a questionable fit as Okafor is better suited as a 4-3 defensive end, but the Cardinals are hoping his instincts and intelligence will help him improve with more time playing in the 3-4.
Earl Watford/G/James Madison (Round 4/Pick #116): The Cardinals traded back here for the second time in the draft, moving down six spots from 110th overall and picking up an extra sixth-round pick. Watford was a solid choice here for a team looking to rebuild their offensive line and while he needs time to develop, he could eventually earn a starting role on the other side of fellow rookie Jonathan Cooper. Watford received multiple All-American honors during his senior season, impressive for a small-school lineman, and his athleticism makes him great blocking in motion and quick to the second level. Starting left guard Daryn Colledge is under contract for another three seasons, so Watford will have time to physically mature before he’ll need to step into a key role.
Stepfan Taylor/RB/Stanford (Round 5/Pick #140): We reported on Taylor’s impressive Senior Bowl performance and had him rated as a potential third-round pick, but his fall isn’t too surprising considering his poor combine and the fact that many running backs in this year’s class seemed to go later than expected. Even still, this was a good pick for Arizona considering the uncertainty of their backfield this year and beyond. A 5-8, 216-pound bruiser, Taylor is a north-south runner who rarely gets tackled by the first defender. He has quick feet in small spaces along with good vision and may be the best blocker in this draft class, which could help him see playing time as a rookie. His upside is somewhat limited, but he could be a very good committee back.
Ryan Swope/WR/Texas A&M (Round 6/Pick #174): The Cardinals stopped Swope’s freefall in the sixth round, as he was no worse than a third-rounder on most boards. His concussion history with the Aggies apparently scared teams off and he has already missed time in OTA’s due to concussion symptoms. If Swope can get past those issues and get on the playing field, he has the talent to make an impact. He shocked many by running a 4.34 40-yard dash at the combine but he doesn’t show that speed on tape. If Swope can play closer to that time, his intelligence, route-running ability and solid hands will make him a favorite of any quarterback. With Andre Roberts entering free agency next season, Swope has upside as a very good slot receiver behind Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd if he can get on the field.
Andre Ellington/RB/Clemson (Round 6/Pick #187): Using the extra pick Arizona got from the Giants for their fourth-rounder, the Cardinals got great value on Ellington. If Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t impress on a one-year deal and Ryan Williams continues to struggle with injuries, the Clemson product may team up with Stepfan Taylor as a thunder-and-lightning combination in the Arizona backfield. Despite his size (5-9, 199), Ellington runs with good power and is quicker than he is fast, making him effective as an interior runner and also a receiver out of the backfield. He probably won’t hold up as a feature back but he is a playmaker who should provide a great return on investment late in the sixth round with a running style that complements Taylor’s nicely.
D.C. Jefferson/TE/Rutgers (Round 7/Pick #219): Jefferson is a late lottery ticket for the Cardinals, who have struggled to get much production out of the tight end position in recent seasons. His talent level is matched by his inconsistency but at 6-5, 255 pounds, he has the skills to be a mismatch down the field. Jefferson’s hands and blocking remain inconsistent but if Arizona can develop him, he has starting-caliber talent and could be in line to take over in a few years if starter Rob Housler doesn’t fulfill his own untapped potential.
Grade: B+. The Cardinals did a great job maximizing value in the later rounds, picking up multiple players that can help their offense in the future. Jonathan Cooper and Kevin Minter will be immediate starters who can make a big impact in their rookie seasons but this draft grade could go even higher if Tyrann Mathieu can fly straight and reach his potential. Every pick Arizona made has legitimate upside and their draft should build a nice foundation for the team in the future. It’s hard to see Arizona competing for a playoff spot in the NFC West and with another high pick likely on tap next season, the Cardinals may be able to find a quarterback that can take them to the next level in the years to come.