Raising Arizona: Green Steals Draft — Again
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By Jason Kendall
In the 2004 NFL draft, his first with the Arizona Cardinals, coach Dennis Green passed on a player who would have the greatest season of any rookie quarterback in league history — not the most auspicious way to launch a new regime in the Valley of the Sun.
Ben Roethlisberger, who fell to the Steelers at 11, would lead Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record on 13 consecutive regular season wins. Meanwhile, the Cardinals would log an unimpressive 6-10 in the NFL's weakest division, the NFC West.
The NFL awarded Roethlisberger Offensive Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts, but if the league had an accolade for best overall draft class, it would have gone to the Arizona Cardinals.
Very quietly, Dennis Green culled four productive starters in 2004: receiver Larry Fitzgerald
(1), linebacker Karlos Dansby (2), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett
(3), and center Alex Stepanovich (4).
Very quietly, Fitzgerald hauled in 58 catches for 780 yards and 8 touchdowns, third among rookie receivers. Dansby piled up 60 tackles and 5 sacks and Dockett added 39 tackles and 3.5 sacks to lead an improved defense that ranked third in the NFL in takeaways. Stepanovich anchored the line.
Very quietly, the Cardinals' future got brighter.
Not much has changed one year later. On Saturday, as Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers slid down the board, Green again opted for a pass — selecting Miami (Fla.) defensive back Antrel Rolle.
Rolle will immediately come in as a starter, opposite corner David Macklin, who had a highly-productive 2004 with 74 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 12 passes defensed (numbers, by the way, comparable to those of corners Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson, among others).
In the second round, Green put aside talk of a trade for Buffalo's Travis Henry and got instead the best runner in the draft, Cal's J.J. Arrington. Arrington, coincidentally, was the reason Aaron Rodgers slipped into round one in the first place, putting up huge numbers — 2,018 yards and 15 touchdowns — in his senior season with the Golden Bears.
The knock on Arrington is that he lacks prototypical size for an NFL running back, but this wart simply isn't genuine. At 5-9 and 214 pounds, Arrington has elite size in the mold of Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson. In many ways, he is a shorter, stronger version of former Vikings and Dennis Green halfback Robert Smith, displaying electrifying burst and good leg drive between the tackles.
Arrington dominated top-level opposition in his senior year, including 5 of the top 20 rushing defenses in college football: USC, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, and Arizona State. In every game in which he has logged at least 12 carries, Arrington has rushed for more than 100 yards, with a career 6.6 yards per carry average.
In June, Arrington will battle incumbent Marcel Shipp for the starting job and should win out. And, barring a serious injury, he will be the most productive back selected in 2005, with Miami's Ronnie Brown a close second.
As he did in 2004, Dennis Green struck gold in the middle rounds of the 2005 draft last weekend. With his second of two picks in the third stanza, Green landed Virginia rush linebacker Darryl Blackstock, a player in the mold of 2004 second round selection Karlos Dansby. Blackstock will get in the mix early in rotation with incumbent James Darling and should supplant him by Week 8.
Blackstock was a rush artist in Al Groh's pro 3-4 in college, amassing 44 tackles for loss and 27 sacks, including 11 in his final year. His size (6-3, 247) and speed (4.66) are outstanding, and if he can be coached up, he will be a very good linebacker at the pro level.
Green used his other third-rounder to select his namesake, Virginia Tech corner Eric Green. Green is a bit of a project who struggled with injuries at the college level. He has good size (5-11, 198), but is a cover corner who tends to shy away from contact, the antithesis of Antrel Rolle. At this point, he projects as a nickel/dime situational corner along with Robert Tate and will probably never be an every-down player for Arizona.
However, Dennis Green plucked his fourth new starter when he landed Virginia offensive guard Elton Brown in the fourth round. The enormous Brown (6-5, 330) was the best guard available and projected by many to be a 1-2 round selection. At pick 111, he could be the biggest steal in the draft besides Arrington.
For a player of his size, Brown pulls incredibly well and punishes at the second-level. He is an immediate upgrade over either Reggie Wells or Jeremy Bridges on the interior line, and Green admitted in a press conference that he projects Brown as a tackle in two or three years.
For the second year in a row, Dennis Green has harvested four immediate impact starters from the college level. That doesn't mean, however, that the Arizona Cardinals are the team to beat in the NFC West.
They still have key issues to resolve at quarterback with the addition of Kurt Warner, although Green's track record with veteran quarterbacks suggests success. More pressing is the Anquan Boldin contract issue, which could rob Arizona of its most dangerous receiving option for most of the offseason, if not longer.
Additionally, the free agency loss of tight end Freddie Jones, who caught 45 balls for 426 yards in 2004, is more significant than most analysts anticipate, given the lack of depth and experience currently on the roster. Neither Eric Edwards nor Lorenzo Diamond project as starters, and it's not out of the question that Bobby Blizzard, who has been a force in NFL Europe this summer, could get the call.
The Seattle Seahawks, last year's division champ, are on the wane. However, with the St. Louis Rams very quietly getting better defensively and the San Francisco 49ers doing everything they can to win at least a few more games, Dennis Green and the Valley of the Sun are still a year or two away from making a serious Super Bowl bid.
But as long as Green continues to kidnap the annual college draft, the Cardinals — like the proverbial phoenix — are bound to rise.
Only in your fantasies...
Keep an eye on the Arrington/Marcel Shipp battle as it develops in camp and through the preseason. Shipp still has a good chance to earn some carries away from Arrington at this point.
However, if Arrington gets into position to receive 20-30 plays a game, he will be a very productive No. 2 fantasy running back — a better version of Brian Westbrook a year ago — and is worth a shot in the middle rounds of your draft.