Cards get pass rusher, finish draft with needs filled

Texas pass rusher Alex Okafor among third-day picks as Cards finish draft with needs filled.

TEMPE, Ariz. – For a team that insisted it wasn’t drafting for need, the Cardinals sure filled a lot of needs in the NFL Draft.

Maybe it was just a happy coincidence, but when the dust had settled on Saturday’s six picks, Arizona had grabbed another offensive guard while adding a pass rusher, a running back, a speedy receiver, another running back and a tight end.

Add to that the first two days’ picks of guard Jonathan Cooper, inside linebacker Kevin Minter and safety Tyrann Mathieu and the Cards nearly completed their shopping list -- with the possible exception of a defensive tackle/nose tackle, which said they intend to pursue in free agency.

“We filled needs while feeling we got pretty good football players at the same time,” said general manager Steve Keim, noting that all of the players the Cardinals drafted were team captains. “We truly feel like every guy has a chance to come in and make an immediate impact in some way or the other, whether it’s come in as a starter, come in as a significant role player or a guy that’s going to come in and help us on all our core special teams.”

While this weekend’s picks reminded us that you shouldn’t believe anything teams tell you before the draft, the Cardinals should be commended for filling their needs with players who, at least according to the experts’ grades, have the potential to make significant contributions in the present and the future.

The Cards opened the third day of the draft by taking Texas defensive end Alex Okafor at the exact same spot (103rd overall) where they selected outside linebacker Sam Acho two seasons ago. The two played together at Texas, and Okafor is also expected to play outside linebacker after the Cards asked him if he felt comfortable at that position at the NFL Scouting Combine.

"I looked at them dead in the eye and said I was confident in my athletic ability,” Okafor said. “I know I can play that position for them."

Okafor’s best asset may be his ability to get to the quarterback. As a senior last season, he had 68 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles while earning unanimous All-Big 12 first-team honors. In the Alamo Bowl, he set a bowl-game record with 4.5 sacks and totaled six tackles for loss in Texas' win over Oregon State.

With their second fourth-round pick (acquired in a trade), the Cards took their second offensive guard of the draft, James Madison’s Earl Watford. It was the first time in the franchise’s history that it had selected two guards in the first four picks, another possible coincidence considering Keim is a former guard.

Watford said he was celebrating with a large group of teammates after going in the fourth round.

“JMU?” he said. “That’s a big deal here.”

In the fifth and sixth rounds, the Cardinals got Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, a short but physical, hard runner; Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope, who ran a 4.34 40 at the combine but likely dropped in the draft due to the four concussions he suffered in college; and Clemson running back Andre Ellington, who, like Taylor, is an excellent pass protector while also providing an element of speed and elusiveness in the run game.

Swope said he never missed a game (he left in the first quarter of a game against Louisiana Tech on Oct. 13) due to his concussions, adding that neither the school’s training staff nor doctors are concerned with the concussion history moving forward. He was originally viewed as a possession receiver when he reached the combine, which he admitted put a chip on his shoulder.

“It was my chance to kind of shine and turn heads and showcase my speed that people were kind of sleeping on,” Swope said.

The final pick, D.C. Jefferson, who is primarily a blocking tight end, may be a candidate for the practice squad, but he was perhaps the most entertaining interview of the day, offering this quip: "I expected to be the first pick in the first round, but it didn't work out that way."

When asked if he could play quarterback due to his arrival at Rutgers as a highly touted QB, Jefferson said: “I can play any cat.”

Quarterback was, in fact, the one conspicuous absence from Saturday’s selections. The Cards even had a chance to take Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib but traded their fourth-round pick to the Giants for an extra pick, and New York promptly took Nassib.

“I know that early on in the process I had talked about subscribing to the theory of taking a quarterback every year, and I really still believe in that,” Keim said. “The difference is our two draft choices came through free agency with Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, so we didn’t feel like that was a necessary move that we needed to make. And quite frankly, the way the board shook out, the quarterback at no point was the top player on our board.”

The final breakdown on the draft was this: three defensive players (with three of the top four picks) at positions of definite need and six offensive players. Keim and coach Bruce Arians were predictably pleased with their draft (when have you ever heard a coach and GM say otherwise?), but the real proof and accurate grades won’t come until two or three years down the line.

“I don’t think we reached. I think we got great value at every pick,” Keim said. “It’s not ultimately what you shoot for when you set your board up, but if you have confidence in your draft board and your scouts and in your scouting system, you have an opportunity to reap the benefits, which we did this past weekend.”