Every GM, coach and scout wants to find that guy in the late rounds who will cement said executive’s status as an NFL Draft guru. There have certainly been players who made their bosses look good.
Hall of Famer Deacon Jones was a 14th-round pick, while Roger Staubach went in the 10th round. New England QB Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick, while Joe Montana went in the third round. Cardinals Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson went in the seventh round, while tight end Jackie Smith, another Canton inductee, was a 10th-round pick.
Following the Carson Palmer trade, the Cardinals have picks in every round, which will keep their brass working feverishly throughout the draft’s second and third days (and keep media members working longer than they had hoped). The odds say that most late-round picks won’t pan out, but there are times when every club strikes gold in unexpected places.
Here, in our opinion, are the five best draft-day steals in Arizona/Phoenix Cardinals history. For purposes of this list, we have eliminated first- and second-round picks because teams typically expect a major impact from those players. That discounts a player such receiver Anquan Boldin, a second-round pick who probably should have gone higher given his eye-popping production and success.
1. Larry Centers, FB, Stephen F. Austin, 1990, 5th round (115th overall)
Centers played 14 NFL seasons, nine of them with the Cardinals. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. In 1995, Centers had one of the greatest seasons ever recorded by a fullback, hauling in 101 receptions for 962 yards. Those 101 receptions are still the most ever in a single season by a running back. Centers followed that with 99 receptions for 766 yards and seven touchdowns while also gaining a career-high 425 yards with two rushing touchdowns in 1996. Centers finally tasted the playoffs in his final year in Arizona (1998) and then won a Super Bowl with New England in 2003.
2. Adrian Wilson, SS, North Carolina State, 2001, 3rd round (64th)
With Pat Tillman as his mentor, Wilson emerged as one of the franchise’s all-time icons during his 12-year tenure in the Valley. He made the Pro Bowl five times, he has the most sacks by a defensive back in a single season in NFL history (eight in 2005), he is one of just six players in NFL history with 25 interceptions and 25 sacks and he established the tone for the Cardinals defense with his hard-hitting, no excuses approach. In a perfect world, Wilson would get a chance to retire a Cardinal, but for now, he, like Centers, is finishing his playing career in New England.
Maybe his mythological name should have clued Cardinals fans into the fact that he was destined for heroism, but Williams took care of that on the field as well, earning eight Pro Bowl appearances, snaring 55 interceptions in his 14-year career and earning a reputation as one of the league’s best lockdown corners. He also made a name for himself with several signature plays. In 1998, Williams helped the Cardinals win their first playoff game since 1947 by intercepting two passes from Troy Aikman in a 20-7 win over the Cowboys, and he added another pick in a 41-21 loss in the divisional round. In 2000, he tied an NFL record by returning a fumble 104 yards for a touchdown in a game against the Redskins, and in Week 3 of the 1999 season, he delivered the hit that ultimately ended 49ers QB Steve Young’s career.
The franchise may not be wild about Dockett’s infamous antics off the field or his lapses in judgment. He may have only fallen this far in the draft because his previous arrests and run-ins with coaching staffs scared off a lot of teams, but when No. 90 steps between the sidelines, an inner fire almost always fuels him. In nine NFL seasons, Dockett has three Pro Bowl selections, and in 2007, he posted a career-high nine sacks. Dockett is signed through 2015, but there had been some talk that with a new coaching staff coming in, he might be headed elsewhere. Thus far, coach Bruce Arians and his staff have shown no inclination to let go of a player who still alters offensive game plans.
5. Steve Breaston, WR, Michigan, 2007, 5th round (142nd overall)
Breaston’s breakout year came in 2008 when he filled in for an injured Boldin. Breaston refused to participate in pregame introductions at home games out of deference to Boldin, but he finished the year with 1,006 yards, joining Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald as they became the fifth 1,000-yard receiving trio in NFL history. One year after the Cardinals traded Boldin to Baltimore, Breaston was allowed to walk in free agency in 2011 out of concerns that he was injury-prone. But in four seasons in the Valley, Breaston made a name for himself as the consummate teammate and a guy who played through every kind of injury for the sake of his team.
Pat Tillman, SS, ASU, 1998, 7th round (226nd overall)