They’ve climbed from the bottom to the middle of the pack. But to reach the heights, the Cardinals will need to hit the mark in next weekend’s NFL draft. It’s happened before.

Read Mike Tulumello's blog, 'Bird Watching'

Four years ago, the Cardinals nailed the draft. And that allowed the long-suffering franchise to escape its lowly status and boost its image with fans.

In 2004, the Cardinals drafted receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and defensive end Antonio Smith.

The first three have become dominant players, while Smith — a project at first — started to blossom last season.

How did the Cardinals, long criticized for missed chances in the draft, come through in that draft?

In general, “You saw a tremendous amount of competitiveness in those players,” general manager Rod Graves said. “That’s the thing we’ve tended to try to focus on more and more: the competitive nature of the player and his production ... playing hard, playing physical and competing at a high level.”

Here’s how the Cards, for once, struck it rich in the draft:


Because of their 4-12 record, the Cardinals picked third overall.

In previous years, top-10 draft picks resulted in such nonstars as Tom Knight, Andre Wadsworth, David Boston and Thomas Jones. Instead of filling the Cardinals’ perennial talent shortage, these picks actually reinforced it.

In Fitzgerald, the Cards got a player with tremendous talent and a work ethic to boot.

Graves thought he might have been the best player in the entire draft.

“His production as a college player was outstanding. And we needed a receiver,” Graves said. “When you talk about not passing great players up, obviously that was the consideration.”


The tall, rangy Dansby clearly was an athlete “who played the game hard,” Graves said — somebody who could “give us something at that position we didn’t have.”

The pick didn’t turn out to be a big hit early, as Dansby sometimes was bogged down by injuries.

But he arrived in a big way in 2007, after being moved from the outside to the inside, where he showed he could both play the run and even disrupt the passing game with his 6-foot-4 frame.


The Cardinals never questioned the Florida State defensive tackle’s ability.

“Dock had all the tools ... and he played the game hard,” Graves said.

Some projections had him going in Round 1.

But other teams seemed to have concerns about him, off the field, Graves said, and he fell to the Cards in Round 3.

But, “We had done enough work ... had interviewed him, talked to staff members back at Florida State, where we felt comfortable making that selection.

“Sometimes that happens. Players fall for one reason or another. We took advantage of it.”


He could end up being the piece to this draft that really makes it great.

Smith was drafted in Round 5 as “a tall skinny kid” out of Oklahoma State,” Graves recalled.

“The first year, he might even have been on our practice squad.”

Smith gradually improved his strength and conditioning to where he seemed like a decent backup, though forced to start for the Cards at defensive end.

In 2007, he started to become a force for them.

This year, “I think he’s set to have his biggest season for us yet,” Graves said.


The Cardinals almost certainly need similar results this year to make a break toward elite status.

They would seem to be looking hard at the running back and cornerback positions at their No. 16 spot in Round 1.

Yet, in approaching this year’s draft, Graves said, “While we have certain areas we’d like to address at some point ... with that first pick you can’t lose sight of the fact that there could very well be a good player there at a position that’s not at the top of our priority list.

“… We’ve had better success when we’ve allowed the ‘best player’ approach to rule.”

Last year, the Cardinals drafted Penn State offensive tackle Levi Brown at No. 5, bypassing running back Adrian Peterson.

Brown played solidly enough for a rookie, but Peterson — taken two picks later by Minnesota — single-handedly has improved the Vikings’ prospects.

USA Today had pro football experts stage a mock “backdraft” for 2007; Peterson went No. 1, not No. 7 as he did last year, while Brown went No. 15, not No. 5.

The decisions will come down next weekend.

To make their move, the Cardinals will be hoping for more of 2004.

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