Football is a game of character. As such, the relationship building process, much like many job opportunities, is critical when pining for a chance to make it to the NFL. For prospective draftees, that component is even more critical.
It was proven across the three days of the NFL Draft, as most of the Arizona Cardinals draftees had direct connections to the franchise. It is not just about skill when you get to the professional level; character and fit are key factors when it comes to evaluations.
Beginning in the first round at No. 8 overall, the Cardinals selected Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons. For one, Simmons was not projected to slide that far — which made the pick a little easier — but the organization's general manager Steve Keim has a direct connection to the Tigers' staff. That is because Clemson's offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell was Keim's position coach while he played at North Carolina State. Since then, Keim has continued the relationship with Caldwell and has become close with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.
"I'm fortunate enough that I got to spend a lot of time with Dabo Swinney (and) my college position coach who I'm very close with, Robbie Caldwell's the line coach at Clemson," Keim said. "So we felt like the intel we had on the person and the player was second to none. And again, very fortunate to feel like we had an opportunity to select him at eight, just truly feeling like he's one of the best players in this draft."
Without a second-round pick as a result of the trade for DeAndre Hopkins, the Cardinals still picked up a steal in the third round at No. 72 overall in Houston tackle Josh Jones. Another prospect who was projected to go higher than his selection, Jones was initially recruited by Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury when he was at the same position at Texas Tech.
"He told me no, I do remember that," Kingsbury said in relation to what he remembers from recruiting Jones. "But no, you could tell he was an athletic player. He had great focus. Even then, you could tell he wanted to be a good player. You've just see him grow up. Really happy to get to work with him after he turned me down initially."
Additionally, Houston offensive line coach Brandon Jones was Kingsbury's o-line coach for the Red Raiders before moving to the Cougars. Furthermore, Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen is who Kingsbury attributes his initiation into coaching to.
"We definitely had some good relationships there, at U of H," Kingsbury said. "Dana Holgorsen really got me into coaching. First job there was at U of H and Brandon Jones, who was Josh's o-line coach there this year at U o fH, was my offensive line coach at Texas Tech. So, there's a lot of good synergy going there and we're so thrilled it worked out. We did not expect him to be there."
In the fourth round, the Cardinals selected two defensive linemen. The latter of the two, No. 131 overall pick Rashard Lawrence out of LSU, knew of the organization's interest because of a tie on his coaching staff. That is because Tigers' wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph is the brother of Arizona's defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
“Mickey put in a big, good word for me and Vance really liked my tape," Lawrence said. "They had a pretty good grade on me, so I knew that with those two picks there was a chance that I’d get taken there. Coach (Ed Orgeron) and (Director of Athletic Training) Jack Marucci and everybody put in a good word with the whole staff at Arizona. It was a good connection.
"At first I didn’t meet too much with them at the Combine, but I talked to Coach O and he called me up one day and was like, ‘Man, Arizona loves you,’ and it kind of surprised me at first because I didn’t have much buzz about Arizona. It makes sense with Mickey Joseph and Vance Joseph, that connection and all the great people on both sides."
Lastly, in the seventh round, the franchise picked local with Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin. A fan favorite from his record-setting career with the Sun Devils, Kingsbury also tried recruiting Benjamin to Texas Tech when he was a high-school prospect from Wylie, Tex. Benjamin also has a comfort level with some players already on the roster from past training experiences.
“I was actually just on the phone with (running back) Kenyan Drake and he was giving me some encouraging words as far as what to expect when I come in the room, welcome aboard and stuff like that," Benjamin said shortly after being drafted. "This offseason I had the opportunity to go out there and work with (running back) Chase Edmonds and run routes with him during this offseason. Also, (quarterback) Kyler (Murray) is one of those guys that I have a pretty good relationship with I would say. Growing up kind of in the same area of Texas I’ve been able to see him play, we talk every now and then when we see each other. I think we’re going to get things going.”
Needless to say, this advanced scouting ability fueled the Cardinals' draft approach. On paper, they seemingly hit it out of the park. Especially considering the altered draft format and inability to operationally function at a normal level. We will see how the six new additions do on the field, but the extra synergy should help regardless.