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Thursday, May 8, 2014
First-round picks face high expectations

By Josh Weinfuss

There’s a reason the first round of the NFL draft has its own day.

These are the players fans want to see, the elite of the college crop, the men whose jerseys they’ll be wearing someday.

First-round picks carry an extra burden. The Arizona Cardinals will expect more out of their pick than those players drafted in Rounds 2-7. It’s not just because the Cards will invest the most money in him, it’s because Arizona hedged the most on it. With hundreds of prospects available, the Cards believed their pick at No. 20 on Thursday night is better than the rest.

Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart was a first-round draft pick who didn't pan out.
Talk about pressure.

But when Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, coach Bruce Arians and their team of scouts began evaluating potential first-round picks, determining who was the best talent was the easiest part. It’s judging the intangibles that is the biggest risk.

So, what does Arizona want out of its pick tonight?

“Probably the guy that has the most passion, the best football player available, because we really don’t have a glaring need and a guy that would play for free -- a guy that loves to play the game,” Arians said. “You’re going to pay him anyway, but he’d play for free. He brings that kind of passion and excitement to the building.”

Not every first-round pick is a success. There are the notable busts like Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell and the local failures like Levi Brown or Matt Leinart.

It’s a gamble in every sense of the word. Teams pay first-rounders a lot of money with the hope that they perform. Sometimes there's just not a return on investment.

“I’ve said this many times before: It’s an inexact science because it’s hard to judge the heart and the mind,” Keim said.

Potential first-round picks have been passed over for character issues, drug problems or nagging injuries. Teams have also skipped by players in the first round who weren’t football smart. Seeing how a potential pick thinks on the field can be the difference between drafting him or not.

During their pre-draft meetings, the Cardinals -- and all teams -- will test a player’s knowledge of schemes and packages. They’ll have players diagram plays and explain their role in the action. Coaches will throw out scenarios to see how players react. They want to find out how quickly a player, especially a first rounder, can understand the largest playbook they will have seen.

Those interviews can make or break a player’s future with a team, or at the very least cause them to drop out of the first round. Arians has seen it happen but he relies on nearly 40 years of coaching experience to figure people out.

“You can get a lot of information whether a guy works hard at his college -- is he the last one in or is he first one in? Is he the last one to leave or the first one to leave? Where does he go when he leaves? You can get all that information,” Arians said. “You want that gym rat guy who is also a great athlete. They don’t always come in the same package but he has to be a good mix of those two.”

In order to be a first-round pick, a college prospect is usually the first one to arrive and last one to leave. These days, with the proliferation of technology, it’s tough for a player to ever be out of the spotlight. Everything they do is tracked and splashed on social media. While an annoyance, it’s good preparation for the NFL.

Yet while expectations off the field are accelerated for the first 32 picks, teams want to see them produce on the field. And quickly.

Arians hopes the Cardinals' first-round pick will make an impact immediately.

“I would think you would want that,” Arians said. “The only position that you would ever consider not doing that would be a quarterback that you feel needs to sit for a year.”