Arizona Cardinals' general manager Steve Keim has developed a reputation for his ability to turn small school prospects into NFL contributors through the draft.
During this year's draft, Keim and the Cardinals used their final three selections on players who didn't play college ball at the FBS level, but still dominated the competition they did face.
The first small college prospect the Cardinals took a chance on this year was safety Marqui Christian, who competed at Midwestern State where he won the Cliff Harris Award in 2015 as the nation's top small college defensive player.
"He is a guy who really came onto the scene late for us," Keim said. "But the closure that came in late in the process was a guy named Adrian Wilson (Cardinals scout), who went to the NFLPA game and came back with jaw dropping."
Day three draft picks aren't typically made with the idea that selections will become starters or immediate impact players, and with safeties Tyvon Branch, Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson in the fold already, the Cardinals don't necessarily need Christian to make contributions defensively early in his career.
However, a player like Christian has inherent value to the Cardinals because he possesses specific skills that can aid the team in sub package personnel groupings, and he has potential to play on special teams units.
While the transition from a school like Midwestern State to the NFL is a significant jump, Christian's tape reveals qualities that the Cardinals could develop and help turn him into an intriguing player in the defensive backfield.
- Christian's best quality as a safety is his ability to dissect plays. At the snap, safeties are reading the movements of guards and tackles to recognize plays as they develop, and Christian is outstanding at reacting to what's playing out in front of him. While Christian doesn't have top end speed (He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at his Pro Day) he makes up for this, especially on running plays, with a high football IQ that gives Christian opportunities to make tackles closer to the line of scrimmage.
- Christian is tenacious in his pursuit of the football and looks to play downhill to give himself the leverage to finish plays. When Christian has a clean path to the football, he throws his entire 5-foot-10, 196-pound frame at ball carriers. These qualities are reflective of an instinctive athlete who has a strong feel for the game and his position, and Christian seems to pride himself on his ability to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage. While some safeties are more passive and concerned with protecting against downfield passing attempts, Christian is a run defender first and a pass defender second despite playing in the defensive backfield.
- Though Christian doesn't play "centerfield" like some safeties who track down passes on both sides of the field, he does have a demonstrated ability to knock passes away and close on receivers. On a handful of plays, we saw receivers have an opportunity to make difficult catches and secure the ball to the ground, but Christian was relentless with his hands and strong with a rip move to separate receivers from the football. It's hard to imagine Christian becoming a player who racks up interceptions and pass breakups because of his style of play, but when he does converge on the ball in the passing game, Christian plays with a smart physicality that makes the game more difficult for receivers.
- Even though Christian dissects plays well, he's sometimes too quick in his estimations and guesses wrong. This takes Christian out of the mix on certain plays, and at Midwestern State, Christian had the recovery speed to make up for these mistakes. In the NFL, guessing wrong is going to hurt Christian because the game is played at such a faster speed. To become a contributor at safety, Christian will have to be more precise with his key reads and not allow offenses to deceive him.
- Christian is always looking to deliver a blow to ball carriers, and while this quality made him a force to be reckoned with in college, he will have to be careful with how his game translates to the NFL. Christian will face faster and shiftier players upon entering camp, which will challenge Christian to be cognizant of how he breaks down to make a tackle. In college, Christian didn't need to have great footwork when he approached ball carriers, but in the pros, he must do a better job of maintaining his downhill mentality while still keeping the proper technique to make tackles. It's easy to see how Christian could get in trouble with overrunning plays and guessing wrong, so film study and coachability will be critical in Christian's early development.
- Christian has the ability to help himself earn a roster spot by contributing on kick coverage units. A player who has an obvious passion for flying up in the box to make tackles is fearless, and that's the type of player who thrives on special teams units. Christian can take cues from new teammate Justin Bethel, who has set the standard for how to make an impact as a reserve defensive back and stand out special teams performer.
Christian's style of play is reminiscent of Cardinals' Money linebacker Deone Bucannon, a college safety who technically starts at inside linebacker. Bucannon is undersized but physical, and loves playing up in the box. Though Christian is a bit smaller than Bucannon, it's conceivable the organization could look to develop him in a similar role depending on how quickly he picks up the complexities of a new scheme and how well he does against the run early in his career.