An unknown commodity at the beginning of the 2008 draft process, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine and elevated his status from a third round prospect to a mid-first round pick. It’s hard to expect a player from the Division I-AA level to have an immediate impact, and at first Rodgers-Cromartie got off to a slow start. But the top prospect in the Cardinals organization got more comfortable with the defense as the season progressed, and the promise and playmaking ability he showed leading up to the draft began to surface. Rodgers-Cromartie played in all 16 games, starting 11, and turned doubters into believers with a rookie campaign where he had his 42 tackles and four interceptions. His ability to turn defense into offense was on display last year during a Week 14 contest against the Seattle Seahawks when he returned one of his four interceptions for a 99-yard touchdown. Rodgers-Cromartie’s ascension at the end of the year continued into the playoffs, and in the Cardinals first playoff victory in 61 years, he played a huge role and recorded nine tackles and an interception. At 6-foot-1, 182 pounds, Rodgers-Cromartie is expected to step up his game to a higher level in ’09 and take the next step in his progression towards stardom.
When the Cardinals selected former Penn State offensive tackle Levi Brown with the fifth overall pick in 2007, the pick was questioned but understood because they needed a young tackle that they could build their offensive line around. At 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, Brown started every game but one at left tackle for the Nittany Lions, and when the Cardinals selected him they envisioned him holding down that side of the line for the next decade. But it was determined early on that Brown fit best on the right side, and that’s where he’s played in his 27 career starts. Even though he hasn’t lived up to the enormous hype he came into Arizona with just yet, Brown is still an integral part of the teams future and warrants the distinction of the franchises No. 2 rated prospect. He played in 13 games, starting 11 as a rookie and performed well, but last year, as a starter in all 16 games, Brown suffered a sophomore slump and allowed 11 sacks. Brown is a major part of the offensive line, and for the Cardinals to be a successful offense, they have to keep Kurt Warner healthy, and that all starts with the play upfront. The Cardinals need Brown to rebound this season and become the dominant force they believe he can be.
The success that Brown has on the line this year will also benefit the Cardinals 2009 first round pick, running back Chris Wells. Wells had a tremendous three-year stay at Ohio State where he finished his career rushing for 3,382 yards on 585 carries and scored 30 touchdowns. The success that Wells had in college, combined with the fact that he was a first round pick who has a chance to have an immediate impact, makes him a logical selection as the Cardinals third rated prospect. At 6-foot-1, 237 pounds, Wells is a big, physical runner who has the ability to break free in the open field. He has great vision and displays patience when identifying a hole to attack. He sets up defenders nicely using his deceptive shiftiness and features a strong stiff arm to pick up tough yards. He has the ability to carry the load and take over a game. Durability is an issue, because he’s a bigger back that takes on more direct hits. But if he’s healthy, he has the potential to be one of the elite backs in the NFL.
The emergence of wide receiver Steve Breaston last year was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise for the Cardinals. During his four-year career at Michigan, Breaston was an accomplished receiver, but it was his ability as a return specialist that caught the attention of scouts. And it was his return skills that made him a key contributor as a rookie. In his first year with the Cardinals, Breaston played in all 16 games and amassed 1,786 return yards and scored one touchdown. As good as Breaston was in ’07, nobody could have imagined the success he had last year, which cemented his status as the fourth rated prospect in the organization. After Anquan Boldin went down with a serious injury, Breaston started 9 of 16 games in his place and finished the year with an astounding 77 receptions for 1,006 yards and three touchdowns. All three Cardinals receivers, Breaston, Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, had over 1,000 yards in ’08, becoming just the 5th receiving trio in NFL history to accomplish that feat. This year, Breaston will play in the slot and should continue to have success. The attention that Boldin and Fitzgerald receive on the outside will allow Breaston to see a lot of single coverage and create more opportunities to work in space.
The most surprising draft pick from the Cardinals ’08 class, and the unsung hero on offense throughout the season last year, was running back Tim Hightower. A highly productive runner at Richmond, who ended his career with the Spiders with a breakout senior campaign carrying the ball 327 times for 1,924 yards and 20 touchdowns, Hightower was selected in the fifth round after flying under the radar leading up to the draft. Listed behind veteran Edgerrin James on the depth chart last year, Hightower performed extremely well when he had a chance to play. The fifth rated prospect in the organization, Hightower started off as a situational runner when the season began, but eventually replaced James in the starting lineup. Playing in all 16 games last year and starting seven of them, Hightower had 143 carries for 399 yards and 10 touchdowns; he also caught 34 passes for 237 yards. With the Cardinals drafting Wells in the first round this year, it appears he has the upper hand on the starting job moving forward. But with Wells nursing an ankle injury, Hightower will likely begin the year as the starter. For Hightower to hold on to the job, he will have to improve his 2.9 YPC and show he has the explosiveness to be an every down back. As a short-yardage runner, Hightower is efficient, but in the end he may just turn out to be a compliment to Wells.The Cardinals have two more 2009 draft picks appearing in the top 10, second round defensive end/linebacker Cody Brown (No. 8), even though it was just announced that he will miss the ’09 season with a dislocated left wrist, and fourth round cornerback Greg Toler (No. 9). Also checking in the top 10 are defensive end Calais Campbell at No. 6, wide receiver Early Doucet at No. 7 and defensive tackle Alan Branch at No. 10. Just missing the cut were safety Rashad Johnson, guard Herman Johnson and tight end Ben Patrick.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.