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Cardinals go big on small-school players in this year's draft

Cole Toner was one of three non-FBS school players the Cardinals drafted in this year's draft. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was only a matter of time until Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim started picking small-school prospects in this year's NFL draft.

It's become his M.O. -- six non-FBS picks in his first three drafts, including five in his last two -- and his secret recipe to 34 wins in three seasons. But once he started Saturday, he didn't stop.

The Cardinals drafted three small-school players for the second straight year, increasing the number of draft picks from non-FBS schools to nine in Keim's four seasons. For the first time, however, small-school picks accounted for at least half of Arizona's total draft haul.

As long as small-school picks continue performing the way wide receiver John Brown out of Pittsburg State, running back David Johnson from Northern Iowa or defensive tackle Rodney Gunter from Delaware have performed, Keim will continue drafting them.

"As long as you believe in the player and you believe in your grade and you believe in your eyes, that's all that matters," Keim said.

But before Keim made the call to draft safety Marqui Christian from Midwestern State, guard Cole Toner out of Harvard and Southeast Louisiana cornerback Harlan Miller on Saturday, he had to be convinced they all had one specific trait.

"When you are talking about those small-school guys, I've said a lot there has to be a chip on their shoulder," Keim said.

Each passed the football test. Keim believes they all have the talent, the size and the speed to play in the NFL -- otherwise why would he have wasted a pick on them? During his post-draft news conference, Keim said he feels they all have a chance to make the roster as rookies but also "have a chance to contribute in Year 1."

He saw Toner and Miller at the Senior Bowl. Cardinals scout Adrian Wilson saw Christian at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and returned to Arizona with "his jaw dropping," Keim said.

Toner caught Arizona's attention at the Senior Bowl by doing "some nice things there against some of the top competition." Miller "stepped up under the bright lights in Mobile and answered the bell at the Senior Bowl," Keim said.

"I think it speaks volumes of Steve and our staff when you take back-to-back guys from Midwestern State and Harvard," Arians said. "They cover everything, everybody and our staff does such a great job, all our scouts of finding every single guy that is out there."

Part of what sold Keim on each was the confidence they showed during pre-draft interviews.

"More than anything, in the pre-draft process, when you get to know them as people, you want them to exude some type of passion and, more than anything, a confidence about themselves because they're going to hit adversity at some point," Keim said. "There is no question about it.

"One they get through baggage claim they are going to have some issues here. Whether it is schematically or the big lights in the city, it's how they face that that helps them succeed. All these guys that are from smaller schools, we're extremely excited about because they did show an air of confidence about themselves through the process."

One part of Arizona's evaluation of small-school players includes how well they dominated their competition in college, coach Bruce Arians said. However, there's a significant risk with drafting players that can't be determined by watching game film or conducting interviews with coaches.

When small-school players enter the NFL, they typically veer one of two ways. They're either overwhelmed and starstruck or they have a chip on their shoulder wanting to prove they can play with the former big-school stars, Arians said.

Which way they go can potentially dictate their career.

"I think if they come in with a chip on their shoulder, you love them," Arians said. "If they're overwhelmed they get lost quickly -- walk in the locker room, it's 'Oh, my god, there is Patrick Peterson, there is Larry Fitzgerald,' instead of saying, ‘Hey, let's go put the pads on and play.'"

Starting Friday, when the rookies take the field for their first day of minicamp, Arians will see who's intimidated and who's doing the intimidating.

"They have to have a swagger about them to be able to come into a locker room of SEC guys and other guys with a chip on their shoulder," Arians said. "You want that chip on their shoulder because that's usually the thing that gets them through. They're trying to prove it every single day. Some of them keep it for five or six years, and that's how they make it."