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If the Arizona Cardinals always drafted as well as they did in 2004, they wouldn't be the Arizona Cardinals.
The 2004 draft is a big reason the NFL's longtime losers are in their first Super Bowl.
The Cardinals picked Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the first round, Auburn linebacker Karlos Dansby in the second, Florida State defensive tackle Darnell Dockett in the third and Oklahoma State defensive end Antonio Smith in the fifth.
"We definitely think that is the best class the Arizona Cardinals have ever had," Dockett said. "We are going to stick to that. If anybody wants to prove me wrong, I'm going to sit down and have a discussion with them."
As draft classes go, it's not as loaded as Pittsburgh's fabled 1974 draft, when the Steelers selected four future Hall of Famers in the first five rounds — Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
But everything's relative, and given the Cardinals' spotty draft history, it's hard to overestimate the importance of the 2004 draft.
"That was an unbelievable class for us," said defensive end Bertrand Berry, signed as a free agent the same year. "Those guys have all paid huge dividends for us."
Because they were so bad for so long, the Cardinals have had many high draft picks. The list of disappointments could stretch the length of a football field.
In 1998, the Cardinals drafted Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth third overall. He lasted three years, recording eight sacks, before knee injuries shortened his career.
In 2002, they chose Wisconsin defensive tackle Wendell Bryant with the 12th overall pick. Bryant started nine games in his career and had 1 1/2 sacks.
Their luck turned in 2004, thanks in part to Dennis Green, who had just been hired as coach and was also involved in personnel matters.
Green introduced the concept of the "120 board." The Cardinals ranked the top 120 prospects in the order they would select them if each one was available.
On draft day, club officials crossed players off as soon as they were drafted. When it came time for the Cardinals to choose, they picked the top remaining name on their board, regardless of their roster needs.
"We had given long discussion on that group, and we had committed ourselves to that order, and so it really took all discussions on draft day out of it," general manager Rod Graves said.
After San Diego picked quarterback Eli Manning first overall and the Oakland Raiders took Iowa's Robert Gallery, the Cardinals snapped up Fitzgerald.
Other options were Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Roy Williams, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and defensive back Sean Taylor.
"There was no doubt that we all felt like he was the best player in the country at the time," Graves said.
"We felt that Larry gave us an opportunity for the greatest margin of improvement."
It turned out to be a brilliant pick.
The rangy, athletic Fitzgerald was picked to his third Pro Bowl this year, and he has exploded onto the national stage this postseason. In three games, Fitzgerald has 23 catches for an NFL-playoff-record 419 yards and five touchdowns.
Dockett and Dansby haven't received the same attention as Fitzgerald — starting with draft day, when their selections elicited little more than shrugs from many fans.
"As it turned out, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, those were the highest-rated players left," Graves said. "We had first-round grades on those guys, and it was just our good fortune that they were still available at the time.
"For various reasons, those players may have been left on the board that long, but for us, we stayed true to our system and it yielded those players," Graves said.
The fiesty Dockett had four sacks, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries this year. He's forced one fumble and recovered another in the playoffs.
Dansby, appointed the defensive team captain before the season, has a team-high 29 tackles in the playoffs, including four for loss.
Of the four 2004 picks, Smith took the most difficult route to NFL success. He played in only two games as a rookie, then spent the spring of 2005 with the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe.
Smith has two sacks, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble in the playoffs.
Green only lasted three losing seasons in the desert. But the "120 board" lives on, although Graves said the club continues to revise and update the concept.
He also credited Green's successor, Ken Whisenhunt, and his staff with maximizing the talent they've been given.
"I've always said that it's hard to have your draft choices recognized as being good if the development and the proper use of those players isn't taking place," Graves said.
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