Cardinals' contingency plan could surprise

Nick Fairley (Getty)

The Cardinals have several areas of need heading into this week's draft, but a forgotten defensive prospect might be on the team's ultimate wish list.

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It's hard to believe that the draft is almost here. Later this week, the grueling work put in by all 32 NFL teams in recent months will either be rewarded or exposed.

Coming off a disappointing 5-11 campaign, few teams have more on the line than the Arizona Cardinals.

If the Cardinals manage to get back in the playoff race in 2011, a successful draft – even an extraordinary draft – will be the first step in that process. With the fifth overall pick, the uncertainty of the draft stands to affect Arizona significantly.

Countless questions still exist and won't be addressed until the draft commences. What will happen with the quarterbacks? Will Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert go in the top five? Will Von Miller and Patrick Peterson be gone by the time the Cardinals go on the clock? Will there be opportunities to trade down? Is there a chance Arizona could even trade up?

With the variables above, one thing's for certain: nothing should be expected come Thursday night and the Cardinals will be right in the thick of how the draft pans out.

Given the current needs on the Arizona roster, a handful of prospects have been singled out so far in the draft process. Miller has been the hot name and fits most of the criteria coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves look for in a rookie. Miller, however, has been such a hot name there's a growing chance that he'll be off the board. The Buffalo Bills, owners of the third pick, have also been linked to Miller and even the Denver Broncos have expressed interest with the second pick.

The next logical name would be Peterson. But in addition to the idea of him being unavailable, shut-down cornerbacks have never been a priority in the blueprint of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. It's obvious that Whisenhunt is still trying to instill those Steeler principles, evident by the recent hiring of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who formerly served as the secondary coach in Pittsburgh.

Under Whisenhunt, Arizona has had a tendency of going with prospects who present great value, rather than drafting solely on need. While there are several areas that need to be addressed, there are very few areas that are set in stone that would be immune from more help in the draft.

Could Nick Fairley be the second coming of Warren Sapp?
(AP Photo)

Arizona's defensive line is considered one of the strengths of the team, but like most areas, struggled a year ago. Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams appear to fixtures for years to come but the jury is still out on Calais Campbell. With getting pressure on the quarterback a major priority for Horton, one name not to forget is Auburn DT Nick Fairley.

Fairley makes his way to the NFL in a Warren Sapp type of mold. Fairley demonstrates a relentless motor and is arguably the most disruptive player in this year's draft.

Arizona's draft board usually looks somewhat unique compared to the rest of the teams in the NFL. Williams, last year's first-round pick, was much higher on the Cardinals' draft board than other teams. Furthermore, second-round pick Daryl Washington was given a higher than usual grade by Arizona's front office and the team traded up to secure him.

There could be a similar outcome brewing with Fairley, who was once under consideration to be the top overall pick in the draft. Since then, Fairley has been overshadowed by Newton and fellow defensive line prospect Marcell Dareus, who has become the consensus choice to be the top defender taken.

Targeting Fairley could leave the Cardinals with a number of possibilities at pick No.5. Fairley should be available and if they feel strongly enough, he'll be the choice. Arizona, however, could have the opportunity to trade back a few slots, acquire more draft picks, and still select Fairley later on.

The addition of Fairley could potentially cannibalize Campbell, a former second-round pick, but teaming him with Dockett and Williams would wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines. Williams, serving as the anchor of the Cardinals' 3-4 defense, along with the versatility of Dockett and Fairley on the perimeter would be a difficult proposition for any team to stop.

Additionally, Fairley's presence in the trenches would kill multiple birds with one stone. The attention needed to stop both him and Dockett would free up Arizona's linebacking corps, which was one of the team's biggest downfalls last season. The Cardinals' secondary, another major shortcoming in 2010, would also benefit from Fairley making his way to the desert.

Fairley might be considered a contingency plan at this point, but he might be the best plan. Only time will tell, but the waiting will soon be over when Arizona goes on the clock in primetime on Thursday.

Questions or comments? Contact Brad Wilbricht at

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