But it is one thing to think the organization coveted different players, and quite another to watch it transpire.
The “All Or Nothing” documentary had a memorable scene in which Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough spoke to Ameer Abdullah as the team’s second-round selection approached. The plan was to scoop up the Nebraska running back, but that was squashed when the Lions grabbed him one pick beforehand.
“I was on the phone with the Cardinals for almost the entirety of the second round after like the second pick of the second round,” Abdullah told the Detroit Free Press. “I actually got the MVP at (Cardinals coach) Bruce Arians’ annual camp in Alabama back in like my sophomore year in high school, so I knew him when I was like 15, I met him personally. He was high on me then and it was just ironic that he reached back out. I was on the phone with him, but I’m glad I’m in Detroit. It all worked out.”
After their target vanished, the Cardinals had to adjust on the fly, and adjust they did. After trading down three spots, they nabbed Golden, the outside linebacker who finished tied for third in the NFL with 12½ sacks last season. One round later, they added Johnson, the ultimate running back consolation prize. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2016.
All three players will be on the same field Sunday when the Cardinals head to Detroit for the season opener. If not for one twist of fate, their lives could have been drastically altered.
“That definitely goes through my mind whenever I think about the draft, how different my life, my career could have been, what other team I would have been on,” Johnson said. “Who knows if I would have even been drafted in the third round, or later, because I knew it was the Cardinals who had high hopes for me. I definitely always think about that stuff. I’m blessed to be here, because this offense fits my talent so well.”
Neither Golden nor Johnson realized how close the Cardinals were to drafting Abdullah until watching the documentary.
“I’ve always been mature about stuff,” Golden said. “I know it’s a business. You know anything can happen. Going into that day, I thought I was going to be drafted second round by the Cardinals, and it ended up working out how it was supposed to. I bet everybody’s glad that they didn’t draft Abdullah.”
As the opener beckons, Abdullah is still trying to make his mark in Detroit. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 161 career totes, but ball security issues and injuries have held him back in his first two seasons.
“I think if you look at his numbers in previous years, the first year he was with us, I think you can make a determination on what he can do,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “You also saw when he was healthy last year, what he could do. I think that’s a pretty good indication.”
Caldwell said he was unaware of the Cardinals’ high interest level in his running back coming out of the draft.
“I don’t tend to watch TV, nor do I tend to read articles about anything dealing with our team other than what’s important to us and what’s important now to getting ready,” Caldwell said. “I know he was attractive to a lot of different teams.”
The Lions are still a pass-first offense with the recently-minted Matthew Stafford leading the way, but the Cardinals must pay attention to Abdullah. While Golden has made his name as a pass rusher, he is motivated to slow down the Detroit running game.
“I’m excited to play him, to play that running back,” Golden said. “One, he’s a good player, and then just the competitor in me, man. I’m excited to play the Detroit Lions, Matt Stafford, but like you were just talking about (with the draft), I’m excited to go out there and go against Abdullah.”
It’s an interesting mental exercise to consider Abdullah in the backfield with the Cardinals or Johnson and Golden elsewhere. Johnson wondered aloud if another team would have taken as much advantage of his receiving prowess. Golden had fewer doubts.
“Me, man, it was going to work out for me,” Golden said. “I feel like no matter where my life would have went or where I played at, it would have worked out for me, because I’m always going to put in the work to do it.”
The Lions pick shuttered that butterfly effect. As Abdullah aims for a breakout third season in Detroit, the Cardinals are elated to have their two young stars in the fold.
“It’s funny,” Arians said, “how things like that work out.”