TEMPE, Ariz. - The Arizona Cardinals said, as many teams do, that they would take the best player available with the 10th choice in the NFL draft.
They were pleased that player turned out to be quarterback Matt Leinart. The former Southern California star and 2004 Heisman Trophy winner was still on the board when the Cardinals’ turn came Saturday, and they wasted no time picking him.
“Lo and behold, we got the guy we wanted,” coach Dennis Green said. “We’re excited. We really look at this as a gift.”
During the offseason, the Cardinals signed starting quarterback Kurt Warner through 2008. But they have been looking for a backup who will take over the job when Warner retires. Warner, who turns 35 in June, hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2001, so Leinart could see action this season.
The Cardinals, who went 5-11 last year, have many needs. Arizona officials guessed that at least one of the draft’s three highly touted quarterbacks — Leinart, Vince Young of Texas and Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt — would be available when their turn came.
Tennessee selected Young third overall. Leinart and Cutler were still out there when Arizona selected. Cutler went with the 11th pick, to Denver.
“That was the key thing: Was Tennessee going to take Leinart or Young?” Green said.
Rod Graves, Arizona’s vice president for football operations, said several teams called with trade offers. But when the Cardinals’ turn came, they used only a fraction of their allotted 15 minutes before turning in the card with Leinart’s name on it.
“Coach brought it up: We’re excited about Matt Leinart, let’s not waste any time,” Graves said. “We wanted to send the right signal that we’re happy to have him. This is a great opportunity for our football team.
“Let’s send the right signal to Matt Leinart, let’s send the right signal to the rest of the NFL and to our fans that we’re excited about this pick,” Graves said.
Leinart’s excitement was mixed with relief.
“I think it’s a great situation for me,” he said in a teleconference. “I’m just happy that I’m going to a team that wants me.”
After his junior season at USC, the 6-foot-4, 224-pound Leinart was projected by many analysts to be the top pick in last year’s draft. But Leinart decided to return for his senior season to try to lead the Trojans to a third straight national title.
He came close, losing to Young and the Longhorns in a classic Rose Bowl last January. It was only the second loss in Leinart’s 39 college starts.
“No regrets,” Leinart said. “I think I made the best decision at the time.”
“He is a guy that wins on the field and he is a guy that inspires his teammates,” Green said.
Leinart is the fifth quarterback the Cardinals have drafted in the first round since 1960 and the first since 1987, when they selected Colorado State’s Kelly Stouffer.
In Arizona, Leinart will throw to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The club also signed running back Edgerrin James in the offseason.
Warner used the word “excited” nine times in a brief conference call with reporters. He praised Leinart, whom he met at a Muhammad Ali charity event in the Phoenix area last month.
This isn’t the first time Warner has watched his team use a first-round draft pick to select a quarterback. Two years ago, Warner lost his starting job when the New York Giants decided to go to first-round pick Eli Manning midway through the season. Cardinals officials made a point of reassuring Warner he’s the starter.
“To be able to get a guy of that caliber to be here, and to be the guy of the future, we couldn’t be more excited about it,” Warner said. “Basically, it’s been conveyed to me that it’s my job until I can’t perform at the level I perform at, and then we go from there.”
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