When most NFL fans think of the Arizona Cardinals, they often think of the the many years of losing seasons and the dry desert heat, but there is much more to the Cardinals franchise than meets the eye. Over the past decade, the Cardinals franchise has transformed itself from a perennial bottom feeder into a consistent playoff contender. The franchise has competed in a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship games in the past eight years. It's a franchise that received very little fanfare in their first 15+ years in Arizona, mostly because of Arizona being a melting pot of transplants from other major cities (there are tons of Chicago and Green Bay fans everywhere in Arizona). However, since moving into their new stadium (University of Phoenix Stadium) in 2006, the Cardinals have sold out every single home game. In fact, there have been more false starts by opposing teams at the Cardinals' stadium than any other stadium in the league since it opened (take that Seattle and Kansas City fans).
Regardless, the Cardinals have always been a very under the radar franchise in the NFL and it has caused some causal football fans to miss out on discovering truly great players that have played in Cardinal red and white. Like every franchise, however, there have been a handful of terrible players as well. This list looks at the 8 greatest and 7 worst Cardinals players since the year 2000. Some of these players make this list because of their on-field performance (or lack thereof), while others make the list because of the lasting impact they had on creating a winning franchise in the Arizona desert. (Note: David Johnson was considered for this list, but it's still far too early to declare him one of the greatest players). Rise up, Red Sea and feel free to comment with your own suggestions of the 8 best and 7 worst Cardinals since 2000. Enjoy.
15 Best: Pat Tillman, DB
It's nearly impossible to have a discussion about the history of the Cardinals without paying homage to Pat Tillman. Although Tillman only played in the NFL from 1998 to 2001, he left a lasting impression and has become a beacon of pride for the franchise. Tillman was a standout collegiate player at Arizona State University and continued his strong play at Sun Devil Stadium for the Cardinals, ultimately having his best season in 2000 when he finished with 144 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and an interception.
But Tillman brought way more to the table than stats could ever begin to show. He was the heart and soul of the defense. He was loyal, once turning down a multi-million dollar contract from the St. Louis Rams in order to stay in Arizona and play for the Cardinals. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a dramatic affect on Tillman and compelled him to turn down a $4 million contract extension from the Cardinals, to instead enlist in the Army Rangers. Sadly, Tillman was killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan, but he will live on in Cardinals lore forever. In fact, he is enshrined in the team's Ring of Honor and has a statue outside of the University of Phoenix Stadium.
14 Worst: Levi Brown, T
Levi Brown's legacy in the desert is best described as "that guy the Cardinals drafted instead of Adrian Peterson." Yes, the Cardinals passed on Adrian Peterson, one of the greatest running backs of all-time, to instead draft Levi Brown, a highly touted offensive tackle out of Penn State, with the #5 overall pick in the 2007 draft. To his credit, Brown was named the starter as a rookie, but it was immediately apparent that he was not the future franchise left tackle the Cardinals thought he was. Tasked with protecting the quarterback's blindside, Brown often just looked blind as opposing defensive linemen would frequently rush right past him in route to the quarterback.
Brown constantly drew the ire of Cardinal fans and the front-office nearly gave up on him in 2012 when they released him and forced him to resign for less money. Injuries and more unsteady play were enough for the Cardinals to finally move-on from their former top pick. In 2013, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a late round draft pick. A change of scenery did nothing to revive Brown's career and he hasn't played since being released by the Steelers in 2014. "Big, Bad Levi Brown, the worst left tackle in the whole damn town."
13 Best: Darnell Docket, DL
One of the most outspoken and entertaining personalities to ever play for the franchise, Darnell Dockett was also able to make a name for himself with his stellar play on the field. After being drafted in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft, Dockett remained relatively unknown until his breakout 2007 season, in which he recorded an eye-popping 9 sacks as the starting defensive tackle. Dockett finished his career with 40.5 sacks in his 10 healthy seasons. That's supreme production from a middle of the pocket pass rusher.
What made Dockett so special was his ability to blow-up an offensive line and collapse the middle of the pocket. He was quick and played with aggression that often inspired his teammates to elevate their own games. Although Dockett was named to three Pro Bowls in his career, his shining moment as a Cardinal was his three sack performance in Super Bowl XLIII. He did sign a contract with the rival San Francisco 49ers, but never played a down for the team. Dockett eventually signed a one-day contract to retire as a Cardinal in 2016. It's okay Darnell, you're forgiven for your sin of signing with the 49ers.
12 Worst: David Boston, WR
Perhaps one of the most forgotten stars of the early 2000s, David Boston left his mark on the Cardinals franchise in more ways than one. Boston was a physical freak and his uber-athleticism and strength allowed him to dominant smaller cornerbacks in the NFL. In 2000, Boston's second year in the league, he recorded his first 1,000 yard receiving season. He followed that up with 1,600 yards, 8 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl selection in 2001. But Boston continued to cause headaches for the coaching staff with his antics on and off the field.
When his rookie contract expired after the 2002 season, the Cardinals tried desperately to re-sign their young star but Boston instead signed with the San Diego Chargers, stating that he wanted to play for a contender and that the Cardinals didn't deserve a player of his caliber. Well, bye Felicia. After leaving the Cardinals, Boston was suspended by the NFL for multiple DUIs, assault charges, and failed drug test including cocaine, marijuana, and steroids. Let's be honest though, the fact he was on steroids shouldn't shock anybody; just look at Boston's arms. Between he and Michael Pittman, the Cardinals looked more like a WWE tag-team pairing than an NFL offense.
11 Best: Carson Palmer, QB
The Cardinals were stuck in mediocre after Kurt Warner retired, mainly due to their inability to find a suitable replacement for the hall-0f-fame Warner. In fact the Cardinals started six different quarterbacks from 2010-2012, including the huge disappointment that came with the Kevin Kolb trade. In 2013, new head coach Bruce Arians made it clear that he wanted a big, strong-armed quarterback to lead his high powered offense, so the Cardinals traded only a 6th round pick to the Raiders for Palmer. The Palmer trade will go down in Cardinals history as one of the best moves in franchise history.
Although his play can sometimes frustrate Cardinals (and fantasy football) fans, Palmer has undeniably been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over the past four seasons. Palmer has thrown for over 4,200 yards and 24 touchdowns each of his three healthy seasons with the Cardinals. In 2015, he threw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns, while leading the Cardinals to the NFC West Championship. The knock on Palmer is his ability to disappear in big games, but look for him to make one final playoff run in 2017 in attempt to quash that notion.
10 Worst: Beanie Wells, RB
The Cardinals were looking for a cow-bell type running back when they drafted Beanie Wells with the #31 pick in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Wells was a powerful, fast running back coming off a dominant collegiate career at Ohio State. It appeared the Cardinals were receiving a complete steal by having a talent like Wells fall to the second to last pick of the first round. This was further evidenced when Wells finished second out of all NFL rookies in rushing with close to 800 yards.
But Wells could never remain healthy and it dramatically limited his production on the field. Even when healthy, Wells was often a source of major frustration for Cardinals fans. For as big, strong, and fast as Wells was, he would far too often get dragged down by weak arm tackles from opposing defenders. By 2012, it became clear that Wells was a selfish player and did not have the teams best interest at heart. The Cardinals eventually released Wells in 2013 and he never played another down in the NFL again. At least Beanie had one of the more interesting names in recent NFL history.
9 Best: Anquan Boldin, DB
There are several players on this list that truly helped transform the Cardinals franchise from being a league laughing stock into the frequent playoff contender they are today. Anquan Boldin is undoubtedly one of those players. When the Cardinals drafted Boldin (also known as "Q") in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft, they could never have imagined the caliber of player and person they would be receiving. Boldin immediately helped instill an attitude of winning and competitiveness in the Cardinals locker room.
His performance on the field wasn't too shabby either. Boldin set the tone for his career when he broke the NFL record for receiving yards in a players first game, with 217 yards and 2 touchdowns. Boldin was breaking all sorts of receiving records during his time in Arizona as he asserted his dominance nearly every single Sunday. He is currently #2 on the Cardinals all-time list for receptions, with 598 in his seven seasons with the Cardinals. Boldin is currently on the free-agent market and there is mild speculation that he could rejoin the Cardinals for one last reunion tour in 2017, which would be quite a storyline.
8 Worst: Daryl Washington, LB
Had Daryl Washington not suffered from off-field issues, he would likely find himself on this list as one of the "best" players since 2000. But because Washington has been suspended by the NFL for the past three seasons, he clearly deserves his spot as one of the worst Cardinals of all-time. Washington established himself as one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL in 2011 and backed it up by being named to the 2012 All-Pro team after finishing with 134 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. It appeared that the Cardinals had a franchise changing linebacker who was only going to continue getting better.
Except Washington allowed drug/alcohol addictions take over his life. He was suspended for the first four games in 2013 for violating the league's substance abuse policy (he was still named a Pro-Bowl alternate, despite missing the first four games). Washington was then suspended for the entire 2014 NFL season for again violating the league's substance abuse policy. Washington has since continued to fail drug tests and has been arrested for aggravated assault against his ex-girlfriend. Although Washington was once a promising star in the NFL, he is now a dark spot in Cardinals history. Sadly, the Cardinals are still forced to pay Washington close to $10 million in salary this season.
7 Best: Patrick Peterson, DB
Who is the best shutdown cornerback in the NFL? (Hint: No, it's definitely not Richard Sherman). Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the NFL and it's really not even close. Peterson doesn't have gaudy interception or passes defended statistics in the past two seasons for one simple reason - opposing quarterbacks do not throw at him anymore! But make no mistake, Peterson is an athletic freak that is capable of making plays that nearly no other corner is capable of, and he does it with ease and swagger.
Although it appeared Peterson's stock could be trending downwards after a sub-par 2014 season, it turned out that Peterson was suffering from diabetes. After getting his health under control, Peterson has returned to form as the truest shut-down corner in the game today. What makes Peterson so valuable is that he follows opposing teams' #1 receiver all over the field (instead of simply guarding a zone on one side (cough... cough), which allows the Cardinals defense to leave him on an island and blitz more defenders on each down. You can pretty much write it in right now that Peterson will be making his 6th straight Pro-Bowl in 2017.
6 Worst: Ryan Lindley, QB
This one might not be fair because Ryan Lindley was clearly not capable of being a reliable starting quarterback in the NFL, so when he was forced to take the reigns of the offense in the 2015 playoffs, Cardinal fans had a feeling it wasn't going to end well. However, Lindley's performance was so awful that it sent shock-waves of frustration and embarrassment throughout the "Red Sea" (another name for the Cardinals crowd). In fact, Lindley's playoff performance was one for the record books.
Yes, Lindley helped set the record for the least yards in a playoff game as he led the Cardinals to a total of 77 yards on offense. Ouch. Lindley finished the game going 16 for 28 with a touchdown and two interceptions. He had an abysmal passer rating of just 44.3. Again, it's not Lindley's fault that he is on this list (both Palmer and back-up Drew Stanton were hurt before the playoffs, hence why Lindley had to fill in), but when you put up a playoff performance that historically bad, you're going to be included as one of the worst Cardinals since 2000. Sorry Ryan, best of luck in the CFL.
5 Best: Adrian Wilson, DB
Nicknamed "A-dub," Adrian Wilson is a legend around the state of Arizona. After being drafted in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Wilson unleashed a relentless attack on opposing quarterbacks and receivers over the following 12 seasons. Wilson was a massive safety and one of the most jacked players the NFL has ever seen. His strength and speed, combined with his football instincts allowed him to reinvent the safety position. During his final season, in 2012, Wilson became a member of the very exclusive 25/25 club, meaning that Wilson reached the milestone of 25 sacks and 25 interceptions throughout his career.
Only five other players in NFL history have had similar skill-sets to be able to reach such an impressive milestone. Although Wilson would likely struggle in today's NFL, given the NFL's rule changes and his old-school, big-hitting style of play, he will forever be one of the greatest Cardinals in franchise history. His name already has been added to the Cardinals Ring-of-Honor at University of Phoenix stadium and he remains with the franchise nowadays as a lead collegiate scout. (Bonus: If you're bored, youtube the highlight of Adrian Wilson essentially ending Trent Edwards' career to get an idea of the fierceness Wilson played with.)
4 Worst: Wendell Bryant
The award for biggest bust by an Arizona Cardinal draft pick has to go to Wendell Bryant. Bryant was a monster in college at University of Wisconsin and was named the Big-10 Defensive Player of the Year in both his junior and senior seasons. So it seemed like a no-brainer for the defensively depleted Cardinals to draft Bryant with the #12 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. After being drafted, Bryant held-out on signing his contract with the team until the regular season started, thus putting him in a major hole in terms of earning playing time.
Bryant was terrible in his rookie season and was never able to rally from his early career adversity. After three seasons of nearly zero production (Bryant had 1.5 sacks in his career), Bryant was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2005 season for multiple violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Bryant never returned to the NFL. Although he wasn't the most memorable failed draft pick in Cardinals history, his failure was a major blow for the franchise and had fans questioning their faith in the Cardinals front-office. It was tough to be a Cardinal fan at that time.
3 Best: Kurt Warner, QB
Kurt Warner may have the most incredible road to greatness in the history of the NFL. The man went from being a grocery store bag clerk to an NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion in less than two years. He was then surpassed by young quarterbacks twice in his career: Marc Bulger (great call on that one Rams) and Eli Manning. A similar situation nearly unfolded as a member of the Cardinals due to the Cardinals drafting the quarterback Matt Leinart in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft.
Leinart was originally named the starter over Warner in the offseason leading into the 2008 season, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt eventually changed his decision and chose Warner as the starter. What a great decision that turned out to be. Warner had a complete career revival and threw for over 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, while leading the Cardinals on an improbable run to the Super Bowl. Although the Cardinals eventually lost the Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was a postseason for the ages and left Cardinal fans with a very endearing view of Warner. Warner was a great man, a great leader, and a great Cardinal. He was rightfully inducted in the Cardinals Ring-of-Honor in 2014 and is part of the NFL Hall-of-Fame class of 2017. Congratulations Kurt!
2 Worst: Matt Leinart, QB
While Kurt Warner is undoubtedly the best Cardinals quarterback since the year 2000, he wouldn't have had his success in Cardinal red if it weren't for Matt Leinart. Leinart was a highly touted quarterback prospect out of the USC and had all the accolades a collegiate quarterback could have: a National Championship; Heisman Trophy award; two Quarterback of the Year awards; etc... In short, Leinart was a complete stud in college and looked to have a promising NFL career ahead of him.
In fact, when Leinart surprisingly fell to the Cardinals at the #10 spot of the 2006 NFL Draft, then head coach Dennis Green called Leinart a "gift from heaven" for the Cardinals franchise. Unfortunately, Leinart struggled with transitioning to the NFL game and injuries re-opened the door for Kurt Warner to do what Hall-of-Famer's do: make memories. After Warner solidified himself as the starter, Leinart's career went downhill quickly. Ironically, Leinart was a gift from heaven... he gave the Cardinals the gift of playing so poorly that it allowed Kurt Warner to steal the starting job and transform the Cardinals into a winning franchise. And for that we thank you Matt.
1 Best: Larry Fitzgerald, WR
Larry Fitzgerald is a living legend. No player in the history of the Cardinals franchise has been as dependable, clutch, or successful as Fitzgerald. For the past 13 seasons, Fitzgerald has always been the guy to step-up whenever the Cardinals need a big play. Every single game he makes incredible catches look effortless, often completely laying his body on the line to haul in impossible one-handed grabs. Fitzgerald is the Cardinals all-time leader in every major receiving category imaginable and currently sits #3 on the NFL's all-time receptions list (only behind Jerry Rice and Tony Gonzalez).
What makes Fitzgerald so incredible is his ability to consistently perform at a hall-of-fame level every Sunday, evidenced further by his 10 Pro Bowl selections. But what makes Fitzgerald a legend is his unmatched loyalty to the Cardinals franchise and desire for both personal greatness, as well as greatness for his teammates. Fitzgerald is the definition of a professional and the class with which he carries himself is something that all young players should try to emulate. Although Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his career, it's clear he is not slowing down just yet, as he led the NFL in receptions in 2016. Hopefully he decides to play for many more years, but wherever his life journey leads him, Fitzgerald will always be considered the greatest Arizona Cardinal of all-time. Now go get that Super Bowl ring this year Fitz!