When the New England Patriots selected former Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry with the 32nd and final pick in the first round of the NFL draft, you could hear the groans emanating throughout the media room at the team’s Tempe training facility.
However, it was the exact opposite upstairs in the Cardinals’ draft war room, where the place broke open with sighs of relief.
As much as General Manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury liked Harry — and they liked him a lot — they liked Washington cornerback Byron Murphy even more. When Harry was snatched up at the tail end of Round 1 on Thursday night, it meant Murphy was still available for the start of the second round on Friday.
The Cardinals were happy to use the 33rd overall pick on Murphy, whom they had rated as the sixth-best prospect in the entire draft. A handful of other top-rated prospects were also still available at the time, but the Cardinals stayed true to their draft board and selected the best player available.
“It’s sort of like that first pick,” Keim said, referring to using the No. 1 overall selection on former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. “I wish I had 33, 34 and 35 because there are some guys to get really excited about, there are a number of guys that we had first-round grades on.”
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None of them were rated as high by the Cardinals as Murphy, the former Scottsdale Saguaro standout. After a redshirt season in 2016, he started all 20 games he appeared in for the Huskies over his final two seasons and totaled 74 tackles, seven interceptions, 27 passes defensed, seven tackles for loss along with a sack and two forced fumbles.
“He has everything you look for in a corner in our opinion — feet, movement skills, tremendous ball skills for a corner,” Keim said. “He’s a guy that gets his hands on a lot of balls. He’s been coached well by a friend of mine, Jimmy Lake, up there at the University of Washington. Local kid, so we had a chance to spend a lot of time with him.
“Love the passion, love the intensity. The fact the he was teammates in the past with two guys that we’re very high on in Christian Kirk and Budda Baker certainly went a long way. He certainly fits that mold.”
Byron Murphy was selected by the Cardinals with the No. 33 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
Byron Murphy was selected by the Cardinals with the No. 33 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. (Photo: Patrick Breen, Patrick Breen/The Republic)
The Cardinals already have their two starters in Patrick Peterson and newcomer Robert Alford, but that doesn’t mean Murphy won’t try to force his way into the conversation and compete with Alford for the No. 2 corner position.
“Yes, sir, definitely,” Murphy said. “Yes, sir.”
And just exactly how does he plan to accomplish that?
“First, come in and ask questions from the vets, the people that have been here,” Murphy said. “Obviously, I’ve got to learn new things, so just come in and get ready to work. Coming in and competing against whoever. I’m trying to earn my spot as well. Just coming in, asking questions and learning from everyone and get it going.”
Although challenging Alford for the starting job across from Peterson is his primary mission, competing for the nickel cornerback role should be considered just as important because every NFL team uses packages that feature five or six defensive backs in a game at the same time. There are plenty of opportunities to make plays at nickel corner, specifically, and it’s a position where former Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu made a name for himself.
Kingsbury wasn’t prepared to say exactly where Murphy will fit in, only that the rookie can expect to play a bunch.
“Yeah, he’ll compete, there’s no doubt,” Kingsbury said. “He’s going to be in the rotation somewhere. He’s that type of playmaker. You see the production, the pass breakups. He always seems to get his hand on the football somehow and a dynamic talent in the slot, at corner. Like Steve mentioned, we had him rated very highly as a defensive staff and as an organization. So, we are thrilled to death to get him.”
The chance to play in his home state and join forces with former high school and college teammates such as Kirk and running back D.J. Foster along with Baker and linebacker Zeke Turner couldn’t have made Murphy any happier. It would have been nice to go in the first round, where nearly every draft prognosticator expected him to go, but ending up with the Cardinals made it all worthwhile.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve been growing up watching the Cardinals since I was a kid. It’s my hometown. I grew up in Tempe. Right now, I’m staying in Scottsdale. So, everywhere right now feels like home. This is a special moment. When I got my name called, I had my family there supporting me. I had my agent who has been supporting me this whole time.
“I just want to thank God for this opportunity. I know he had a plan for me, I just knew I had to stay confident in myself throughout this whole process. I want to definitely shout out to the Bidwill family, Steve Keim, and Coach Kingsbury to be able to play for the Cardinals. It’s exciting.”
Murphy smiled when told that Kingsbury said he should expect to play as a rookie in 2019, even though the team has a healthy supply of other cornerbacks in veteran Tramaine Brock Sr., Josh Shaw, Chris Jones, David Amerson, Deatrick Nichols, Jonathan Moxey, Brandon Williams and Ryan Pulley.
“Just motivation,” Murphy said. “I’m going to just come in ready to work with whatever role I take. I’m just going to go in, one hundred percent. If I come in and play right away, I’m just going to keep doing my all. Special teams or whatever it is, I’m going to do my all and just go from there.”
Murphy knew he would make it to the NFL someday. The dream began, he said, as a 6-year-old when he fell in love with the game. The Cardinals were always his favorite team and he counts Peterson, Mathieu and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald among his favorite players.
He had hoped to be a first-round pick like Peterson and Fitzgerald and admits to getting a little emotional when that didn’t happen. A private talk with his agent helped get him through the ordeal, however, and as he paced around his family’s home, trying to blow off steam, he tried his best to keep a proper perspective on things.
“It was a lot of emotions going through my head. The main thing for me was staying positive,” he said. “I just knew my time was going to come and I just had to wait because I had my whole family there as well. My name didn’t get called and I just wanted to make sure that they didn’t have any of the little sad faces. I didn’t want to see anyone down because the opportunity was going to come.”
It came for Harry, his longtime friend, with the 32nd pick to New England. They went through the entire draft process together and were roommates up until the end.
“Me and N’Keal, we grew up together. We went to Marcos de Niza High School together,” Murphy said. “But it was emotional when he got picked. I look at him as a brother. So when he got picked, it was emotional for me. … It’s just a crazy experience that we’re here together and going through this together.”
Would he have preferred getting drafted 32nd instead of 33rd?
“Whatever, I would have been happy,” Murphy said. “Like I said, God had a plan for both of us.”
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