Tight end Leonard Pope and defensive tackle Gabe Watson, two big-time college performers who slipped deeper into the 2006 draft than anticipated, have signed their first contracts with the Arizona Cardinals, with both players netting three-year deals.
A third-round choice and the 72nd player selected overall, Pope, from the University of Georgia, is expected to quickly vie for playing time and could solve the Cardinals' longstanding problems at the tight end spot. One of the most conspicuous receivers in the college game over the past two seasons, Pope, at 6-feet-7¾ and 258 pounds, presents a huge target.
Pope was a two-year starter for the Bulldogs and finished his career with 59 receptions for 994 yards and nine touchdowns. He is particularly effective in the "red zone," where his size presents matchup problems for defensive backs.
More a receiver than a blocker, Pope scored in five of his final six games in 2004. In 2005, he registered eight catches of 20-yards plus. Although he is still fairly raw as a route-runner, Pope is fast enough to split the safeties and get deep. He goes aggressively for the ball in a crowd and can simply reach above shorter defenders to pluck the ball out of the air.
Pope will have to work on his in-line blocking and will probably find it a little tougher in the NFL to get an easy release on his pass routes. But for an Arizona team that has suffered through a long stretch of poor play at the tight end position, Pope could be a steal as a third-rounder. His contract is worth $1.65 million and includes a $578,000 signing bonus and minimum base salaries for all three seasons.
Watson, a fourth-rounder and the 107th overall choice in the draft, received a contract that totals $1.43 million, with a signing bonus of $347,500 and minimum base salaries.
A two-year starter at the University of Michigan, Watson is a classic two-gap widebody whose forte is shutting down the run. At 6-feet-3½ and 339 pounds, Watson has limited range and doesn't penetrate or rush the passer very well. But he clogs things up inside and, surprisingly, 14½ of his 92 career tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.
Blessed with a huge frame and long arms, Watson could figure quickly into the Cards' tackle rotation. The team may actually want Watson to shed some weight, since he suffered stamina problems at times during his college career.
Arizona has now reached contract terms with six of its seven draft choices, with first-round quarterback Matt Leinart of Southern California the lone unsigned rookie. The Cardinals, who have $1.517 million remaining in rookie allocation for Leinart, will begin negotiations with the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner early next week.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.