As we move closer to the 2023 NFL Draft (April 27-29), The Big Red Zone is looking back on each of the 28 St. Louis Cardinals drafts (1960-87). This installment focuses on the 1971 Draft, which was held January 28-29, 1971 in New York.
This was a bountiful draft for the Cardinals even though 10 of the 17 players they selected never played in the NFL. Cornerback Norm Thompson (1st round), offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf (2nd), wide receiver Mel Gray (6th) and defensive end Ron Yankowski (8th) all had long, productive careers for St. Louis.
Consider their combined numbers: 42 seasons, 509 games, 10 Pro Bowls, four All-Pro teams, and one Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Thompson set a major college record in 1969 with 259 interception returns on five picks for Utah. He added seven more interceptions for 73 yards in 1970. Still, he figured he would be a second- or third-round pick. Imagine his surprise when the Cardinals took him 17th overall.
“He walked around the house scratching his head … he couldn’t believe it,” Thompson’s wife, Gwen, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Thompson played six seasons with the Cardinals, but he would become famous for a play he made off the field following the 1976 season.
According to player personnel chief Abe Stuber, the Cardinals had Dierdorf listed as the best O-lineman in the country. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler said Dierdorf was “as good as any offensive lineman I’ve coached.”
No hyperbole by either man. Dierdorf would play 13 NFL seasons and be named to six Pro Bowls, three All-Pro teams, and the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team.
1971 St. Louis Cardinals Draft
|8-199||Ron Yankowski||DE||Kansas State|
|9-225||Mike Savoy||WR||Black Hills State|
|10-251||Ron Miller||T||McNeese State|
|12-303||Tim Von Dulm||QB||Portland State|
|13-329||Jeff Allen||DB||Iowa State|
|16-407||Lawrence Brame||LB||Western Kentucky|
*In six seasons with the Big Red (1971-76), Norm Thompson played in 76 games with 64 starts opposite cornerback Roger Wehrli. Nicknamed “Sweets” because “I made everything look easy,” he said, Thompson intercepted 22 passes and returned them for 464 yards and two touchdowns. In 1974, he led the league in interception return yards (190). Thompson made NFL history after playing out his option in 1976 by becoming the first free agent to sign with another team (the Baltimore Colts).
*Dan Dierdorf started six games at right guard as a rookie in 1971, started every game at left tackle in ’72 and ’73, then moved to right tackle in ’74 and became a premium player there. He switched to center for the strike-shortened, nine-game season in 1982, allowing rookie Tootie Robbins to play immediately at right tackle. Dierdorf started every game in nine of his 13 seasons; he missed two games because of a broken jaw in ’77 and all but two games of the ’79 season after suffering torn knee ligaments while blocking on an extra-point try. The NFL Players Association voted Dierdorf Offensive Lineman of the Year in ’76, ’77 and ’78. At his retirement press conference after the 1983 season, the always witty Dierdorf said, “Ninety five percent of me is sad that I’m retiring, but my knees are very, very happy.” And who said you can’t go home again (with high honor)? In 1996, Dierdorf was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his hometown of Canton, OH.
*After the Cardinals chose Missouri wide receiver Mel Gray in the sixth round, one assistant coach said Gray has “all the tools except good hands.” Guess Gray proved that coach wrong. In 12 seasons with the Big Red (1971-82), Gray played in 145 games (121 starts) and caught 351 passes for 6,644 yards and 45 touchdowns. He was the NFL’s co-leader in touchdown receptions (11) in 1975. Gray also carried the ball 15 times for a 10.3-yard average and one score. He was selected to four consecutive Pro Bowls (1974-77) and one All-Pro Team (1975). Between 1973 and 1982, Gray caught at least one pass in 121 straight games. His career yards-per-catch average of 18.9 yards is tied with Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for 13th place on the NFL’s all-time list.
*A defensive end who set up primarily on the right side, Ron Yankowski played 128 games (87 starts) in his 10 seasons in St. Louis (1971-80). He was credited with 30 sacks—five each in 1974, ’77 and ’80—and he recovered five fumbles. The highlight of his career came in 1974 when he recovered a Billy Kilmer fumble and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown in a 17-10 win over Washington.
*Larry Willingham played in 20 games, mostly as a return man (8.4-yard average on 10 punt returns and 20.7-yard average on six kick returns. … Rick Ogle played in 10 games; he recovered two fumbles and had one sack. … Jeff Allen played in one game.
Without a doubt, the best draft not only up till now, but maybe the whole time the Cardinals were in St.Louis.