Big Red Draft History: 1981 NFL Draft

The Big Red Zone continues its series by looking back on each of the 28 St. Louis Cardinals drafts (1960-87). This installment focuses on the 1981 Draft, which was held April 28-29 in New York.

Hugh Green or E.J. Junior? That was the question staring the Cardinals in the face as they debated who to select with the fifth overall pick in the 1981 draft.

Green, a 6-2, 225-pound defensive end from Pittsburgh, had been one of the best college players in 1980. A three-time All-American, he had won the Lombardi Trophy as the nation’s best lineman and had finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Junior, a 6-3, 238-pound end from Alabama who had played for legendary coach Bear Bryant on two national championship teams in 1978 and 1979, also had been a consensus All-American in 1980.

In the end, the deciding factor was size. And Junior was the choice.

“Junior is a little bigger, a little stronger, and we primarily were looking for an inside guy,” Cardinals personnel director George Boone said after the Big Red had used their full allotment of 15 minutes in Round 1.

With their second-round pick, the Big Red took quarterback Neil Lomax, who had set multiple college passing records while playing for Portland State. 

“We would have been very remiss to let him go by,” coach Jim Hanifan said. We are the perfect situation for him, and he’s perfect for us.”

The Cardinals’ other notable pick in the 1981 Draft was Stump Mitchell, a 5-9, 188-pound running back from The Citadel.

1981 St. Louis Cardinals Draft

rd-overallplayer namepositioncollege
1-5E.J. JuniorLBAlabama
2-33Neil LomaxQBPortland St.
3-61Jeff GriffinDBUtah
4-88Steve RhodesWROklahoma
5-116John GillenLBIllinois
6-143Dave AhrensLBWisconsin
7-171Kevin DonnalleyDBNorth Dakota St.
8-198Mike FisherWRBaylor
9-226Stump MitchellRBThe Citadel
10-253James MallardWRAlabama
10-263Jim JoinerWRMiami (FL)
11-281Mike SherrodTEIllinois
12-309Joe AdamsGNebraska

The Cardinals moved E.J. Junior from end to linebacker, where he played both outside and inside during his eight seasons with the team. He started 13 games as a rookie in 1981; earned All-Pro honors in 1984, when he had 9.5 sacks; and made the Pro Bowl in both 1984 and ’85. His five interceptions in ’85 were the most by a Big Red linebacker in 30 years (Leo Sanford in 1956). Junior played in 111 games with 107 starts for the Cardinals (1981-88) and had 12 interceptions, six fumble recoveries and 24.5 sacks. He later played with Miami, Seattle and Tampa Bay. 

Although he started 29 games in his first three seasons—including seven in 1981, when he was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-NFL Rookie Team, and all nine regular-season games in 1982 plus a playoff game against Green Bay—Neil Lomax didn’t become the Big Red’s permanent starter until 1984, after Jim Hart was gone. Lomax had his best season in ’84, completing 345 of 560 passes (61.6 percent) for 4,614 yards, 28 touchdowns and 16 interceptions—all career highs. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1984 and 1987, when he led the league in passing attempts (463), completions (275) and yards (3,387). A severely arthritic hip forced Lomax to retire before the 1990 season after he had missed all of 1989. He still ranks second behind Hart on the franchise’s all-time list in career passing attempts (3,153), completions (1,817), yards (22,771) and touchdowns (136). 

In five seasons with St. Louis, Jeff Griffin played in 50 games with 23 starts, including nine starts as a rookie and eight of a possible nine starts in the strike-abbreviated 1982 season. He intercepted four passes and recovered two fumbles.

Dave Ahrens started 10 of 16 games as a rookie and all nine games in 1982. He played four seasons in St. Louis and had one interception (in 1981) and one fumble recovery.

The multi-dimensional Stump Mitchell played well above his diminutive size during his nine seasons with the Cardinals (seven in St. Louis and two in Arizona). In 1984, he had a career-high nine rushing touchdowns. His best season was 1985, when he rushed 183 times for 1,006 yards and seven TDs, and led the league with an average of 5.5 yards per carry. His career statistics: 986 rushes for 4,649 yards and 32 touchdowns; 209 receptions for 1,955 yards and nine TDs; 177 kick returns for a 22.6-yard average; and 156 punt returns for an 8.8-yard average. Mitchell’s 11,985 all-purpose yards rank second behind Larry Fitzgerald on the Cardinals’ all-time list. After his playing career ended, Mitchell went into coaching. He was the head coach at both Morgan State University and Southern University, and has been a running backs coach for several NFL teams, including Seattle, Washington, Arizona, the New York Jets, and Cleveland.

Stump Mitchell has the second most rushing yards in Cardinals history.
The hard-hitting Jeff Griffin was the Cardinals third round selection out of Utah.

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