2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Arizona Cardinals
June 25, 2015 | Chet
The Arizona Cardinals finished 2014 at 11-5, the first time the team had back-to-back seasons with double digit wins since 1976 when they were still located in St. Louis. Considering the amount of injuries they sustained, that win total was an overachievement. With a healthy roster back in place, can we expect the Cardinals to continue to take flight in 2015?
2015 Cardinals Schedule
You know the story, walk a fine line when placing emphasis on the schedule ahead of time. Things open up very nicely for the Cardinals as they don’t face a 2014 playoff team in the opening month and draw three of their first four at home. Post bye week, however, things look rather daunting, especially for the passing game. For fantasy, you love seeing one of the Seattle games negated by week 17, but the surrounding games over the back half of the season look rough for high-end passing output.
We usually look at how the team fared in offensive efficiency measures at this point, but given Arizona started backup quarterbacks for 10 of their games, we’re going to take a slightly different track. As mentioned, the Cardinals final record was surprising given their losses at key spots. Their expected record by on field performance was 8-8 and this team was sneaky average as a whole. For the season, Arizona punted on 52 percent of their possessions, second worst in the league behind only Oakland (56 percent). A large part of that centered on not having Carson Palmer available as Arizona was miserable in generating points without him. Even with him in place, this offense still toed the line of mediocrity per drive.
|Non Palmer Starts||105||29.5||30.5%||10.5%||10.5%||53.3%|
Carsonova: Left for Dead
Coming off of a major injury at 36 years old is a tall task, but even if the Cardinals can get back to league average offensively, that will have an upswing for fantasy output now that Palmer is back and reportedly at full strength. We only got to see him for six games in 2014 and although it wasn’t a full sample, Palmer was on his way to potentially having his best season ever in year two under Arians.
For fantasy purposes, he was on his way to potentially having his most relevant season as in the five games he finished; he averaged 19.2 points per game and was QB5, QB16, QB13, QB10 and QB7 those weeks. Of all quarterbacks who threw 200 or more passes, here’s how he stacked up in a few key areas.
Given his track record and the level of opponents he faced in hindsight (SD, WAS, OAK, PHI, DAL and STL), it’s likely that Palmer was due for a setback in output. That’s alright, because it shows you that he still has a strong ceiling when the matchups align the right way. Given Palmer’s current ridiculously cheap asking price amongst the bottom feeders of the position, that’s all you’ll need to work out a positive return investment and his opening schedule is ripe for streaming purposes. As a secondary quarterback, Pat Thorman highlights that Palmer is a strong pairing partner for anyone grabbing Cam Newton or Tony Romo in the middle portion of their draft. I’m all for grabbing Palmer late for his early season slate as you can bail out post Pittsburgh or at any time if he still hasn’t shown signs of a full recovery from injury.
House of Cards
If you’re excited about the Cardinals receivers this season, you likely didn’t own any of them last year. The trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown all finished within four targets of each other and were a nest of weekly ambiguity for fantasy.
The group traded usable performances as their weekly finishes (excluding week 17) among the position shook out just as that graph dictates.
|Player||Gm||Top6 Wk||%||Top12 Wk||%||Top24 Wk||%||<36 Wk||%||<48 Wk||%|
Oddly enough, Floyd led the group in top-24 weeks, but that doesn’t come near setting atonement for those who invested as early as a fourth round pick in him last summer. Floyd was one of fantasy’s biggest let downs as many (including myself) believed he was headed towards an ascension among the best at his position. He actually posted not one, but two zero point games and saw his red zone targets (seven) get cut in half from 2013. Calling on Pat Thorman once again, he broke down the brass tacks of what went completely wrong for Floyd last season rather thoroughly, but the biggest (and possibly unforeseeable) change for Floyd was his actual role in the offense. Floyd was used primarily as the field stretcher, something he’s well suited to do, but that’s all he was really used for. Looking at his target and reception chart from 2013 compared to 2014 at Pro Football Focus, Floyd lost out on the higher success rate smoothing targets necessary to turn volatile options into weekly reliable starters.
|Year||Tgt 0-9 Yds||%||Tgt 10-19 Yds||%||Tgt 20+ Yd||%||aDOT|
Floyd’s average depth of target (aDOT) was the fourth highest in the league last season and the highest of any player with 50 or more targets. As Mike Clay highlighted, Floyd had the lowest expected adjusted catch rate in the league based on target success rates and quarterback play. Of course Floyd closed 2014 with a massive 35 point game showing us that ceiling still exists, but there’s not much to suggest his role will revert to what it was in 2013, as when Palmer played, Floyd was the third wheel. Here’s how the trio performed in Palmer’s six starts.
Fitzgerald, who will be turning 32 years old this August, was the receiver who provided the best fantasy output when everything was in place within this offense. Fitzgerald hasn’t reached 1,000 yards in any of the past three seasons and has lost a lot shine off of being a high threat touchdown producer, but I still expect him to improve on the two scores he had last season (both from Palmer) which was a career low. We know he’s capable of reaching double digit scores, but I wouldn’t anticipate it happening again given his red zone woes post Kurt Warner’s departure.
|Year||RZ Tgt||TD||TD %|
I definitely don’t expect a massive return to past glory, but you’re also currently getting the best performer of the trio at the cheapest cost when he was churning out production at a top-24 receiver pace in an acknowledged small sample with Palmer. Fitzgerald still has a high enough weekly ceiling and modest floor to be an asset as the fourth receiver on your roster.
For having what feels like a solid support group on the surface, Brown still has a favorable price point for those who are expecting progression in year two. As prototypical as Brown is as a Bruce Arians type of receiver, he was used in a more versatile fashion last year than his profile would suggest and is the “in-between” hedge on the boring usage Fitz provides and the low percentage, big payoff usage Floyd has in the offense.
The easy answer to approaching the group as a whole is to just take Palmer to avoid the weekly ambiguity since all of the receivers are going in the same portion of the draft. For the individual pieces, format, price point and roster structure come into play. As C.D. Carter illuminates in his Equity Scores, Floyd and Brown have relatively a similar outlook in regards to potential ceiling and median output. I’ve stated before that I’m a sucker for having hammer dropping third receivers over safe floor guys, so Floyd and Brown are still on my radar. Unfortunately, Floyd’s broken fingers will force him to miss the opening of the season and possibly the first two to three weeks, if not longer. That will make his upside an interesting dice roll if he slides into the 11th or 12th round area. It also saps a lot of the intriguing price Brown carried as his value is now uncovered. I still like Brown in the seventh round area if he holds that cost. C.D. Carter took a deeper dive on Fitzgerald’s stock, who is serviceable in all formats while also being the cheapest and has the most balance in his high to low projection, so he’ll find more of my rosters than the others.
There’s no tight end presence here to concern yourself with as Arizona had just one top 15 scoring week from a tight end last season. Just once has a tight end in an Arians offense seen 75 or more targets in a season which was Heath Miller (98) in 2009.
A More Balanced Bruce?
The Cardinals pass protection was strong a season ago and this season they went out and signed run mauling guard Mike Iupati to play on the left side alongside Jared Veldheer. They also drafted combo back David Johnson to help ease the pressure off of Andre Ellington. The concern with protecting Palmer all season long to keep their big picture goals in tact could push them to run the football more often in 2015 when adding up all of the context clues.
Ellington proved why supremely efficient small sample backs are dicey investments when their required capital immediately goes near their ceiling potential. After being one of the best backs per touch in 2013, Ellington saw a decline across the board in per touch success as a rusher.
|Player||Att||Yds||2 Yd or Less||%||5+ Yds||%||10+ Yds||%||RuPt/Att|
There were just three games in which Ellington rushed for over four yards per carry and he saw his elusiveness sapped. After forcing a missed tackle once per every 5.1 touches in 2013, that mark dropped to one every 12.4 touches this past season. Despite his drop in efficiency, Ellington’s 2014 season was still a reminder that volume is the elixir that cures all ails for fantasy backs. His lowest scoring week was just RB29 and he was a top 15 scoring back six times. He also didn’t lose anything in the pass game department as he posted 2.1 points per receiving touch, a lateral mark from his rookie season.
A large portion of ineffectiveness may be attributed to how much he played hurt last season as he suffered a torn tendon in his left foot the week before the season opener and then was shut down after 12 games after hernia surgery. Some may also be due to his added weight to aid his expected workload. Health concerns were always in play with him garnering heavy usage, which likely played a role in the addition of the 224 pound Johnson.
Johnson was covered in depth here before the draft by our Chad Scott and his best asset as a prospect is his pass catching ability. Recruited to play wide receiver at Northern Iowa, he moved to running back and had 141 career receptions in college. That’s what made his selection to Arizona so puzzling since that is also the main strength of Ellington’s game. His interior running needs development still, but Johnson is also a 224 pound back with an amazing athletic profile and the line upgrade he’s going to receive in Arizona from Northern Iowa may smooth out that transition. He is a dynamic weapon overall for an offense if utilized correctly and should see some time all over the field and even possibly in a H-Back type role. We’re also just a year removed from a season in which Rashard Mendenhall scored eight times from inside the five-yard line. While Johnson may not be a chain moving type of a runner, I do believe he can be better than Mendenhall was in 2013 and offers much more in terms of versatility.
I believe Ellington bounces back fully healthy, and James Todd paints a good picture on why we shouldn’t forget about him this season, but the hang-up I’m finding myself with him is that I’m rarely in a position where I like his price point. That lower end RB2 sticker price is fine in context, but I simply prefer Jonathan Stewart and even backs such as C.J. Spiller and Ameer Abdullah a little after him who I believe provide similar types of scoring for my teams. David Johnson offers a unique dimension to an offense, but his involvement in the offense is in question heading throughout the remainder of the preseason. I still like adding Johnson late as a stash player as I believe he can find the field and may siphon goal line opportunities at some point.