As our team-by-team preview marches on, we turn our sights to the NFC West and the NFC runner-up Arizona Cardinals. No team in the division carries as many fantasy relevant options, and very few teams in the NFL come close to their depth of talent available to you.
The last time we saw the Cardinals, they were getting blasted off the field by the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. We all know that Arizona is much, much better than that. They topped the NFC West and carried the second-best record in the NFL into the playoffs. Carson Palmer led a high-powered offense and their relentless defense carried them to that championship, and their skill players led many teams to fantasy glory. The Cardinals last year boasted five offensive players who could be started weekly by the end of the season, an especially difficult feat.
Carson Palmer had a nice bounce-back year after injuries had him in-and-out of the Cardinals lineup. In fact, he had one of the best years of his career. He posted the most yards, his third-highest completion percentage, his most TDs, his second-lowest interception rate and his highest quarterback rating. However, Palmer will be 37 by the time the season ends, and as the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated. In the last 30 years, quarterbacks 37 or older who played over 12 games averaged just over 14 fantasy points per game. However, times have changed, and six of the top-ten fantasy seasons by quarterbacks 37 or older have come since 2008 (the worst—Brett Favre’s 2010—also came in that span).
Palmer is also no stranger to injuries, having three of his last eight seasons drastically reduced to nine or fewer games started due to injury. The Cardinals’ 2014 playoff campaign famously fizzled out thanks to a season-ending Palmer injury. If Palmer goes down, the Cardinals will once again turn towards Drew Stanton at backup. He is not a fantasy option if Palmer goes down.
Palmer is currently FantasyPro’s seventh quarterback off the board, which is an inappropriate place for him. What’s doubly bad is it is pick 68—a fifth-round pick. For my money, I’d rather be taking Donte Moncrief or John Brownin that range, but if you need a quarterback, he is more likely to repeat his 2015 campaign than a quarterback going in the same range, Blake Bortles. I expect Palmer to maintain his per-game average, and not take a big step backwards without injury. However, don’t expect him to take another step forward. He’s an unspectacular, but safe option.
As Palmer goes, so go the trio of fantasy-relevant wide receivers in Arizona. They ended their season with Larry Fitzgerald as WR19, John Brown as WR25 and Michael Floyd as WR35 in fantasy points per game last season. This is somewhat misleading, as Fitzgerald started off completely on fire, then faded as Floyd and Brown recovered from injuries. In a twelve-team league, expect all three to maintain their fantasy relevance.
Since only Fitzgerald managed to play the entire season (a broken hand limited Floyd and leg issues bothered Brown), pro-rating their stats gives two thousand-yard receivers in Fitzgerald and Brown, with Floyd bringing up the rear with a respectable 906.
The question remains: which of the three will lead the team? As of right now, nobody seems to know. ADP has all three going within ten picks of each other (Floyd WR26, Fitzgerald WR27 and Brown WR70). However, Brown and Floyd are the most likely to end up #1 and #2, with the aging Fitzgerald ready to take a back seat. When the Cardinals were at full-strength last season, Fitzgerald’s targets per game went from over ten to 5.75. He will still be who Palmer goes to for a sure catch in short distance situations, since he is averaging one drop per season over the last three years.
Complicating the wide receiver situation is field-stretcher J.J. Nelson. He will provide intriguing matchup-based usage in DFS leagues, but do not count on him to have any real fantasy value. He will be fifth in lines for targets, and his usage outside of best ball or DFS isn’t recommended.
Ultimately, it comes down to your roster construction. I would eschew Fitz unless he presents excellent value. I would go Brown, Floyd, then Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will still be the trusty receiver on third-and-shorts, but Brown and Floyd are the receivers of the future in Arizona, and given their usage down the stretch, the future seems to be now.
After he got the starting role week twelve following Chris Johnson’s season-ending leg fracture, David Johnson had 442 yards on 90 attempts (4.91 yards per carry), and this includes an 11-for-25 dud week seventeen against one of the league’s best defenses in Seattle. He also knocked out five touchdowns in those five games, leading many of us to fantasy football glory last year. What makes David Johnson more valuable was his targets. In the last four games of the season, he averaged 6.25 targets per game, putting him on exactly a 100-target pace. A pace higher than Michael Floyd. His 100 targets would have been tops in the league for running backs, just ahead of Devonta Freeman (97) and Theo Riddick (99). He will be a PPR machine in 2016, and will be well worth his first-round price tag. He’s the number three running back off the board behind Bell and Gurley, and given the offensive woes in Los Angeles, he’s likely to leapfrog his sophomore compatriot in Gurley, and especially likely to do so in PPR formats, where Gurley takes a clear backseat to David Johnson.
If he didn’t break his leg at the end of November, we might be talking about a career resurgence for the man formerly known as CJ2k. He had over four yards per carry for the first time since 2012, and only his touchdown pace kept him away from the elite fantasy football producers at his position. Also, it was smoke-and-mirrors. Johnson’s 4.1 yards per carry came with seven games of 3.75 yards per carry, and four crazy 5.0 YPC or more games. He also only received three targets. There is a lot of hullabaloo out of Arizona that Chris Johnson and David Johnson will have a “thunder and lightning” backfield, but it will be David providing both the Thunder and the Lightning after the first month when the 31-year-old CJ proves to be ineffective yet again.
Tight Ends being nigh-on useless in Arizona has become a running theme for the squad. There just aren’t enough targets to go around, with three wide receivers and a running back possibly getting 100 targets each next year. If you combine the targets from Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham, you’re still looking at three fewer than Ladarius Green had all on his own last year (and one more than Vernon Davis, who has famously disappeared). If one takes the lead (and it’s likely to be Fells) and sops up all 60 targets, he’ll be at about 675 yards and six touchdowns. Again, this is if he takes 100% of the targets from Gresham, which is unlikely to happen. You can safely ignore the Cardinals tight end situation in all league formats.
Chandler Catanzaro was one of only eight kickers to convert over 90% of his field goal attempts in 2015, but he tied with Steven Hauschka for the thirteenth-most attempts, meaning that he was a quality kicker, but he just didn’t have the opportunities to convert on field goals. Catanzaro also missed both his attempts over 50 yards, meaning that he did not get you any of the big-points kicks. He was 6/7 from 40-49, however, so he has the leg to do it. Peculiarly, he missed five PATs without missing a single field goal from within 40 yards. With the Cardinals likely to lead another high-flying offense, it should be a great season for you if you snag Catanzaro as one of the last kickers off the board. He should end up returning Kicker 6 or 7 numbers for you if he gets his missed PATs in order.
The Cardinals were built on big plays outside of the backfield. They were tied for twentieth in the league in sacks, with 2.25 sacks per game. This isn’t surprising, since they did not have much of a pass rush and one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Their D/ST production came on their big-play capabilities. They were fourth in interceptions, with 19. They led the NFL with four pick-sixes (though two were on back-to-back Colin Kaepernick passes) and were tied for third with three fumble recovery touchdowns. They were also turnover machines, forcing 25 fumbles and recovering 14 (first and third, respectively). The thing keeping them back last season was their 19.6 points per game, mostly due to garbage time. What does this mean for 2016? Well, they’re currently going as the fourth defense off the board, the 104th pick overall. That’s far too early for a D/ST that was incredibly big play dependent tied to an offense whose overwhelming force caused a lot of garbage time. I would definitely stay away from them at that price tag.
The Arizona Cardinals led many fantasy teams to glory last season, whether on the shoulders of Carson Palmer, the hands of any of their amazing wide receiver options or more likely, the sudden output of David Johnson. They are all primed in 2016 to continue to roll. The NFL’s second-best scoring offense will have plenty of opportunities to go around at premium positions. Be wary of Palmer’s injury history, but do not let that guide your decision making process with Cardinals’ fantasy players.