This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Cardinals both under- and overperformed in 2016. With a Pythagorean win expectation of 9.4, they underwhelmed at 7-8-1, and yet they managed to compete for a playoff spot late into the season despite significant injuries to free safety Tyrann Mathieu (knee), wide receiver John Brown (sickle cell, back), and offensive linemen Jared Veldheer (triceps) and Evan Mathis (ankle). Division winners at 13-3 in 2015, the Cardinals are looking to return to form.
In 2011 the Steelers declined to re-sign then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who had been with the franchise since 2004 first as the wide receivers coach and then (in 2007) as the OC. Per ESPN, Arians was let go because Steelers president Art Rooney II wanted the team to have a “blue-collar identity on offense.” Per NFL.com, Arians believes the breakup happened because he was “too close” to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who reportedly was displeased with the team’s decision.
Maybe, though, Arians was dismissed because in four of five years coordinating the Steelers offense they were last in the league in rate of play and outside the top 10 in scoring. Regardless of his reputation as a forward-thinking Gatsby-wearing play-caller, the now-head coach of the Cardinals is something of a throwback. When the Cardinals were first and second in the NFL in offensive yards and points in 2015 they were also 22nd in pass/run ratio and 25th in pace. A happy Arians is one who takes his time calling rushing plays while his team leads for most of the contest. Arians doesn’t manage games as if he has Tom Brady running a breakneck spread offense.
Nevertheless, in his five years since leaving the Steelers, Arians has demonstrated the ability to call plays as if he’s not an old man. In many categories, the 2012 Colts and 2013-16 Cardinals are collectively superior to the 2007-11 Steelers in terms of average league rank:
- Yards: 11.2 vs. 14.4
- Points: 13.2 vs. 14.8
- Plays: 12 vs. 16.8
- Pass/Run: 13.2 vs. 21.8
- Raw Pace: 14.8 vs. 30.6
- Neutral Pace: 16 vs. 30.2
Arians doesn’t run a fast-paced system, but when the Cardinals trail Arians has no problem picking up the tempo: Last year the Cardinals were often in negative game script and finished seventh in pace, sixth in pass percentage, sixth in offensive points, and second in plays. This year the Cardinals aren’t likely to play at an accelerated pace, but they’re also not likely to have a below-average rate of play. Given the strength of their defense, which has been a top-five unit each of the last two years in yards allowed and takeaways, the Cardinals could have an above-average number of offensive opportunities: Last year they were second only to the 49ers with 192 drives.
It’s possible that the influence of Harold Goodwin as offensive coordinator has improved the way Arians runs his offense. Goodwin has worked under Arians since he joined the Steelers staff in 2007. His impact as coordinator for the last four years might be underappreciated.
Offensively, the Cardinals are very much the team they were last year. Still, there are some notable changes:
- QB: Carson Palmer
- RB: David Johnson
- WR: Larry Fitzgerald
- WR: John Brown
- WR: Michael Floyd –> J.J. Nelson
- TE: Jermaine Gresham
- LT: Jared Veldheer –> D.J. Humphries
- LG: Mike Iupati
- C: A.Q. Shipley
- RG: Evan Mathis/Earl Watford –> Evan Boehm
- RT: D.J. Humphries –> Jared Veldheer
With apologies to Floyd — who last season played at a rookie-caliber level (33-446-4 in 13 games) before being cut in December following his DUI arrest — the biggest changes are on the offensive line. The third-year first-rounder Humphries and the veteran Veldheer are switching spots, and Mathis has retired after 12 years in the league. On top of that, Watford has signed with the Jaguars. As a result, Boehm (a second-year fourth-round interior lineman) will enter training camp as the starting right guard, which means that three of the five positions are manned by different players this year than last year. Continuity and familiarity are important on the offensive line, and even though they theoretically have four returning starters the Cardinals are making big adjustments in the trenches.
While these changes might be good for the team in the long term, in the short term they could cause issues for a unit that last year finished 26th overall (Pro Football Focus), 25th in pass blocking (PlayerProfiler), and 21st in adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders). Palmer and the passing game will be particularly impacted if the offensive line doesn’t coalesce.
Defensively, the Cardinals also have some significant changes:
- DE: Calais Campbell –> Rodney Gunter/Robert Nkemdiche
- DT: Corey Peters
- DE: Josh Mauro
- OLB: Chandler Jones
- MLB: Deone Bucannon
- MLB: Kevin Minter –> Karlos Dansby/Haason Reddick
- OLB: Markus Golden
- CB: Patrick Peterson
- CB: Marcus Cooper –> Justin Bethel
- SCB: Tyvon Branch
- FS: Tyrann Mathieu/ D.J. Swearinger –> Tyrann Mathieu
- SS: Tony Jefferson –> Antoine Bethea/Budda Baker
Each of the last two years the Cardinals have been top-two in yardage differential thanks to their outstanding defensive unit, which last year was third in the NFL in both yards per rushing attempt and net yards per pass attempt. That said, the Cardinals might take a step back. Last year Campbell was a top-six 3-4 defensive end against the run and the pass (PFF), and it’s uncertain if the Cardinals have the talent on the roster to replace him. Minter wasn’t a 2016 powerhouse, finishing outside of the top 60 with 59 solo tackles, but he did man the middle of the field on 93.3 percent of the defensive snaps. There’s no guarantee that the 35-year-old Dansby or first-round rookie Reddick will replicate his consistency.
The defection of Cooper to the Bears is no big loss — he was PFF’s No. 101 coverage corner last year with a poor grade of 39.8, and the Cardinals were 27th in pass defense against No. 2 wideouts (FO) — but the loss of Swearinger and Jefferson at safety is unfortunate. Last year’s unit was top-10 in both pass attempts and yards allowed. This year the only proven members of the secondary are Peterson and Mathieu. Coordinator James Bettcher could have a deceptively risky defense.
I won’t discuss every skill position player — because no wants to read hundreds of words on Andre Ellington or Jermaine Gresham — but here are my thoughts on the most notable Cardinals.
Carson Palmer, QB
Palmer in 2015 set career highs with 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns passing and led the NFL with 9.1 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), a 78.6 Total QBR, and five game-winning drives. In 2016, the 37-year-old signal-caller predictably regressed. That’s what old quarterbacks do when they come off career-best campaigns — 2003 Rich Gannon sends his regards — but it’s hard to fault Palmer for his season: Brown was literally hamstrung most of the year, Floyd was occupied with destroying his career, and the offensive line was regularly injured. Plus, Palmer’s season wasn’t even that bad. In 15 games played he finished ninth and 10th with 4,233 yards and 26 touchdowns passing. He was especially good after the team’s Week 9 bye: Per our Trends tool, he averaged 19.33 DraftKings points per game (PPG) in his last eight games with a solid +3.58 Plus/Minus and high 75 percent Consistency Rating on only a 5.1 percent ownership rate in large-field guaranteed prize pools. After he fell out of favor with daily fantasy players, Palmer offered some value.
That said, too much is being made of his second-half resurgence, during which he played against three defenses (49ers, Redskins, and Saints) ranked in the bottom 10 in pass Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (FO), finishing with 25.73 fantasy PPG and a combined 994 yards passing in those games. On the whole, though, he had more passing yards (296.0 vs. 269.88) and fewer interceptions (0.86 vs. 1.0) per game in the first half than in the second half while barely scoring fewer fantasy PPG (20.34 vs. 21.24). If you invest in Palmer at his 134.5 averaged draft position (ADP) in DRAFT best ball leagues — and I think Palmer is a great pivot play for many of the quarterbacks in the Top 100 — roster him not because his second half was good but because his entire season (given the circumstances) was underrated: He was a top-eight passer in both seconds to throw (2.49) and average intended air yards (10.3).
David Johnson, RB
Johnson leads the NFL with 33 touchdowns (in 32 games) over the last two seasons — and he didn’t have double-digit carries in a game till Week 13 of his rookie campaign. Since then he’s had no fewer than 15 opportunities (carries and targets) in a game (excepting his injury-shortened Week 17 outing last year). Amazingly, he also leads all running backs with 177 targets since 2015. The only back with more targets in his first two seasons since the statistic became official in 1992 is Reggie Bush (219). Last year Johnson was third at the position with 1.73 yards per route run (PFF), trailing only receiving savants James White and Duke Johnson, both of whom had more targets than carries. He also led the position with a 4.6-yard average depth of target and the league with 27 missed tackles forced in the passing game.
Johnson, though, is not a typical small-and-slippery receiving back. A 6’1″ and 224-lb. workhorse with a freakish 96th percentile SPARQ-x score, Johnson was third in the NFL last year with 293 carries, ultimately leading the league with 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage. Only one player in a season has ever had more carries (313) and recorded targets (137) than Johnson had last year: LaDainian Tomlinson in 2003. While Arians likely won’t achieve his stated desire of giving Johnson 30 touches per game, it’s easy to see why he’d want to do so: Johnson is a complete back, and the Cardinals offensive line (despite its struggles) was seventh last year with 4.22 adjusted line yards per carry. Le’Veon Bell is a stud in his own right, but Johnson is currently the first player selected in DRAFT best ball leagues with a 1.2 ADP: It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of the market.
Last year Johnson was the No. 1 DraftKings and FanDuel running back in both PPG and Plus/Minus. He was (and still is) a must-own player in cash games, especially in points-per-reception (PPR) formats. Naturally his ownership in GPPs was significant. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard shortly after lineups lock. That alone is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Also, Johnson was especially potent as a pass-catching underdog. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard during the season to see how the market views the Cardinals each week.
By the way, as of writing Johnson is +1,000 in the prop markets to finish the regular season with the most rushing yards. Bell (+300) and Ezekiel Elliott (+350) are the only backs with higher odds. Zeke (per ESPN’s Adam Schefter) could face a suspension this year, and Bell has missed games for a variety of reasons over the last two years. Of the three stud backs, Johnson probably offers the most prop value at the current odds.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR
Fitzgerald is currently ninth in NFL history with 14,389 career receiving yards. If he gets 904 this year, he’ll surpass Marvin Harrison (14,580), Steve Smith (14,731), Tim Brown (14,934), Tony Gonzalez (15,127), Isaac Bruce (15,208), and Randy Moss (15,292) to claim the third all-time spot behind only Jerry Rice (22,895) and Terrell Owens (15,934). If he gets only 192, he’ll have more career yards receiving for the Cardinals than any other player has accrued for any other team. He’s special. If I had to bet whether he gets 904, I’d bet on him. Of course, I’m a sentimental schmuck who’s had Fitz on my primary dynasty team since the second round of my startup draft a decade ago, so I’m fully biased. PFF currently has him projected for only 855.6 yards on 129.1 targets, and the RotoViz Similarity Score app has him at 802.9 yards on 107.8 targets. Some smart people say that history suggests it’s unwise to invest in a wide receiver who turns 34 years old right before the season starts.
That said, Fitz is not a typical wide receiver. He’s 10th, third, and 13th in the league with 295 targets, 216 receptions, and 2,238 yards over the last two years. At worst, he’s still a WR2 in PPR formats. Running 63.3 percent of his routes out of the slot last year, he had a career-low 1.6 yards per route run, so age is catching up with him — on DraftKings over the last three years he has a +4.56 Plus/Minus in Games 1-9 and a -3.17 Plus/Minus in Games 10-16 — but he’s still Fitz. In his three post-Kurt Warner/pre-Palmer wilderness years he averaged 1,115.3 yards per season. In his four Arians campaigns (all of which have been in his 30s), he’s averaged 994 yards per year even though Palmer has missed 11 games.
And none of this takes into account that Fitz has 12 targets inside the 10-yard line in each of the last two seasons, good for a top-five mark in both years. He’s essentially a small slot tight end at this stage of his career, subsisting on the protein diet of high-percentage targets (73.2 percent) and short-yardage scores (11 touchdowns inside the 10) over the last couple of seasons. His DRAFT ADP his risen five spots over the last two weeks (58.4 to 53.4), but he’s still way too cheap.
John Brown, WR
Brown was plagued by concussion, leg, and spine issues last year almost from the time that training camp started. As a result, Brown played on 60 percent of the offensive snaps in only four games vs. 14 in 2015, when he broke out with a second-year 1,000-yard campaign. Still, when he was right in 2016, he was Smokey. In four games last year he was targeted more than five times, balling out with an average of 87.3 yards per game for 16.73 PPR PPG; in 2015, eight games, 84.62 yards for 16.25 PPR PPG. Brown is reportedly healthy and (per Arians) “looks like John Brown.” Fitz is old, Floyd is gone, and J-Bro is young, fast, and entering a contract year. He makes for a great stacking partner with Palmer in best ball leagues (a.k.a. DFS practice) and GPPs. Brown has week/league-winning upside at his 99.6 DRAFT ADP.
Right now Fitz is +6,600 to lead the league in yards receiving; Brown’s odds are so low that he isn’t even listed. Of the two, Brown probably has a better chance of finishing 2017 with the NFL’s most receiving yardage. Over the last four years, no receiver with more than 100 targets has been better to Palmer in terms of AY/A than Brown (8.6), who’s significantly outperformed Floyd (8.1) and Fitz (7.8). Unlike Fitz, Brown has Black Swan upside.
J.J. Nelson, WR
Nelson in college at Alabama-Birmingham was basically a smaller (5’10” and 156 lbs.) and faster (4.28-second 40) DeSean Jackson, scoring as a runner and kick and punt returner throughout his career and leading his team in receiving yards and touchdowns in his two final seasons. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, once Brown’s Week 7 absence last year gave Nelson the opportunity to play significant snaps, the second-year burner turned into a Tyreek Hill-esque force, scoring seven touchdowns on only 32 touches in the final 10 games of the season. In the five games when Brown’s health and Floyd’s departure enabled him to play at least 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, Nelson averaged 16.72 PPR PPG on 8.6 targets, 72.4 yards, and 0.8 touchdowns per game.
Running only 21.6 percent of his routes out of the slot last year, Nelson is an outside-the-hash sprinter who more often than not doesn’t haul in the ball — his 44.6 percent career catch rate is almost a Sammie Coates/Stephen Hill-level of bad — but his 7.9 percent touchdown-per-target rate is Odell Beckham-like, and when he scores he scores: In his seven career games with a touchdown, he’s averaged 18.3 PPR PPG. He’s basically Brown except with maybe even higher raw GPP upside and a lower ownership rate. Creating Palmer-Nelson stacks with our Lineup Builder should be a weekly GPP habit. Lightning doesn’t strike often, but when it does it has the power to send you back into the future — if you harness it.
Chad Williams, WR
Williams is a third-round rookie out of Grambling State with good size (6’1″ and 207 lbs.), speed (4.43-second 40), and production (90-1,337-11 in 12 games as a senior). A wide receiver whisperer who revels in finding small school talent, Arians has a history of drafting productive pass-catchers outside of the top rounds: Mike Wallace (2009 draft, third round), Emmanuel Sanders (2010, third), Antonio Brown (2010, sixth), T.Y. Hilton (2012, third), Brown (2014, third), and Nelson (2015, fifth). Whenever Arians taps a receiver it’s wise to pay attention. Invest in the stocks Warren Buffett likes, right?
Williams is unlikely to do much in 2017, but Goodwin has talked Williams up as “somebody that can carry the torch” after Fitz retires, and Fitz has compared the rookie to former teammate Anquan Boldin on account of his “strong hands.” Of course, any underperformance by or injury to Fitz, Brown, or Nelson could create opportunities for Williams — and Arians has a habit of giving his third-round receivers playing time sooner rather than later, as they’ve collectively averaged 78.5 targets for 41.25 receptions, 672.25 yards, and five touchdowns as rookies. No one should be surprised if Williams emerges as a contributor this year. If someone snakes him from me in my dynasty rookie draft I’m going to lose my sh*t.
Krishawn Hogan, WR
Hogan has no chance as an undrafted rookie from an NAIA school. That said, he has a chance.
In the futures market the Cardinals currently have a 2017 win total of 8.0 with a -140 over and +110 under. They’re also +145 to make the playoffs and -175 not to make the playoffs. Since filling in for Chuck Pagaon as interim Colts HC for the final 12 games of the 2012 season, here’s how Arians has fared:
- Colts (2012): 9-3, second in division, playoffs, lost in Wild Card Round
- Cardinals (2013): 10-6, third
- Cardinals (2014): 11-5, second, playoffs, Wild Card Round
- Cardinals (2015): 13-3, first, playoffs, Conference Championship
- Cardinals (2016): 7-8-1, second
So Arians as a coach is 50-25 with a Bill Belichick-esque .667 career winning percentage, his teams have won fewer than nine games only once in the last five years, and the Cardinals are just one year removed from a Conference Championship appearance. Despite the changes to their roster, I’m taking over 8.0 wins with the Cardinals making the postseason. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives them the fourth-easiest schedule this year.
The Cardinals are also +3,300 to win Super Bowl 52, +1,400 to win the NFC, and +300 to win the NFC West. In comparison, the Seahawks are +1,200, +600, and -350. Of the two teams, I’m taking the discounted Cardinals, who in Arians’ four years with the team have trailed the Seahawks in win-loss record by an average of just one game per season.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Cardinals Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.