Sep 042016
 

Quarterback

Many thought Cardinals’ quarterback Carson Palmer was done at this point last year. He had graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but was coming off of the 2nd torn ACL of his career and going into his age 36 season, so the odds were against him. Instead, he had arguably the best season of his career, completing 63.7% of his passes for an average of 8.70 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, a career high 104.6 QB rating for the 13-year veteran. His 4th place finish among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus was also a career best. He did play well in 6 games in 2014 before the injury, completing 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, leading the Cardinals to a 73.58% rate of moving the chains in the process, but that jumped to a league best 77.23% in 2015.

It’s hard to see him repeating the best season of his career in his age 37 season, but quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning have proven in recent years that you can play quarterback in today’s NFL effectively into your late 30s. You’re definitely a riskier bet in your late 30s, but Palmer still has great talent around him and is a perfect fit for Arizona’s offense, which is led by head coach and quarterback guru Bruce Arians, who has really revitalized the veteran Palmer’s career in 3 seasons together in Arizona. This is a talented team from top to bottom that has the ability to compete for a Super Bowl again in 2016, after a 13-3 season in 2015, but the bedrock of their recent turnaround has been Palmer and Arians.

Unfortunately, Palmer completely melted down in the NFC Championship game last year, completing just 23 of 40 for 235 yards, 1 touchdown, and 4 interceptions in a 49-15 loss in Carolina. It was easily the worst game of his season at the worst time, but one game does not define a whole season. The Cardinals finished last season 1st in rate of moving the chains differential in 2015 and enter 2016 with a similarly strong roster that has the potential to do what last year’s team couldn’t. Much depends on Palmer fighting off Father Time for one more year.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The offensive unit that’s seen the biggest improvement in recent years is the offensive line, which used to be a huge problem for many years in Arizona. The offensive line gets even better this season with the addition of veteran guard Evan Mathis. Like Palmer, Mathis’ age is becoming a concern, but he’s quietly been one of the best guards in the league over the past few seasons. Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2015, Mathis has been a top-3 guard on in each of the past 5 seasons, the only player in the league who can say that. He should have another strong year or two left in him, but that’s obviously not a guarantee at his age. A long-time left guard, Mathis will play right guard in Arizona, a huge problem position last season.

Right tackle was a bit of a problem position in 2015 as well. The Cardinals drafted Florida offensive tackle DJ Humphries in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but he was a healthy scratch in all 16 games, including the 4 games in which starter Bobby Massie was suspended. Massie is gone as a free agent this off-season, so Humphries only has to beat out Earl Watford, who started in Massie’s absence last season. The 2013 4th round pick did well as a run blocker, but struggled in pass protection and shouldn’t be hard for Humphries to beat out in his 2nd year in the league; Watford has just 2 career starts and projects as a career backup. Humphries may struggle with growing pains in his first year as a starter in 2016, but he’s still only going into his age 23 season and he has tremendous upside. Massie graded out below average last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Humphries to be an improvement.

Center was a problem position in 2015 as well and remains their only real problem position. Veteran center Lyle Sendlein has started 124 games at center in the last 9 seasons, including 15 last season, but he was not brought back ahead of his age 32 season this off-season. A solid player in his prime, Sendlein’s effectiveness has declined steadily with age and he finished last season 27th out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be replaced by either veteran journeyman AQ Shipley or 4th round rookie Evan Brohm.

Brohm figures to struggle if he has to play, but Shipley has flashed in limited action in his career. His longest extended stretch of playing time came in 2013 at left guard, where he struggled mightily, finishing 66th among 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus in 9 starts. However, he’s made 13 starts at center in 2012, 2014, and 2015 combined and graded out above average in all 3 of those seasons. It remains to be seen if he can translate that to a full season as a starting center and he becomes a full-time starter for the first time in his career in his age 30 season, but he’ll get the first shot at it. It won’t be hard for him to be better Sendlein.

The left side is where this offensive line’s biggest strength is, as recent free agent acquisitions Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati are coming off of strong seasons at left tackle and left guard respectively. Iupati signed on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from divisional rival San Francisco, where he spent the first 5 seasons of his career after they drafted him in the 1st round in 2010. Iupati was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard in 2015 and has finished in the top-14 among guards in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL. He was a nice addition at a reasonable rate.

Veldheer is someone they bought low on, signing him to a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, following a 2013 season in which he was limited to 5 mediocre starts by a torn biceps. That contract looks like an obvious steal now though. Aside from 2013, Veldheer hasn’t missed a game in his 6-year career and has been a top-17 offensive tackle in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. He and Iupati are both going into their 7th year in the league and their age 29 season and both should have strong years again in 2016. It’s a strong and improved offensive line.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As good as the offensive line is, the real strength of Palmer’s supporting cast is the receiving corps, as wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown all finished in the top-27 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Floyd made 6 starts, but Fitzgerald and Brown were essentially the starters last season, making 16 and 11 starts respectively and leading the position in snaps. Fitzgerald and Brown put up slash lines of 109/1205/9 and 65/1003/7 respectively and were one of 4 receiving duos to both top 1000 yards in 2015 (the others were Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns).

Fitzgerald’s a future Hall-of-Famer who averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games in the first 8 seasons of his career from 2004-2011. However, he looked on the decline heading into 2015, failing to top 1000 yards in 3 straight seasons from 2012-2014. Part of that was quarterback related, but he certainly was not the same player he used to be. He turned it around in 2015 though, finishing 8th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and finishing 9th in the league in receiving yards as Carson Palmer’s #1 option. Even though he was below 1000 yards in 2014, he was on pace for 85 catches for 1288 yards and 5 touchdowns over 16 games in the 6 games in which Palmer played, so he and Palmer seem to make a great combination.

The only concern with Fitzgerald is his age, which is a bit of a theme on this Arizona offense. Fitzgerald is going into his age 33 season and ranks 15th all-time with 13,366 career receiving yards. However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. The end is closer that it seems for him, but he should have another couple strong seasons under his belt. He has hinted that he may want to retire at the same time as Carson Palmer, which is worth keeping in mind.

Brown is likely the future #1 receiver, as last year’s 1000 yard performance came in just his 2nd year in the league. The 2014 3rd round pick graded out slightly below average as a rookie, catching 48 passes for 696 yards and 5 touchdowns as the 3rd receiver, but finished 27th in 2015 and could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. Floyd, meanwhile, could start on pretty much any other team in the league and may be starting on another team in the league in a year, as he heads into the final year of his contract.

Floyd is probably the best #3 receiver in the league, catching 52 passes for 849 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2015 despite not playing every down, and grading out above average in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, since the Cardinals drafted him in the 1st round in 2012. He maxed out at 22nd in 2013 and finished last season ranked higher than Brown, finishing 24th. This is definitely the top trio of wide receivers in the league. If any of them get hurt, JJ Nelson would step in and he’s got upside as the 4th receiver. He flashed on 148 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2015 and could have a significant role as soon as 2017 with Floyd heading into free agency.

The Cardinals regularly play 3 and 4 wide receivers so it’s not a huge issue, but tight end is a position of weakness. Running back David Johnson finished 4th on the team in receiving with 36 catches for 457 yards and 4 touchdowns and their top receiving tight end was Darren Fells, who finished 5th on the team with 21 catches for 311 yards and 3 touchdowns. Fells and veteran Jermaine Gresham both return and should split snaps at the position again, after both graded out below average last season.

Fells is the better pass catcher of the two, even at 6-7 281 pounds, but has just 28 catches in 2 seasons in the league. A collegiate basketball player, Fells flashed in his first career action in 2014 on 229 snaps, but fell below average in a larger role on 672 snaps in 2015. He’d be a below average starter. Jermaine Gresham is a better blocker, but he’s not good either. The veteran has 79 career starts, but has graded out below average in 4 straight seasons. It’s a position of weakness, but the fact that they have the best wide receivers in football makes up for it in a big way.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Cardinals had to go through 3 different starting running backs in 2015, after Chris Johnson and then Andre Ellington got hurt, but the 3rd time was the charm as the Cardinals appear to have discovered a future feature back in 2015 3rd round pick David Johnson. Johnson finished the season with 581 yards and 8 touchdowns on 125 carries (4.65 YPC) on the ground, along with 36 catches for 457 yards and another 4 touchdowns through the air. He made 5 starts in 16 games and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked running back.

He’ll enter 2015 as the lead back, but both Chris Johnson and Ellington return healthy, so it’s unclear how much of a load he’ll carry. Johnson has 630 carries over the past 3 seasons, but has averaged just 4.05 yards per carry over that time period and is going into his age 31 season and coming off of a broken leg. Ellington, meanwhile, has a career 4.40 YPC average and 100 career catches in 3 seasons in the league, but he’s only had 364 career carries and is undersized and injury prone at 5-9 199. He’s missed 11 of 48 career games with injury and his injury issues date back to his collegiate days at Clemson University and were part of why he dropped to the 6th round in 2013. He’s nothing more than a change of pace back. David Johnson is better than both, but he’s probably not going to get 300 touches or be a true feature back just yet. He’ll still be a big part of their offense though.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As good as the Cardinals’ offense was last season, they couldn’t have been as successful as they were as a team without a good defense and they finished 5th in rate of moving the chains allowed. They were led by a number of star caliber players, including defensive end Calais Campbell. Campbell was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2015, which was actually the worst season he’s had in the past 5 seasons, which just shows you how good he’s been in recent years. Still going only into his age 30 season, he should have another strong season in 2016 and he’s an obvious off-season extension candidate ahead of the final year of his contract.

The Cardinals used a first round pick to draft Mississippi defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and he has a good shot to be the week 1 starter opposite Campbell at defensive end in this 3-4 defense. Nkemdiche spent his collegiate career inside in a 4-3, but projects as a great fit as a 5-technique defensive end in Arizona’s 3-4 at 6-3 294 pounds. Arguably a top-10 talent, character concerns and off-the-field issues dropped him to the end of the first round, but he could end up being a steal.

His only competition for the job is incumbent Frostee Rucker, who is coming off of a below average season and going into his age 33 season. He’s managed to stay in the league for 10 seasons at this point, but he’s graded out above average just twice in Pro Football Focus’ 9-year history. Nkemdiche has a shot at an every down role as a rookie, pushing Rucker into purely a reserve role behind Nkemdiche and Campbell. He’s a bit of a boom or bust prospect, but Nkemdiche figures to be an upgrade as a rookie at the very least.

Inside at nose tackle, the Cardinals are getting Corey Peters back from a torn achilles that cost him his entire 2015 season. He’s no guarantee to get the starting job back, as replacement Rodney Gunter finished just about average on 414 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2015, while Peters isn’t exactly a great player. The 2010 3rd round pick has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the league, has missed 25 games with injury over that time period, and has torn his achilles twice in the past 30 months. Peters should get the first crack at the job, but Gunter looks like the future at the position. It’s a position of weakness on an overall strong defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Cardinals’ big off-season acquisition was New England edge player Chandler Jones, who they acquired for a 2nd round pick and fringe starting right guard Jonathan Cooper. At first glance, the move makes a lot of sense. Despite a strong season overall as a team, the Cardinals didn’t have a returning outside linebacker with more than 4 sacks last season, while Chandler Jones finished 5th in the NFL in sacks with 12.5 and has experience both at 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker, which he’ll play in Arizona.

However, Jones was not quite as good as his raw sack totals suggest, finishing 35th among edge defenders. He’s finished above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and does fill a major need for the Cardinals, but the Cardinals paid a steep price, especially considering he may end up being a one-year rental. The Patriots were so willing to trade him because he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal and they weren’t willing to pay him what it might cost to keep him. A deal similar to Olivier Vernon’s 5-year, 85 million dollar deal might be needed and that’s not quite worth it. A massive contract and a 2nd round pick is a lot to acquire Jones, who isn’t a top level player. With an aging core, the Cardinals seem to be going all in on the 2016 season.

Markus Golden and Alex Okafor led the position in snaps played last season and both figure to see significant roles again in 2016, even with Jones coming in. Golden figures to get the first chance to start, going into his 2nd year in the league, after grading out above average on 518 snaps as a rookie. Okafor, meanwhile, graded out below average on 613 snaps in 2015. The 2013 4th round pick has made 25 starts in 3 years in the league, but has never graded out above average, so he’s probably better off in a reserve role.

Inside, the Cardinals return both starting linebackers Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter, who both made all 16 starts. They had opposite seasons though, as Bucannon finished 23rd among linebackers, while Minter was all the way down in 78th out of 97 eligible. A first round pick in 2014, Deone Bucannon played both linebacker and safety as a rookie, but struggled at safety and got moved full-time to middle linebacker in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, despite only being 6-1 216. In today’s NFL, you can play linebacker well at that size if you’re good enough in coverage, which Bucannon is. He could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league and his 2nd year full-time at linebacker in 2016.

The other middle linebacker spot is probably the biggest weakness remaining on this talented defense. Minter, a 2nd round pick in 2013, graded out above average in 2014, but had never been anything more than a two-down run stopping middle linebacker who played less than half the snaps before last season and seemed overwhelmed in an every down role, particularly in coverage. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Minter could be replaced next off-season, but they don’t have an obvious alternative on the roster. It’s a solid unit overall regardless.

Grade: B

Secondary

Along with Calais Campbell, defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu carried this defense in 2015, particularly the latter. Mathieu was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked defensive back in 2015, playing both safety and slot cornerback, but tore his ACL week 15 and missed the rest of the season. Carson Palmer and the rest of the offense melting down made it basically impossible for the Cardinals to win the NFC Championship, but the Cardinals clearly missed Mathieu down the stretch and his absence definitely contributed to the Cardinals falling short, despite such a strong regular season. The Cardinals have a lot of valuable players, but he was their most valuable on defense.

This injury is especially concerning because it’s the 2nd time he’s torn it in his NFL career and he’s only going into his 4th year in the league. Mathieu was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback as a 3rd round rookie in 2013 and was a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, but tore his ACL late in the season and was limited to 438 nondescript snaps in 2014. He appeared to put the injury behind him in a dominant 2015 season, but now is dealing with another long recovery and more uncertainty.

Mathieu has vowed to only return when he’s 100% and not rush it like the last time around, but he’s still a candidate to play week 1. His recovery is obviously worth monitoring and there are no guarantees he’s the same player right away when he does return. The good news for Mathieu is he’s still only going into his age 24 season so he should recover quicker and, if he can put the injuries behind him, he can still have a very good, long career. The Cardinals don’t seem too concerned about his health long-term, giving him a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016. He’s now the 7th highest paid defensive back in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. He’s well worth it if he can stay healthy.

Peterson is also locked up long-term, signing a 5-year, 70 million dollar extension two off-season ago, after the 2011 5th overall pick had been in the league for just 3 seasons and had 2 more years left on his rookie deal. The extension is actually just starting now. Peterson finished 16th among cornerbacks in 2012 and 14th in 2013, but graded out below average in 2014 after signing the extension. However, that was only because he dealt with complications from undiagnosed diabetes all season and he bounced back in a big way with his diabetes under control in 2015, finishing a career best 5th. Still only going into his age 26 season, Peterson has made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league, despite his health issues, and, with his health under control, is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Peterson will shadow opponent’s #1 receivers, while Mathieu will play safety in base packages and cover the slot in sub packages, where he excels. If Mathieu misses the start of the season, Tony Jefferson and Tyvon Branch will be the starters at safety. Jefferson has started 17 games in 3 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2013 and has generally played well overall, grading out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, including 18th in 2015. He’s never been an every down starter for a full season like he’s expected to be in 2016, with veteran free agent Rashad Johnson signing with the Titans, but he could have a breakout year and command a significant contract as a free agent next off-season. He’s a capable starter at the very least.

Branch, meanwhile, comes over from Kansas City on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal. Branch was limited to 4 games by injury from 2013-2014, but bounced back in a part-time role with the Chiefs last season, grading out above average on 428 snaps between the regular season and post-season. When Mathieu returns, Branch figures to only play about half the snaps in Arizona as well, coming in as a 3rd safety in sub packages when Mathieu moves to cornerback. His injury history is a concern, but he’s still only going into his age 30 season after all that and has graded out above average in each of his last 3 healthy seasons and could easily be solid in a situational role again in 2016.

Cornerback, on the other hand, becomes a very thin position if Mathieu isn’t on the field, covering the slot. Justin Bethel appears to be locked in as the starter opposite Peterson regardless, despite grading just slightly below average on 443 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2015, after spending the first 3 seasons of his career from 2012-2014 as solely a special teamer. He’s a 3-time Pro Bowl special teamer in 4 years in the league since the Cardinals drafted him in the 6th round in 2012 and the Cardinals clearly believe in him as a defensive player as well, keeping him long-term with a 3-year, 15 million dollar extension last off-season, but he’s a complete projection to a starting cornerback role with just 4 career starts. He’ll be picked on a lot with Peterson locking down one side of the field well and could easily struggle in that role. Meanwhile, 3rd round rookie Brandon Williams would likely see action on the slot if Mathieu isn’t ready for the start of the season and could step into the starting lineup by season’s end if Bethel struggles. It’s a strong secondary, but so much is reliant on Mathieu’s health.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cardinals were one of the best teams in the league last season and figure to be one of the best in the league once again in 2016. They had no major losses this off-season and added short-term starters at positions of need in Evan Mathis (right guard) and Chandler Jones (edge defender), giving them one of the best lineups in the NFL. Whether or not they win the Super Bowl is going to depend largely on an aging core continue to play at a high level and the return of potential Defensive Player of the Year Tyrann Mathieu from his 2nd torn ACL in 3 seasons.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC West

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