Arizona Cardinals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals fell to 7-8-1 in 2016, after winning 13 games the previous season, but they were much better than their record suggested. In fact, they finished 1st in first down rate differential for the second straight season, though they did drop from+8.45% to +5.92%. The problem was their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups. They should have better luck this season.

The area in which they had the biggest decline last season was their passing game  After completing 62.8% of their passes for an average of 8.50 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2015, they completed just 59.3% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. Their receiving corps was not nearly as good (more on them later), but there’s no denying that Carson Palmer declined in a big way. Palmer’s QB rating fell 17.4 points and he fell from 4th to 17th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The decline shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, as 2015 was easily the best season of his career. His QB rating was his highest in a full season in his career by over 10 points. On top of that, 2016 was his age 37 season. Palmer has always been a solid quarterback and has finished above average among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but he is now going into his age 38 season, so he could easily be in his final season in the league and a big decline is certainly possible.

Many thought they would take a quarterback early in the draft, but they didn’t draft one at all. Adding a developmental quarterback would have made sense, not only given Palmer’s age, but also given the fact that their veteran backups Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert are among the worst in the league and have always struggled when forced to start in their careers. Stanton has a 66.3 QB rating in 13 career starts, while Gabbert has a 71.5 QB rating in 40 career starts. If Palmer does end up struggling at his advanced age, the Cardinals won’t really have another option. They need him to hold it together for at least one more season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the Cardinals’ receiving corps got a lot worse in 2016, after they had one of the best receiving corps in the league in 2015. In 2015, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown were one of four wide receiver duos to both finish with over 1000 yards and ended the season ranked 8th and 27th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Michael Floyd, meanwhile, finished 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and had 52 catches for 849 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season, despite playing only 652 snaps as the 3rd receiver. In 2016, however, Floyd managed just 33 catches for 446 yards and 4 touchdowns and was cut after week 14 when he was arrested for DUI. Brown, meanwhile, was limited to 39 catches for 517 yards and 2 touchdowns on 594 snaps by a mysterious sickle cell disease that limited his explosiveness and his snap count.

The only one who repeated his strong 2015 season was Larry Fitzgerald, who has been one of the best receivers in the league over the last decade plus. Fitzgerald finished last season 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, just 2 spots lower than his 2015 rank. His slash line fell from 109/1215/9 to 107/1023/6, but most of that was as a result of the overall decline of the passing game. Going into his 14th season in the league, Fitzgerald has 1125 career catches (3rd all-time) for 14,389 receiving yards (9th all-time) and 104 receiving touchdowns (8th all-time) in 202 career games, despite not always having great quarterback play, and has finished in the top-10 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the past 10 seasons. The only concern is he’s going into his age 34 season and is far from a guarantee to continue playing at a high level. He is also rumored to be considering retiring after this season.

John Brown is reportedly back to 100% after the illness he dealt with last season, which could be huge for this offense. He had a strong season in 2015, in just his 2nd season in the league, and could easily bounce back in his age 27 season in 2017. Going into the final season of his rookie deal, Brown could cash in as a free agent this off-season if he proves himself again. With Brown and Floyd struggling, JJ Nelson actually finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver last season, catching 34 passes for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns. A 2015 5th round pick, Nelson is a one dimensional speedster at 5-10 160 and finished below average on 472 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but is one of the fastest players in the league. He will compete with 3rd round rookie Chad Williams for the #3 receiver job to start 2017.

The #3 receiver has a pretty big role in this offense because they don’t throw to tight ends often. Jermaine Gresham returns for his 3rd season as the Cardinals’ starting tight end. He was used more in the passing game last season out of desperation because Brown and Floyd were not themselves, almost doubling his target total from the previous season (61 vs. 32). However, he didn’t really produce, averaging just 6.41 yards per target on 61 targets. The 6-5 260 pound Gresham is a capable blocker, but has finished below average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and is coming off of one of his worst overall seasons, finishing 59th out of 63 eligible tight ends in 2016. He has averaged just 31.8 yards per game in 105 career games, despite starting 93 of them. He won’t be much of a factor in the passing game again this season.

Darren Fells only played 371 snaps as the #2 tight end last season. He signed in Detroit as a free agent this off-season, so Troy Niklas will take over his old role. Niklas was a 2nd round pick in 2014, but his career hasn’t gotten off the ground because of injuries, as he has just 8 catches in 26 career games in 3 seasons in the league. Niklas will get one last chance in the final year of his rookie deal, but he’s unlikely to do much with it, though he still has upside going into only his age 25 season. The 6-6 270 pounder at least has the frame to be a strong blocker, which is about the most the Cardinals can hope for out of him. This team really lacks a good 3rd option in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production from the passing game, the Cardinals still finished 6th in first down rate at 38.31%. That’s a significant decrease from their league leading 40.73% rate in 2015, but they were still one of the best in the league in that metric. Their offensive MVP was definitely running back David Johnson, whose breakout 2016 season offset some of the issues they had in the passing game. Not only did he have a strong season on the ground, rushing for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), but he was also their 2nd leading receiver by a wide margin, catching 80 passes for 879 yards and another 4 touchdowns. Johnson finished the season 1st in the league in yards from scrimmage and in total touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked overall back and their 1st ranked back in receiving grade.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson flashed some of this ability as a rookie when he started the final 5 games of the regular season and then 2 playoff games, rushing for 537 yards and 5 scores on 120 carries in those 7 games (4.48 YPC) and adding 32 catches for 327 yards and 1 touchdown through the air. Going into his age 26 season, Johnson should be able to keep up his high level of play in 2017. Johnson looks like a modern day version of Marshall Faulk with his all-around ability. The 6-1 224 pounder has good size, speed, and runs routes like a receiver. They’ll need him in a big way in the passing game again, given that they lack another good 3rd option.

Johnson will carry the load again for the Cardinals, but, if he were to get injured, the Cardinals would use a committee of Kerwynn Williams, TJ Logan, and Andre Ellington. Williams is a bottom of the roster special teamer who has averaged 5.56 yards per carry on 98 career carries in 3 seasons in the league. Logan is an undersized (5-9 195) 5th round rookie. Ellington is the most experienced of the trio, with a 4.26 career YPC average on 398 carries and 112 catches in 4 seasons in the league, but he is always an injury risk and has never proven capable of carrying the load at 5-9 199. The Cardinals briefly tried him at wide receiver this off-season before moving him back to running back. He might be their primary change of pace back, but wouldn’t become an every down back even if Johnson were to get hurt.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The offensive line is another area where the Cardinals took a step back in 2016. Injuries were a big part of it, as left tackle Jared Veldheer missed the final 8 games of the season with a torn triceps and right guard Evan Mathis missed the final 12 games of the season with an ankle injury. Both were big losses, but Mathis’ was probably the bigger one because he was a top-3 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 5 seasons prior to 2016 and replacement Earl Watford struggled mightily in his absence, finishing dead last among guards on Pro Football Focus in 11 starts.

Watford is in Jacksonville now, but Mathis retired ahead of his age 36 season this off-season, so the Cardinals might not get much better play at the position this season. Evan Boehm, a 2016 4th round pick who was underwhelming in 2 starts last season, is penciled in as the starter, but he will face competition from 2016 5th round pick Cole Toner, who played just 10 snaps as a rookie, and Dorian Johnson, who was a 4th round pick this year. Their only veteran option is Tony Bergstrom, a 2012 3rd round pick who has made just 4 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is already going into his age 31 season. Regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness in 2017.

Veldheer returns from injury, but the Cardinals are planning on keeping DJ Humphries at left tackle and playing Veldheer at right tackle. Humphries was their 1st round pick in 2015 and was about a league average starter in 13 starts last season, first at right tackle then at left tackle, after not playing a single snap as a rookie in 2015. Veldheer would probably be the better option at left tackle because he has finished in the top-17 among offensive tackles in each of his last 4 healthy seasons and hasn’t played right tackle since college, but he is going into his age 30 season and has lost 2 of the last 4 seasons to torn triceps injuries. Humphries, meanwhile, has tremendous upside and is still only going into his age 24 season, so the arrow is definitely pointing up for him. The Cardinals could also flip their tackles at any time if this arrangement doesn’t seem to be working out. Owed a non-guaranteed 7 million in the final year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal, Veldheer could be entering his final season in Arizona if he doesn’t have a strong season.

Veldheer is one of two well-paid veteran linemen on this offensive line. The other is left guard Mike Iupati, who is going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. Originally a 2010 1st round pick by the 49ers, Iupati has started 103 games in 7 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 7 seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-14 among guards on Pro Football Focus. He fell to 33rd among guards last season, which is a bit of a concern, as he’s now going into his age 30 season. He should still be at least a solid guard for them for another couple seasons though.

Rounding out the offensive line at center is veteran AQ Shipley. Shipley is already going into his age 31 season, but last season was his first as a full-time starter. His 16 starts at center last season were more than he had at center in the rest of his career (13). Shipley struggled mightily at left guard in 2013 with the Ravens, but has finished above average in all 4 seasons in which he’s made starts at center and he finished 14th among centers in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, but he should be a solid center once again in 2017. This offensive line should be solid if they can be healthier this season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals’ offense took a bit of a step backwards from 2015 to 2016, their defense was remarkably consistent. In 2015, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.28% rate, 9th best in the NFL, and, in 2016, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.39% rate, 5th best in the NFL. Unfortunately, they lost 4 defensive starters in free agency this off-season, including a few very talented players, so they could take a big step back defensively this season. That and Carson Palmer’s age are likely to prevent them from bouncing back to 2015 form.

Their biggest defensive loss was defensive end Calais Campbell, who has quietly been their best defensive player for about a decade. Drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Campbell played 9 seasons with the Cardinals and finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons. Last season was arguably the best season of his career, as he finished 1st among 3-4 defensive ends, but he signed a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season, leaving a very big hole on their defensive line.

The Cardinals have an obvious internal replacement in Robert Nkemdiche, their first round pick in 2016, but he played just 83 snaps as a rookie because the Cardinals were not confident in him. With Campbell gone, they won’t have any choice but to play him, so they will obviously be hoping for a huge 2nd year leap from a naturally very talented player. The Cardinals called out his conditioning and he reportedly has responded well this off-season, so a solid 2nd season in the league for him is certainly a possibility. He’ll be an obvious downgrade from Campbell though.

Nkemdiche will probably work in a rotation at defensive end with the three players who rotated opposite Campbell last season, Frostee Rucker (304 snaps), Josh Mauro (388 snaps), and Rodney Gunter (243 snaps). Nkemdiche probably won’t play the 828 snaps that Campbell did last season, so those three will all likely have bigger roles in 2017, even though all three finished well below average. Rucker is the veteran of the bunch, going into his 11th season in the league, but he’s only finished above average twice in 10 seasons in the league and is unlikely to be any better now, going into his age 34 season. At this point in his career, he doesn’t offer much beyond veteran leadership. Meanwhile, Mauro is a 2014 undrafted free agent who the Cardinals signed off the Steelers’ practice squad in 2014, while Gunter is a 2015 4th round pick. Neither has ever finished above average.

Nose tackle Corey Peters finished 2nd on the defensive line in snaps played last season with 497 and was also their 2nd best defensive lineman, finishing just above average overall. He’s only finished above average twice in 6 healthy seasons in the league though and already has two torn achilles on his resume. He’s best as a run stuffer, but he has some experience as an interior pass rusher and could be counted on for a larger role and more sub package snaps with Campbell now in Jacksonville. This defensive line is much worse without Campbell and needs a breakout year from Nkemdiche to even be respectable.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

One defensive starter they didn’t lose as a free agent this off-season was Chandler Jones, who was franchise tagged and eventually signed to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar long-term deal. The Cardinals traded a 2nd round pick to the Patriots for Jones last off-season and he responded with the best season of his career, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so there was no chance the Cardinals were going to let him go, even with other key players hitting free agency.

When they traded for him, they essentially committed to him long-term over Campbell because Campbell likely would have been tagged and re-signed if not for that trade and they didn’t have the money to keep both. Campbell has had a more impressive career, but Jones is significantly younger, still only going into his age 27 season. The 2012 1st round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being the top level player he was last season, but has finished above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2014 season in which he finished 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He should continue being at least a solid edge defender going forward and is the Cardinals’ best pass rusher.

Opposite him, Markus Golden had a breakout year, giving the Cardinals a pair of edge rushers with 10+ sacks. A 2015 2nd round pick, Golden was solid on 518 snaps as a rookie, but finished his second season in the league 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He’s only really been a starter for one year, so he will need to prove it again in 2017, but he looks like one of the best young edge rushers in the league. The Cardinals also signed veteran Jarvis Jones in free agency and he’ll be the primary reserve. A bust as a 2013 1st round pick, Jones had just 6 career sacks in 4 seasons in the league, but is a solid run stopper and will have an early down role. He won’t take any sub package snaps away from Jones and Golden though, as those two are too good at getting to the quarterback to take off the field in passing situations.

The Cardinals did lose middle linebacker Kevin Minter in free agency, but, although he had a solid contract year, he’s easily the most replaceable of the 4 defensive starters they lost in free agency. There’s a reason he had to settle for just a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal from the Bengals in free agency. The Cardinals also replaced him very quickly, using the 13th overall pick on Temple’s Haason Reddick. A great edge rusher at Temple, but undersized, Reddick shot up draft boards when he showed he could play off-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl and figures to be pretty much an every down middle linebacker for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals may move him around the formation some because of his versatility and he’ll probably get about 100 or so shots at rushing the quarterback between blitzes and snaps where he lines up outside, but his best pro position is going to be middle linebacker, given his 6-1 237 frame. He’s drawn comparisons to Jamie Collins because of his ability to rush the passer, cover backs and tight ends, and stop the run as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. He has excellent upside and could be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He should start opposite another former first round pick Deone Bucannon, who went 27th overall in 2014. I say “should” because Bucannon had off-season ankle surgery and is a questionable for the start of the season. He could begin the year on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games of the season at least. If he misses any time, he’d be a big loss, as he’s played at a high level over the past two seasons, since converting from safety to middle linebacker, finishing 15th among middle linebackers in 2015 and 27th in 2016. Undersized at 6-1 211, Bucannon was a trendsetter for box safeties moving to linebacker. Many teams now use box safeties in at least hybrid roles.

In his absence, the Cardinals would start Karlos Dansby, a 13-year veteran who is now on his 3rd stint with the Cardinals. Originally a 2nd round pick by the Cardinals in 2004, Dansby has also played for the Dolphins, Browns, and Bengals. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 9 of the last 10 seasons, but he is going into his age 36 season, so he’s a major question mark going forward. When Bucannon is healthy, Dansby will be a pure reserve. This is still a talented linebacking corps, but much depends on Bucannon’s health.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Along with Campbell and Minter, the Cardinals also lost starting safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger in free agency. Both will be big losses, as they finished 5th and 9th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus on 931 and 839 snaps respectively. To replace them, the Cardinals signed veteran Antoine Bethea and drafted Washington’s Budda Baker in the 2nd round. They also have Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch back healthy after they were limited to 10 games and 6 games respectively by injury last season. Mathieu is expected to start at one safety spot in base packages with Bethea, Baker, and Branch competing at that other spot.

Mathieu is healthy now, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Mathieu burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus as a hybrid cornerback/safety. However, his rookie season was cut short when he tore his ACL week 14 and missed the rest of the season. In 2014, he was limited to 438 nondescript snaps as he was eased back from the injury. In 2015, he seemed to be all the way back, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd highest ranked defensive back, but he again tore his ACL week 15 and missed the rest of the season.

He returned for week 1 of 2016, but he missed another 6 games with a shoulder injury and looked nowhere near 100% all season. He’s only going into his age 25 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2017, but the 5-9 185 pounder is undersized for how physical he plays and may just be a permanent injury risk. The Cardinals bet a lot of money on him, guaranteeing him 40 million dollars on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension even after his 2nd ACL tear last off-season. They’re obviously hoping he can return to form and stay healthy. He covers the slot in sub packages and plays safety in base packages, often playing around the line of scrimmage.

Like Mathieu, Tyvon Branch can also cover the slot in sub packages, and, unfortunately, like Mathieu, he has major problems staying healthy. He’s finished above average in 5 of his last 6 seasons, but has missed 37 of 64 games with injury over the past 4 seasons and hasn’t played more than 428 snaps in a season since 2012. Going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can make it through an entire season anymore. Budda Baker, who the Cardinals traded up to 36 to get, was selected as insurance for both Mathieu and Branch and could see significant snaps as a rookie. Like Mathieu and Branch, he can cover the slot and play safety. The downside with Baker is that he is just 5-10 195 and received just a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft.

Antoine Bethea is the lone true safety in the mix. He’s also easily the most durable safety they have, as he has played all 16 games in 8 of the last 9 seasons and once went 5 seasons without appearing on the injury report once. The problem is he’s in his age 33 season and has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 67th out of 90 eligible safeties in 2016. The Cardinals are deep at safety, but there should be opportunity for everyone to have a role this season because they like to use 3 and 4 safety sets in nickel and dime packages and because their 2 best safeties are very injury prone.

The Cardinals depth at safety is especially beneficial because they don’t have much depth at the cornerback position. They do have one side locked down though, because Patrick Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Peterson has finished in the top-16 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at #5 in 2015 and finishing 14th last season. The only season he struggled was in 2014, when he dealt with complications from undiagnosed diabetes all season, issues that have since been resolved. The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson has been as advertised, making all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Their safety depth will help them in sub packages, but they still need someone to play outside every down outside Peterson and cover opponent’s #2 receivers. That position was their achilles heel last season and they didn’t do much to upgrade it this off-season. It looks like they will turn back to Justin Bethel to start the season, although he’s far from locked into the job. Solely a special teamer for the first 3 seasons of his career, Bethel has been unimpressive on 703 snaps over the past 2 seasons and lost his starting job early last season to Marcus Cooper, who finished 100th among 111 eligible cornerbacks in 13 starts. Bethel’s main competition is Brandon Williams, who struggled mightily on 241 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016. Harlan Miller, a 2016 6th round pick who flashed on 140 snaps as a rookie, and Jonathan Ford, a 6th round rookie, could also be in the mix. It’s a major flaw in a secondary that will need to stay healthy.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Cardinals could have easily been an 11 or 12 win team last season and they won 13 games the season before, but their window might have closed. They lost way too much talent on defense this off-season and too many of their key players are either injury risks or getting up there in age. This team still has good talent on offense and could still make the playoffs, but they could also end up at 6-10 or worse if older players show their age or injury risks can’t stay on the field. 

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in NFC West

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