Entering the 2016 NFL season, the Arizona Cardinals come in as my Super Bowl pick. Last year they came just one game away from making their 2nd Super Bowl appearance since 2008 back when Kurt Warner was leading the charge. How times have changed since then.
The new headman in Arizona, Carson Palmer, then a Cincinnati Bengal, was headed on a downward spiral. Injuries depleted his production along with time on the field which even led to him threatening retirement if the Bengals failed to trade him – which they did following the drafting of Andy Dalton in 2011.
Nowadays, Palmer has evolved an offense in Arizona which could even be comparable to the Warner led offense of the late 2000’s. Aside from Palmer, the Cardinals offense is chock-full of legitimate fantasy options which we will diagnose below.
We opened with the Carson Palmer talk, so let’s start our analysis with the Cardinals signal caller. At 35 years old, the 14th year QB is coming off the best season of his career – a rarity at that age. His 4,600+ passing yards and 35 TD passes from last season are still only good enough to have him as the 8th QB off the board in fantasy drafts with a mid 7th round ADP – in the vicinity of guys like Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. If you can hold off on a QB until the 7th-8th round range, Palmer is definitely worth a pick.
I expect the Cardinals to place even more emphasis on the pass this season as their offense is loaded with play-makers such as Michael Floyd, John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and J.J. Nelson, a player on my sleepers list. Plus, you have a guy like David Johnson coming out of the backfield who is among the best receiving backs in the league. Palmer was a top 5 fantasy QB last season. While I don’t expect him to quite match his production, although he could, he’s still worth it in the middle of your draft – especially if you’re without a QB at that point.
The Cardinals’ receiving corps, often an anomaly in the fantasy landscape, may have more clarity this season. The team’s leading receiver from last season, Larry Fitzgerald, caught for a remarkable 1,215 yards – his first 1,000 yard season since 2011. While researching his fantasy outlook for this season, I was shocked when I stumbled upon his numbers from last season – he even caught a career high 109 balls last year.
Now it’s time to come back down to earth. While Fitz is one of those guys who seemingly will never age or regress on the football field, I’d use caution when giving him a look. Separated by just one round from teammate Michael Floyd in ADP, I’d go with Floyd as he presents more upside at this stage of their respective careers. He finished last season with a boom. In the final 8 weeks of the season, he compiled all 5 of his 100 yard performances and added 4 TDs during that span. He should emerge as Palmer’s top target this season. His ADP of 5.07 is pretty solid draft range considering his steady production over the years with the potential of a breakout 1,000 yard season.
Other guys in the mix of that WR corps are John Brown and a top breakout candidate in J.J. Nelson. As the dominos continue to fall for the Cardinals, Brown follows suit in the 7th round as he succeeds Floyd and Fitzgerald who are going in the rounds prior. Brown was 2nd on the team last season as he barely eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark to go with 7 scores. Brown is a speedster who can stretch the field or make big plays out of nothing. While I don’t think he quite matches his production from last season, he’ll remain a volume producer. However, I wouldn’t go with him as early as the 7th – some weeks he barely finds the stat sheet and only broke 100 yards twice last season. A bit later, and he’s surely worth a spot in your FLEX. As for J.J. Nelson, he’s a guy I’m pretty high on. As a rookie he caught only 11 passes, but posted a staggering 27.2 yards per catch. He possesses world class speed and has the potential to be among the best burners in the league. Look for him to find himself and gain an expanded role in the Cardinals offense this season. Surely worth a look in deeper leagues.
Now perhaps the biggest storyline of the Cardinals this year in fantasy football is David Johnson. The 2nd year running back out of Northern Iowa is currently the 4th RB going off draft boards with an ADP slot of 1.07. While I think that may be slightly early for him, his flashes towards the end of 2015 may make worth it as your top draft pick. His dual production ability is what makes him so special. As a rookie, he finished 8th in receiving yards among RBs and added 581 rushing yards to go along with his production in the passing game as he accumulated 12 total TDs on the season. The 7th overall fantasy running back from last season while splitting duties with Chris Johnson, you’d have to think his production skyrockets and he is a surefire top 5 RB this season. Not big on stat projections, but I’ll give it a try here with Johnson: 920 rushing yards, 8 TDs, 635 rushing yards, 6 TDs which would be roughly 240 fantasy points – a total which would be tops in 2015. There is a bit of risk factor here regarding Johnson if you select him with your first draft choice, however, based on the upside, he’s a very compelling player this year – especially in PPR leagues.
Seeing a career resurrection last season was the 30 year old Chris Johnson as he led the Cardinals in rushing with over 800 yards on the ground. He started the season as the team’s lead running back, but was overshadowed by David Johnson’s eye-popping ability as the season went on. With an ADP of 11.05, I wouldn’t even bother picking up Johnson this season – unless you want to attempt a trade as someone may value him as a backup RB with potential of seeing more time if an injury in front of him were to happen. He was solid last season, but wore down as the season went on. This could be his final season with legitimate playing time.
A huge disappointment from last season was Andre Ellington and his ability to stay healthy. Some thought he had the potential to be the team’s leading rusher last season, but he was limited to just 10 games and only saw 60 total touches on the season. I think he provides a lot more upside than Chris Johnson. In his first two years in the league he flashed big-play ability in both the running game and passing game. Currently going undrafted, Ellington is a guy who carries upside and could pan out as a great get off the waiver wire. I think his splash ability will be coveted behind David Johnson which will in turn result in a lot more touches than last season. He may even be worth a draft pick in the 14th or 15th rounds.
There is not much to boast about at the TE position for the Cardinals. Darren Fells and Jermaine Gresham split duties as the offensive edge setter – both of whom are going undrafted. They could serve as a spot starter or bye week savior at some point throughout the season depending on the matchup.
I’m very intrigued to see how David Johnson takes off in his sophomore campaign and first as the feature back. At the end of the day, I do think he finishes as a top 5 RB as my rough 240 point projection surely would indicate. As discussed, the WR corps is a big of an enigma to figure out. If you’re going to go with one of the 3 guys in rounds 5-7, Floyd should be the guy. However, Brown presents more value in the 7th than Fitzgerald does in the 6th as repeating last year’s production is unrealistic. Keep your eye out for J.J. Nelson, he can be a splash producer with his burner playing style and speed. Don’t bother drafting Chris Johnson and monitor Andre Ellington throughout the year as he can be an undrafted sleeper. Carson Palmer should finish as a top 5 QB yet again with the weapons at his disposal – especially with the threat he has in the backfield in David Johnson and even Ellington.
*All ADP according to Fantasy Football Calculator and 12 team standard format