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Juggernaut Index No. 16: The Arizona Cardinals

Andy Behrens
Roto Arcade

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The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. This is not an NFL power ranking. We're reviewing each team's projected fantasy contributions — that's it. That's all.

If Matt Leinart(notes) can simply deliver a good impression of a bad Kurt Warner(notes), then the Cardinals will be just fine in 2010. There's no shortage of talent on this team, and the NFC West isn't exactly the scariest division in football.

But if Leinart remains the hesitant, inaccurate quarterback we've seen in the past — the guy who lost his starting job during the '08 preseason, the guy who completed just 53.6 percent of his passes in '07 — then it's going to be a long, painful year for Arizona.

If you're investing in Cardinals in fantasy leagues this year, then you're placing a stack of chips on Leinart. That's the unfortunate truth. And no, drafting Beanie Wells(notes) is not a hedge against the possibility that Leinart will be awful. Running backs don't benefit from playing in low-yield offenses directed by inept QBs.

This fact is unavoidable: In Arizona, Matt Leinart is the key to everyone's fantasy value. Thus far in his NFL career, he hasn't displayed any of the attributes that made Warner such a spectacular field general: the quick release, the decision-making, the surgical precision, the superior confidence.

Basically, if the Cards' offense is going to continue to be an all-you-can-eat fantasy buffet, then Leinart will need to play much better than he ever has. For a guy who's owned in less than 20 percent of Yahoo! leagues, the dude is pretty important in our game.

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If Leinart fails in his latest attempt to lead this offense, the only safety net in sight is Derek Anderson(notes). He's another guy who shares none of Warner's best traits. Rookie John Skelton(notes), a fifth-round pick out of Fordham, is a quarterback who needs to be on the radar in dynasty leagues, but he's not likely to enter the standard-format fantasy discussion in 2010. (If he does, then disaster will have struck somewhere).

Arizona's receiving corps remains an extremely talented group, even after Anquan Boldin's(notes) departure. If we were building an NFL team from scratch (real-life, not fantasy), then Larry Fitzgerald(notes) would top the list of desired wide receivers. Simply put, he has the skill set of an inner-circle Hall of Famer. His playoff performance two seasons ago, from the wild card round to the Super Bowl, was the most dominant four-game sequence you'll ever see from an NFL wide receiver — the quality of competition was excellent, yet Fitzgerald was un-coverable. He's insanely skilled, a pleasure to watch. He's probably the only guy in the league who would merit consideration as a top-10 wide receiver, despite having Leinart as his quarterback.

As a practical matter, it appears that I won't actually own Fitzgerald in fantasy leagues this year, because someone always drafts him as if the 2010 Cardinals will look just like the '08 version. Often, he's selected in the first round of drafts in which Leinart isn't even taken. It's tough to imagine how a team could simultaneously deliver a top-tier wideout and an un-ownable quarterback, but that's the fantasy community's take on the Cards.

With Boldin out of the team picture, Steve Breaston(notes) takes over the role of No. 2 receiver in Arizona. He's already put a 1,000-yard season on the resumé (in '08), so we know he's capable of achieving fantasy relevance under the right circumstances. The 212-pound Early Doucet(notes) actually seems like a better fit to inherit Boldin's over-the-middle intermediate responsibilities, however, so don't forget him on draft day. I'll be stunned if a fourth Arizona receiver emerges as a serious fantasy option, but if it happens, then rookie third-rounder Andre Roberts(notes) will be the guy.

It's become perfectly clear that you're all excited about the Cards' running game, because I've received lots of unsolicited feedback on my ranking of Beanie Wells (No. 18 RB, No. 35 overall). But again, the lack of enthusiasm for Wells is only a reflection of my forecast for Arizona's 2010 offense. This looks like a league-average attack. Wells is a terrific player, however, who somehow managed to be a must-own fantasy option as a rookie even though his team ran the ball less than any other squad in the NFL. He's a substantially more explosive player than Tim Hightower(notes), although both backs will have significant roles in the offense. Hightower finished second among all backs in both targets (80) and receptions (63) in '09 and he's been a solid short-yardage option over the past two seasons (18 rush TDs). His value depends entirely on your format; you'll love him in PPR and TD-only leagues. Hightower is very good in blitz pickup, so he won't simply disappear. (Sorry, Beanie fetishists).

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It's worth noting that you should not care at all about who the "starter" is at running back for this team. Last year, it was not uncommon to see both Hightower and Wells get touches in the Cards' opening series. The Arizona O-line seems to have improved, adding nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca(notes), and we can reasonably assume that the run/pass ratio will tilt toward normalcy in 2010. (Check out last year's mix in the table above). Leinart probably won't audible away from the ground game as often as Warner did. Clearly, there will be more carries to go around this season, though the offense should be less dynamic overall.

Arizona's defense was a middle-of-the-pack unit in both fantasy and reality last season, and they've since lost leading-tackler Karlos Dansby(notes) (to Miami) and safety Antrel Rolle(notes) (to the Giants). You won't draft this team DEF, but you'll occasionally stream it; the Cards open at St. Louis, and they also have Oakland, Tampa Bay and Kansas City on the schedule. If you're looking for IDPs, you're encouraged to target DB Adrian Wilson(notes), DL Darnell Dockett(notes), DL Calais Campbell(notes), and perhaps LB Joey Porter(notes) if you're feeling old school. (Or, if you're feeling new school, try rookie LB Daryl Washington(notes)).

OK, let's hear a few bold Leinart predictions in comments. In recent years, plenty of left-for-dead quarterbacks have shredded the scouting reports. It may happen for Matt, too. I'm not counting on it, obviously, but the NFL forces us to consider all possible outcomes.


Photo via Getty Images

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