There's a new head coach, new QB, and new expectations in the desert (Getty Images)
The Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here, we care about yards and points, not wins and losses. This isn’t your standard NFL power ranking. If a team’s roster features upper-tier fantasy assets, that group will rank near the top of the J.I.
Let's begin with a partial list of things that Cardinals quarterbacks did well last season:
• Give away the football. Cards quarterbacks tossed a league-leading 21 picks, plus they fumbled 10 times, losing six;
• Misfire when targeting open receivers. Arizona's team completion percentage was just 55.4, which ranked 29th in the league. No QB on the roster reached 60 percent.
This team's offense finished top-10 in total pass attempts (608), but just 27th in passing yards (3383). That ain't easy. It requires total 11-man effort. The Cardinals' offensive line play was unusually poor, and the quarterbacks were funny-bad. Check this throw by Lindley. And this one from Skelton. And this head-scratcher from Kolb.
So it was really an abysmal, forgettable season in the desert, loaded with lowlights. Not surprisingly, the Cards offense finished dead-last in total yards (263.1 YPG). In fact, if the team would have averaged 70 additional yards per week, they still would have ranked in the bottom-half of the league.
Into this big red mess steps Bruce Arians, the team's new head coach, and 33-year-old Carson Palmer, its new quarterback. The team addressed Palmer's protection on draft day, selecting guard Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick, plus the Cards get Levi Brown back from injury. The O-line should at least be ... um ... less terrible.
If nothing else, having Palmer at the controls of should benefit Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of this team's receiving corps. Palmer is far from flawless, but he's a substantial upgrade from last year's parade of terrors. With Arians on the sideline, this year's offense should yield a fair number of big plays.
"We have six home runs on the play sheet every week," said Arians at his introductory press conference. "And we're not leaving any bullets unused."
Palmer clearly isn't a must-own fantasy asset at this stage, except in two-QB leagues, but the man is coming off a 4,000-yard season in Oakland, so he isn't completely cooked. No, he may not be the ideal fit for a vertical-strike attack, and you can probably pencil in at least 15 picks. But he's not Lindley and he's not Skelton, so that's a win. The Cards clearly have talent to spare at receiver. If they can simply get competent quarterback play and adequate pass-protection — two things they lacked last season — then this offense should hum in 2013.
Larry Fitzgerald, still awesome. Draft him like it's 2008. (Getty)
Fitzgerald remains an elite receiving talent, just a year removed from a 1,411-yard season. There's really no reason he should ever fall to the third-round in a standard fantasy draft. If Palmer has a healthy season, Fitz will reclaim his status as a top-tier fantasy weapon. This is a player with five 90-catch seasons on his resume, as well as four different 1,400-yard campaigns. He turns 30 in August, but that's hardly a concern — there are no age/conditioning worries with Fitz. (Click for details.) I'm expecting him to deliver a bounce-back season that looks a lot like the one Reggie Wayne just had under Arians (106-1,355-5), but with perhaps 5-6 more spikes. Draft and enjoy.
Second-year receiver Michael Floyd is perhaps the most obvious breakout candidate at his position this season, and you won't be forced to pay an expectant price at the draft table — his current Yahoo! ADP is just 132.2. Floyd finished on a high note in 2012, hauling in eight passes for 166 yards and a TD against the Niners in Week 17. He has the requisite size (6-3, 220) and strength to be a terrific red-zone weapon, and he'll clearly benefit from the attention drawn by Fitzgerald. Andre Roberts is coming off a relatively useful season (64-759-5), considering the lousy team context, and he's entering a contract year. Fitzgerald and Roberts seem to have a Jedi-Padawan relationship, which can't possibly be a bad thing. Andre will have slot duties this year, with Floyd's usage increasing. Tight end Rob Housler is an interesting deep-league option as well, available at a dirt-cheap price (ADP 137.8). He had excellent combine measurables back in the day, and Arians has described him as "a wideout playing tight end." So his name definitely belongs in the sleeper file.Rashard Mendenhall signed a one-year make-good deal with Arizona in the offseason, following a year lost to injury. In an appearance on NFL Network back in June, Arians declared that "there's no doubt" Mendenhall's name tops the depth chart. Clearly, this is a situation where the head coach trusts the player:
"Rashard is just 25 years old (he turns 26 on Wednesday)," Arians said. "He took me personally to a Super Bowl, and I know what he can bring to the table as a runner and a pass protector and also a receiver. He's an every-down player. And I think he's looking forward to having an outstanding season."
Mendenhall is barely going inside the top-100 picks in Yahoo! drafts (ADP 98.0, RB30), so there's plenty of profit potential here. At the moment, it's tough to view Ryan Williams as anything more than a rotational back, with obvious injury-risk attached.
I'm a fan of sixth-round rookie Andre Ellington, though he doesn't have a clear path to touches just yet. Keep him in mind for dynasty purposes; check the highlight reel. Ellington ran for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons at Clemson, averaging 5.8 YPC for his collegiate career. The Cards also snagged Stanford's Stepfan Taylor in Round 5, yet another back who piled up numbers in college (4,262 career rushing yards, 40 TDs). To my eye, he's not nearly as explosive as Ellington, but I selected both of these guys in a recent rookie dynasty draft. It's not exactly unimaginable that Mendenhall and Williams could both deal with injuries in the year ahead.
Arizona's defense was a middle-of-the-pack group in real life last season, but the team generated 33 takeaways (including 22 INTs), so they were a useful fantasy commodity. You'll stream this group in 2013 when the matchup is friendly. The best of the IDPs here are DE Calais Campbell (63 tackles, 6.5 sacks in 13 games) and DB Patrick Peterson (52 tackles, 7 INTs, badass kick returner). Suspended linebacker Daryl Washington is coming off a tremendous year (134 tackles, 9.0 sacks), but he's having a rather ugly, complicated offseason. So the Cards will likely need an immediate contribution from LSU thumper Kevin Minter.
2012 team stats: 15.6 points per game (31), 211.4 passing yards per game (27), 75.3 rushing yards per game (32)
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Cowboys' Josh Brent walks away from football
• Tony Gonzalez says this will be his last NFL season
• Ricky Williams lands obscure coaching gig
• Lions release RB Jahvid Best
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- Carson Palmer
- Bruce Arians
- Ryan Lindley
- Larry Fitzgerald