Four months ago, on a Sunday in mid-March, Peyton Manning spent nearly six-and-a-half hours meeting with Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt, team president Michael Bidwill, and various other coaches and executives. Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald was present, too.
Whatever else you think about the Cardinals' off-season, you have to acknowledge that the team attempted to address a glaring offensive weakness in the most dramatic way possible.
By now, everyone surely knows that Arizona's sit-down with Manning was not a total success. Perhaps he didn't enjoy the desert climate, or maybe he didn't want to work behind an O-line that allowed 54 sacks in 2011. He chose to go elsewhere.
Thus, five days after their meeting with Peyton, the Cards exercised Kevin Kolb's $7 million option bonus. At least we now know who the most expensive quarterback is going to be this season in Arizona, even if we don't yet know who's going to start in Week 1.
Kolb enters training camp as the favorite in a position battle with John Skelton, but this will clearly be a legitimate competition. These were Whisenhunt's thoughts, back in May:
"I'll be honest with you and say I obviously know how much we invested in Kevin," Whisenhunt said. "I want Kevin to be successful, I want him to be our quarterback, but I'm not going to ignore the fact that John Skelton worked pretty hard and did a good job when he was in there playing, too.
"I think he's earned the right to compete for that spot."
Last year, Kolb started the first seven games for the Cardinals, leading the team to just one win, then sat for four weeks with a case of turf toe and various other foot issues. When Kolb hit the shelf, he was averaging 243.7 yards per game and he'd thrown as many picks as touchdown passes (eight of each). He was punishingly average, basically. We should note, however, that Kolb faced a tricky slate, including match-ups with the Giants, Steelers and Ravens.
Skelton replaced Kolb in Weeks 9 through 12, and the team managed to earn a pair of wins over the Rams (who were terrible) and another at Philadelphia (where Kolb called out many of his former team's plays). Statistically and aesthetically, Skelton was a mess over those first four starts in 2011. He threw four TD passes and seven interceptions, he completed just 50.4 percent of his throws, and he was benched during a loss to the Niners after tossing three picks. But still, Skelton went 3-1 in relief of Kolb, so his deficiencies were easier to overlook.
Kolb returned in Week 13, directing his team to an overtime win over Dallas — yup, that was the game in which Jason Garrett iced his own kicker — but he suffered a concussion in Week 14, on Arizona's third play from scrimmage. Skelton again replaced Kolb, and improbably led the Cardinals to a victory against San Francisco, the team that had recently embarrassed him. In Week 14, he passed for 282 yards and three scores against the Niners (10.1 yards per attempt). Sure, Skelton still made ridiculous decisions like this, but the wins were piling up. He started the final three games while Kolb cleared the cobwebs, winning twice more (against Cleveland and Seattle).
Fantasy owners clearly preferred Skelton behind center last year, because he was substantially more Fitz-friendly than Kolb. In the eight games that Kolb started and finished last season, Fitzgerald averaged 8.1 targets. In Skelton's eight games, that number jumped to 11.1. Four of Fitzgerald's six 100-yard efforts occurred with Skelton at the controls. A responsible quarterback would never have attempted this throw or this one, but when Fitz is the intended receiver, good things can still happen.
Fitzgerald is likely to be the second receiver off the board in your 2012 fantasy draft, behind only Megatron. He's typically selected near the Round 1-Round 2 turn, with an ADP of 14.2. Fitz has topped 1,400 receiving yards four times in his career, last season included, and he's caught 90 balls or more in five different campaigns. He's consistently great, even when his quarterback isn't. No worries here.
Early Doucet and Andre Roberts are both coming off strong seasons — 54-689-5 for Doucet, 51-586-2 for Roberts — but neither is likely to be drafted in standard 10 and 12-team leagues. First-round rookie Michael Floyd is a low-risk, medium-reward option for fantasy owners at his ADP (120.2), a player with good hands, great instincts and excellent size (6-3, 220). He caught 100 passes as a senior at Notre Dame, reached the 1,000-yard plateau in each of his final two seasons, and topped 700 receiving yards all four years. Floyd is a physical player, reliable in traffic, and he should eventually thrive in Arizona, as defenses focus on Fitzgerald. For now, the Cards' unfortunate quarterback situation limits his ceiling. He's a nice dynasty asset, but you don't want to rely on him as a starter in a public-style league.
[More Fantasy Football: Is Cutler a better option than Roethlisberger?]
Floyd won't simply be competing for targets with Fitz, Roberts and Doucet, but also with Arizona's collection of tight ends. The team reportedly wants to get the position more involved in its passing game — that shouldn't be too hard, since Todd Heap's 283 receiving yards led all Cardinals tight ends last year. "To be honest with you," said Fitzgerald back in June, "I think the tight ends are probably our strongest position on the field right now." So that's encouraging. Fitz then referred to former third-rounder Rob Housler as "one of the fastest tight ends in the game." You're not likely to draft Heap or Housler or Jeff King in fantasy, but be aware that they'll be poaching targets.
Prior to last season, Arizona's ground game hadn't averaged better than 100.0 yards per week since 2004, and they ranked dead-last in the NFL in 2010, 2008 and 2005. It may not seem like a big step to finish 24th in the league in rushing, but that represents actual progress for the Cards. Beanie Wells had a big year, highlighted by a 228-yard performance in Week 12 at St. Louis. Wells rushed for 1,047 yards on 245 total carries, playing through injuries, and finding the end zone 10 times. He's a powerful runner, though not a guy who wins every footrace. If you're playing in a PPR format, you'll need to downgrade Wells; he caught just 10 passes last year, five the season before that, and 12 in 2009. He also had knee surgery in January (not his first) and has thus been unable to experience a normal off-season. The hope is that he'll be good to go in training camp, but we've learned to monitor this player closely.
The wild card in Arizona's backfield is Ryan Williams, a talented runner out of Virginia Tech who missed what should have been his rookie season after suffering a ruptured right patellar tendon last August. It was a brutal injury for a promising young player, but Williams remains on schedule for a full return in 2012 — no one's had a negative thing to say about his rehab — and we know his coach prefers to roll with a two-headed running attack. At Williams' current draft price (ADP 97.0), I'd advise you to buy. The Cards didn't draft a running back this past April and, as of this writing, they haven't added one via free agency. So it looks like Wells and Williams will be expected to carry the full load, on surgically repaired knees.
This team defense was a perfectly middle-of-the-pack group in terms of yards and points allowed last season (355.1 YPG, 21.8 PPG), and they didn't generate turnovers at an exceptional rate. You won't draft them in fantasy, but you'll probably stream 'em in select match-ups. The IDPs of interest are LB Daryl Washington (106 tackles, 5.0 sacks), DE Calais Campbell (72 tackles, 8.0 sacks), SS Adrian Wilson (65 tackles) and CB Patrick Peterson (64 tackles, 13 PDs, insane return skills).
2011 team stats: 19.5 PPG (NFL rank 24), 101.6 rush YPG (24), 247.1 pass YPG (15), 27.1 yards/drive (21), 0.16 turnovers/drive (25)
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