Juggernaut Index, No. 18: The Arizona Cardinals

Juggernaut Index, No. 18: The Arizona Cardinals

Arizona closed the 2013 season with wins in seven of nine games, including a 40-11 evisceration of the Colts and a 17-10 victory at Seattle. The team averaged 27.3 points per game during that stretch, while the defense allowed just 18.1. The Cardinals run D was the stingiest in the league (84.4 YPG). Honestly, by the end of the year, Arizona was probably one of the NFL's top-5 teams.

Unfortunately for the Cards, they were still no better than the third-best team in the NFC West. So, despite finishing with a 10-6 record, Arizona missed the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. Life ain't easy in the league's toughest division. Nonetheless, expectations are understandably high for the year ahead. Don't be surprised if this team is playing meaningful football games in January, 2015.

"There's nobody in the organization right now that doesn't expect to win," said head coach Bruce Arians in a recent interview with USA Today.

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The Cards have talent at the skill spots on offense, and — even without suspended All-Pro linebacker Daryl Washington — the defense should again rank among the most dominant in the league. Bottom line, this is a scary football team.

Arizona would in fact rank many spots higher in this index if the team's quarterback wasn't so obviously flawed — not bad, mind you, but flawed.

Over the past four seasons, Carson Palmer has appeared in 57 games for three teams, tossing 72 interceptions. That's a level of recklessness we don't typically associate with winning QBs. Palmer delivered a career-high 4,274 passing yards last season, but also a career-high 22 picks. But to be fair to Palmer, he was far less turnover-prone in the second half than in the opening weeks. He threw 10 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions over his first eight games, averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt; in games 9-16, when the Cards were rolling, Palmer delivered 14 TD passes and eight INTs while averaging 8.2 Y/A.

Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, not such a bad 1-2 receiving combo (AP Photo/Matt York)
Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, not such a bad 1-2 receiving combo (AP Photo/Matt York)

So which version of Carson will we see in 2014?

At this stage, it's unrealistic to think that he can navigate a full season without giving away a game or two (and hopefully not three). Palmer can deliver a handful of useful fantasy performances based strictly on volume — he ranked tenth in pass attempts last season (572) — but he's clearly not going to avoid negative plays. It helps that his O-line has been upgraded — LT Jared Veldheer was a huge, necessary add — and of course the Cards' receiving corps is terrific. But Palmer remains an odd, imperfect fit for the deep-strike Arians passing game. Just check his numbers last season on passes that targeted a receiver 20 or more yards downfield (via PFF): 23-for-74, 7 TDs, 8 INTs. Palmer ranked near the top of the league in deep attempts, but near the bottom in deep-ball accuracy. And he was really a mess on deep attempts in Oakland the prior season, completing just 14 of 60 throws.

Of course if you're a Cardinals fan (or former Larry Fitzgerald fantasy owner) who suffered through the Kolb-Skelton-Lindley years, you're not gonna complain about Palmer. You've seen truly bad quarterback play, and it's obviously not what you're getting these days. Palmer is competent enough to steer your team to the playoffs, and he's more than capable of supporting multiple fantasy-relevant receivers. He's not a guy who belongs in a Week 1 starting lineup in a fantasy league of standard size, but he projects as a fair spot-starter, an inoffensive QB2 in our game. In a 16-team league, he'll be owned. In a 12-teamer, probably not.

Larry Fitzgerald remained a productive, high-usage receiver at age-30, experiencing a bump in fantasy value over the prior season — predictable, given the upgrade at quarterback. His yardage total wasn't anything special by his standards (954), but he found the end zone 10 times on 82 catches. Fitz actually led all Arizona receivers in routes from the slot last season (289), which boosted his catch-rate to 60.3 percent (from 46.4) while avoiding double-teams. Expect more of the same in 2014 under Arians. Michael Floyd has emerged as the team's primary deep threat, and he led the Cards in receiving yards as a second-year wideout (1,041 on 65 catches). It's not crazy to think that Floyd can surpass Fitzgerald in standard league fantasy production this season, and you'll get him at a slightly friendlier price.

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Arizona added burner Ted Ginn to the receiving mix during the offseason, so he's another deep-ball specialist. If you're looking for a long-range dynasty play on this team's receiving depth chart, check out the third-round rookie from Pittsburg St. (KS)...

Brown is a bit undersized (5-foot-11, 179 lbs), but he has 4.34 speed, plus he ran the quickest 20-yard split among all receivers at the combine. The Cards have a few familiar names on the depth chart at tight end, but the position won't see heavy use in this passing game. Don't mess with that bunch.

Andre Ellington, runaway fantasy monster
Andre Ellington, runaway fantasy monster

Rashard Mendenhall appeared to be running in sand last season, as he averaged just 3.2 yards per tote. He's now retired, having never fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered at the end of the 2011 season (one week after Adrian Peterson's ACL tear). Second-year back Andre Ellington is expected to see a serious uptick in workload in the coming season, which should excite fantasy owners to no end. Ellington was a blur last year, a big play threat on any touch. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 9.5 per reception, gaining 1,023 total yards on just 157 touches. Ellington picked up a first-down on 21 of his 39 catches, an insane rate for a running back. (For comparison's sake, Pierre Thomas also accounted for 21 first-downs — on 77 receptions. Gio Bernard had 21 first-downs on 56 catches. LeSean McCoy earned 23 on 52.) To me, Ellington seems like a filthy steal if you can snag him beyond Round 2. He won't need 280-300 touches in order to deliver a monster fantasy season. If his workload simply jumps by 80-100 touches, we're in for a treat. He'll earn a profit at his current ADP (38.2), assuming good health. Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer are scrapping for a situational short-yardage role, but neither is a must-draft handcuff.

Arizona's D/ST was dealt a self-inflicted blow with the Washington suspension, but this unit should still be plenty good in the season ahead. This is an opportunistic bunch that piled up sacks (47.0), takeaways (30) and defensive scores (5) last season. The Cards added Antonio Cromartie to a secondary that already included Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. DL Calais Campbell is the sure-thing among the Arizona IDPs, while LB Kevin Minter is the stealth option, a potential breakout. This team D ranks top-10 on most cheat sheets, and deservedly so. Draft and enjoy responsibly.

The Buzzsaw is back, friends. This should be a fine year in the desert. Super Bowl XLIX will take place in Glendale, by the way, so there's at least a chance this team's final home game will be kind of a big deal.

2013 team stats: 23.7 PPG (NFL rank 16), 268.2 pass YPG (13), 24 pass TDs (15), 96.3 rush YPG (23), 26.4 rush attempts per game (19), 35.9 pass attempts per game (17)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston