After a ten win season in which they missed the playoffs, the Cardinals enter the 2014 season a little under the radar. Playing in the same division as two of the best teams in the NFL in the Seahawks and 49ers, it is easy to forget what Arizona accomplished just a season ago, especially after failing to make the playoffs (despite winning ten games).
Arizona was one of the better teams in the NFL down the stretch last year, winning 7 of their final 9 games. One of those losses came in the season finale against San Francisco by the score of 23-20. They also had an impressive win as the Cardinals were the first team to knock off the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks at home, beating them by a score of 17-10.
Playing in what is regarded as the best division in football, fantasy owners may be a little hesitant when drafting players from the Cardinals. Don't let that stop you from looking hard at some of the skill position players on this team. They have a proven star in Larry Fitzgerald and two emerging stars in Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington. I am also an advocate of targeting Carson Palmer late as a QB2. Let's take a deeper look at the depth chart of the fantasy relevant positions on Arizona.
Despite the perception amongst many NFL fans that Carson Palmer isn't a very good quarterback, I think he enters the 2014 season as one of the better late round values in fantasy football leagues. He will be entering his second season in Arians' system and has some of the best weapons in the entire NFL. The Cardinals return studs Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald on the outside and have added speed receiver John Brown, who will compete with veteran Ted Ginn for the slot role. Andre Ellington also figures to be more involved and is a talented receiver out of the backfield.
While I would definitely endorse Palmer as a valuable late round flier to take as your QB2, I would not target him until one of the last few rounds of your draft. Let him fall to you. In standard leagues, many people don't even carry a second quarterback and he has the potential to return low end QB1 value because of the offense and the pieces around him. While he does have a lot of fantasy potential, his knack for turning the ball over makes him a bit of a risky pick which is why I encourage waiting until the last couple rounds of your draft.
Drew Stanton returns as Palmer's backup for the second straight year. While he has not been anything spectacular in his limited NFL action, he has shown enough to stick around on an NFL roster since he entered the league in 2007. Logan Thomas was viewed as one of the quarterback projects heading into the 2014 NFL Draft. Blessed with impressive size and strength, no quarterback possesses the imposing physical tools that Thomas brings to the table. However, he has a lot of work to do mechanically and has proven to be erratic at times with his throws and his reads. Thomas is worth a look in deeper dynasty leagues.
With Rashard Mendenhall retiring in March, the backfield is starting is starting to take shape. A season ago, fantasy enthusiasts were confused with how little Andre Ellington was used despite being extremely productive with the touches he did receive. He will now get his chance to receive a much bigger workload. Earlier this offseason head coach Bruce Arians expressed confidence in his second year back stating that he is expected to get 25-30 touches per game. While any fan knows how unlikely that is to hold true, I think it has become very clear that Ellington will see much more than the 157 touches that he received as a rookie.
Entering the league as just a sixth round pick, Ellington was not even on the redraft radar just a season ago. But coming off a season in which he averaged 5.5 yards per carry and caught 39 passes, he is a solid upside pick in the 3rd round of PPR leagues and 4th or 5th round of standard formats. He is one guy I will be targeting as I think he possesses top 10 running back upside in PPR leagues. A smaller back at just 5'9'' and 199 lbs, Ellington will likely give up some goal line work to Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer.
The competition to become the thunder to Ellington's lightning in the Arizona backfield will be something to monitor for those in dynasty leagues or deeper redraft leagues. Ellington does not have the frame desired to handle a heavy workload and whoever wins the job should be a good bet for 5-6 touchdowns. After the release of former second round pick Ryan Williams in March, it comes down to Taylor and Dwyer. Taylor is a second year back with a solid build that makes him an effective power runner. He only saw 36 carries as a rookie and went for an underwhelming 115 yards. Dwyer is a fifth year back who had his moments with the Steelers while part of a committee. Similar to Taylor, he has a thick build at 235 lbs, making him an ideal complement to Ellington.
Right up there with Chicago and Atlanta, the Cardinals boast one of the top receiving duos in all of football. At 30 years of age and entering his 11th season, Fitzgerald still plays at a very high level. He is coming off of a season in which he caught 82 passes for 954 yards and ten touchdowns. It is his second straight season under 1,000 yards after going over the century mark in six of his first eight seasons. It is worth noting that Fitzgerald battled a hamstring issue most of the last season. He also was held out of minicamp in early June because of a hamstring injury. While it is early and he could have decided to sit as more of a precaution, it is a situation to keep an eye on as the season approaches. As the 12th receiver off the board and late third-early fourth round ADP according to Yahoo, I will likely not have Fitzgerald on any of my teams this year.
One of the biggest offseason stories coming out of Arizona this summer has been the play of third year receiver Michael Floyd. According to reports, he has been the star of OTAs. Palmer has been raving about Floyd and has stated that he has high expectations for him this season. If his play late in 2013 is any indication, Floyd could be one of the best values in fantasy football this season. He went for 90 or more yards in four of the final 8 games last season as he has the size and athleticism that gives defenses fits. Currently going in the 6th-7th round, Floyd will certainly be a target of mine this season as I will likely start considering him in the late 5th depending what else is on the board at that time.
Although the position may not hold much fantasy value, the starting slot role in the offense could be an interesting battle in camp. They brought in free agent veteran Ted Ginn, a potential big play guy who also figures to return kicks and punts. He will be competing with what many thought to be a surprise third round pick in John Brown from Pittsburg State. Like Ginn, Brown is a burner. He ran a 4.34 at the combine in February and could be extremely dangerous both as a receiver and a returner despite his thin frame. Third year pro Brittan Golden and second year man Jaron Brown figure to fight for the fifth and possibly final receiver spot on the roster.
It has been a while since the Cardinals have had a tight end who has been well known in the fantasy community. Don't expect this year to be any different. Jim Dray led all Cardinals tight ends in snaps a season ago, but Rob Housler was the leading receiver, catching 39 passes for 455 yards and one touchdown. Although Dray is now a member of the Browns, Housler's upside will be limited with the addition of John Carlson in free agency and the drafting of Troy Niklas in the second round. Head coach Bruce Arians' offense has never featured the tight end heavily and with a trio of guys all expected to be involved, don't expect any of them to hold any type of fantasy value outside of deeper dynasty leagues.
At 6'6'' and 270 lbs with a hulk-like frame, Niklas figures to see the most snaps of the group. He is the best blocker of the bunch, something that he will be asked to do a lot in the offense. Carlson got paid decent money in free agency and will likely come into the season as the number two tight end. Housler may be the best athlete of the group but will likely have a tough time carving out a role in the offense. Former New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard, who held some fantasy value in 2011 when he went for over 600 receiving yards and four touchdowns will enter training camp as the number four tight end.
The Cardinals enter their second season under head coach Bruce Arians. He has an impressive track record as an offensive coordinator, leading the Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances and leading the Colts to an improbable playoff berth in 2012 when he took over for Chuck Pagano once he was diagnosed with cancer. If history is any indication, the Cardinals offense should continue to improve in 2014.
Another reason I am optimistic about the Arizona offense is because of the losses on the defensive side of the ball. Inside linebacker and former Pro Bowler Daryl Washington has been suspended for the entire season for pleading guilty to the crime of aggravated assault. The Cardinals will also likely be without free safety/cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to start the season. He suffered a torn ACL and LCL in a December win over the St. Louis Rams in 2013. This may force the Cardinals to throw more than they would like, resulting in more fantasy production.