The NFC West is the best, most competitive division in football.
Of course, you have the powerhouses from Seattle and San Francisco, but the continuous strides made from the Arizona Cardinals has helped this division become the scariest in the league. I mean, this team finished 10-6 a season ago, only to find themselves out of the playoff picture. All four teams in this division are capable of making the playoffs, and with a top-10 defense and suddenly exciting offense, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Arizona return to the second season in 2014.
Oh, and fantasy football. Let us not forget that, of course.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked passers in fantasy this year, Carson Palmer is not, I repeat, not exciting. He’s slow, old and has had a fair share of injuries over the course of his career. Wow, this is not sounding at all optimistic. However, after finishing 2013 as the number 17 fantasy quarterback, Palmer could be a nice little value for fantasy owners planning on waiting for quarterbacks late in their draft (which you obviously should). Despite a mediocre start, Palmer heated up during the second half of the year, completing 66 percent of his passes, averaging 281 yards, tossing 16 touchdowns to eight interceptions during the final nine games of the season.
It was even more impressive when you consider he was one of the most pressured passers in the league, too.
Palmer was one of the ten-most sacked quarterbacks in football, which was a big reason why he tossed a career-high 22 interceptions a season ago. However, when he had a clean pocket, he was pretty darn good. According to Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus, when Palmer was “Under Pressure”, he tossed just three touchdowns and 15 interceptions, completing less than half of his passes. However, when he had a clean pocket, he completed just over 70 percent of his passes, threw 21 touchdowns and just seven picks, And, also via PFF, Palmer was under pressure on 40 percent of his dropbacks, the 6th-most in the NFL. He was rated the worst quarterback in football when under pressure, and it can’t get any worse.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals addressed their offensive line, signing Jared Veldheer, who ranked as a top-12 tackle according to PFF. They’ll also have Jonathan Cooper healthy, who will help out right away. Palmer has the weapons and the offensive line can’t be any worse than it was last year, so I expect the interception total to regress. Palmer has the potential to finish as a top-12 fantasy passer this year under Bruce Arians, who wants to have a fast-paced offense. And sure, Palmer has to face the vaunted NFC West defenses, but he also faces the entire NFC East, the Raiders, Lions and Falcons.
At the worst, he’ll be a very popular waiver wire target throughout the course of the season.
So, Andre Ellington may or may not carry the ball 30 times per game this year.
He’s been the talk of the town in Arizona, as well as in fantasy land. Ellington teased fantasy owners with his ability last year, leading all rushers with at least 100 carries in YPC (5.5), and showcased some serious big play potential. His eight carries of 20 yards or more were the most in football, as he flashed some C.J. Spiller-like numbers. Now, with 26-year old Rashard Mendenhall retired, Ellington is the number one back in Arizona. Head coach Bruce Arians stated he wants to get him 30 touches per game, but I’m not sure Arians realizes how unlikely that is.
Still, Ellington will be plenty busy in 2014.
Coming off a season where he led all qualified rushers in fantasy points per touch, Ellington is the real deal. He’s quick, has good vision, cuts well and possesses strong balance in the open field. However, for as good as he is, you simply cannot expect him to touch the ball 30 times every afternoon. Arians hasn’t been a guy committed to one back during his tenure as an offensive coordinator/head coach, and as Rich Hribar points out, only two backs over the last ten seasons have carried the ball 250 times under Arians. Draft him as a second running back with major upside, but don’t put all your eggs in his basket. The Cardinals were below the league average in terms of run blocking last year.
In fact, don’t put all your eggs in any man’s basket– that’s just rude.
Also, consider Stepfan Taylor as not only a late handcuff for Ellington, but a sneaky pick as well. Last year, Mendenhall scored eight rushing touchdowns, tied for the fifth-most in the league. At 5’9″, 199 pounds, Ellington isn’t the ideal goal line back, and coming out of Stanford, Taylor was a prototypical three-down back, possessing strong short-yardage skills. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see him as the team’s goal line back.
This team has some very exciting wideouts to offer. First, and most obvious, is Larry Fitzgerald, who has been doing it for years. Many don’t realize it, but no wide receiver in football had more red zone targets than Fitzgerald (24), who converted six touchdowns in the red zone (10th) and caught 15 of those 24 looks. Meanwhile, Arizona quietly threw the ball over 56 percent of the time when inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, so there was nice volume from Fitzgerald. At 31-years old, Fitz continues to transition to a slot receiver, seeing 34 percent of his 2013 targets from the slot. With his size, route-running and deceptive quickness, Fitzgerald makes for a tough cover.
Even at 31, the guy still has plenty left in the tank, and could return WR1 numbers for owners this year. Palmer and the offense should be better, and he’s still an elite wideout in this league.
But is this the year he passes the torch?
2013 was the year of the second-year wideout. There was Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery and Kendall Wright that emerged during their second years, but Michael Floyd was pretty darn good, too. He finished as a WR2 for the year, ranking as the 23rd-best fantasy option. But he really turned it on during the second half of the season, posting an elite 1.59 fantasy points per target (via PFF). And he finished the season averaging 1.25 FP/T, which was more than his teammate, Fitzgerald’s. And, with all this in mind, consider that Palmer often held him back at times last year, as only 70 of his total 107 targets were catchable. Palmer should be better and Floyd should be targeted even more.
Top-20 wideout? Book it.