In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC West, starting with the Arizona Cardinals today.
Recap of 2015: The Arizona Cardinals had one of their best seasons in franchise history in 2015, but it ended with embarrassing disappointment in the NFC Championship Game. The team won the NFC West and 13 games for the first time ever, but were eliminated for the second straight season by the Carolina Panthers. The Cardinals did not just lose to the Panthers last year in the playoffs though, they were absolutely laughed off of the field in a 49-15 debacle. Quarterback Carson Palmer threw four interceptions in a game that was over before halftime. It was really a sour note on what was otherwise a great season. Palmer was in the MVP discussion during the regular season after throwing for over 4,600 yards and 35 touchdowns. Future hall of famer Larry Fitzgerald also had a resurgent season, finishing with over 1,000 yards (1,215 total) for the first time since 2011. Both sides of the ball were super dominant. The offense finished first in the NFL with 408.3 yards per game, while the defense was fifth in yards allowed per game at just 321.7. Overall, the team finished third in the NFL in DVOA including fourth for offense and third for defense. All of this made that NFC Championship embarrassment sting that much more.
Significant Additions: LB Chandler Jones, S Tyvon Branch, G Evan Mathis
Significant Subtractions: G Jonathan Cooper, OT Bobby Massie
Potential Impact Rookies: DT Robert Nkemdiche, CB Brandon Williams, C Evan Boehm
Team Strengths: With apologies to the Legion of Boom in Seattle, Arizona now has the best secondary in the NFL. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are the obvious leaders and playmakers in this secondary. While Peterson had only two interceptions last season, he also only allowed a reception every 19.5 snaps in coverage last season according to Pro Football Focus. That was the best for any cornerback in football and was one of the many reasons Peterson made the Pro Bowl for the fifth team in five professional seasons. Whether you or the Cardinals saw him as a cornerback or safety, the Honey Badger might have been the best defensive player in football last year outside of J.J. Watt. Before he went down with an injury, Mathieu’s run support and coverage numbers were both top in the league for cornerbacks (if you count him as one) and he was the most versatile defender on this defense. While the return from injury will be something to watch leading up to the regular season, Arizona brass is clearly not too concerned after handing Mathieu $40 million dollars in guaranteed money last week. Just watch these highlights and you will surely agree. The Cardinals also upgraded their safety position by signing Tyvon Branch away from Kansas City this offseason.
Team Weaknesses: This is a very balanced team on both sides of the ball with very few glaring weaknesses. Super Bowl contenders like the Cardinals should be in this position though, so this might be picking nits. While their offense is dynamic, I would say their only possible weakness is the quarterback position. Carson Palmer is an above average signal caller, but has not proven himself in the playoffs (especially after this performance last year) and is not in the Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers tier in the NFC. I know this seems like a hot take going after an MVP candidate from a season ago, but Palmer will have to be better this postseason to get the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. Outside of the postseason, Palmer is also a big regression candidate after having his best statistical regular season at age 35. Besides quarterback, there are a few other small question marks on the offensive line and in the linebacking corp, but again this team is one of the best in the entire league across the board.
Fantasy Players to Watch: David Johnson has been considered by some experts as the top fantasy running back to draft for 2016. I think this is a little too bullish and he could end up being the Jeremy Hill of this fantasy season. The main difference between Johnson and Hill though is Johnson is a much better pass catcher, which will keep his value high. Barring injury and a Benjamin Button like offseason for CJ2K, David Johnson should at the very least finish this year as a low RB1 or high RB2 player. Carson Palmer should definitely be in starter discussion every week at quarterback, but I would recommend handcuffing him with a solid backup as Palmer has gotten bitten by the injury bug frequently in the past. I have all three of the Cardinals wide receivers in the same tier for fantasy at this point. John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, and Michael Floyd will all have some solid games this year, but I do not see any of them breaking out as the clear #1 option. I would only draft them in the WR3 or WR4 range, depending on the size of your league. Lastly, the Cardinals defense should be ferocious this year and they have playmakers who can cause turnovers up and down their team. Pick them up in your draft if you have the chance and start them every week.
2016 Outlook: Super Bowl or bust. It is really that simple for this Arizona Cardinals squad. They have the talent on both sides of the ball to compete with any team in the league. The offense should be dynamic and balanced once again this year. Last year, the Cardinals had a huge increase in run effectiveness with the emergence of David Johnson and the addition of Mike Iupati to the offensive line (a line which moved from 30th to 16th in rushing DVOA). I expect that to continue this season with the addition of veteran Evan Mathis in place of the somewhat disappointing Jonathan Cooper. Rookie Evan Boehm will also be competing with one of my favorite Penn State players of all time, AQ Shipley, for the starting center spot. On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals are going all in on their defense this year. With the trade for Chandler Jones and the drafting of Nkemdiche, Arizona has bolstered their pass rush significantly which will only give more opportunities for Peterson and Mathieu to make game changing plays. Currently Vegas has the Cardinals just a notch below the Packers and Seahawks to win the NFC, but they are well deserving to be in the conversation. The Cardinals will be one of the most fun teams to watch in 2016 and hopefully will be playing some significant games in January of 2017.
Record Prediction: The Cardinals caught a huge break and will start the season playing the Patriots without suspended quarterback Tom Brady. Afterwards, they have play a string of subpar teams (Bucs, Bills, Rams, 49ers, Jets). I would not be shocked if this team started 6-0 in this stretch before playing the Seahawks and Panthers back to back. Following their bye week, their only super tough games during the second half of the year are trips to Minnesota and Seattle. I think the Cardinals will dominate their schedule this year and go 13-3. This should position them with a first round bye in the playoffs and set them up for a Super Bowl run.
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