Arizona Cardinals 2016 Team Preview

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.

Offseason Moves:

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.

-Nick Bair

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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2 thoughts on “Arizona Cardinals 2016 Team Preview”

  1. I have extensively analyzed depth charts this offseason and in my opinion, the best secondary in the league belongs to New England.

    The two examples you provided…

    Arizona: Their safeties are great, but their corners not so much. Mathieu is one of the best obviously, Jefferson is a solid #2, and Branch could start for most teams. How many teams in the league can boast having 3 above average safeties in their rotation?

    But at corner? Meh. Peterson had a resurgent year after getting healthy, but what else do they have? Williams is a 3rd round rookie who has garnered some praise while Bethel has been injured, but he’s still a rookie and one with only 1 year of experience playing corner to boot. Bethel himself is average at best and a career backup/special teamer. Jenkins was trash last year and Miller is a project who won’t meaningfully contribute this year.

    Seattle: Seattle is very bipolar – they have a lot of star power but no depth. Sherman is obviously elite, but trashbag Shead is slated to start opposite him again. Lane is a solid nickel and Burley is actually very talented but doesn’t see enough snaps.

    Thomas is the true star of this group. His range allows the rest of this scheme to function as it has. While Chancellor is certainly talented, I’d argue he’s overrated and I’d consider him just a B level player, and McCray is a very solid backup at SS. Browner is a definite wild card – he was torched last year on the outside, but I can see him having success with this hybrid slot safety role, especially on Seattle’s stacked defense.

    Other teams I’d put ahead of those two: KC, CIN, DEN, GB:

    Kansas City: Peters had a great rookie season, Gaines was solid before his trip to IR, and Nelson has reportedly been a standout at camp. Plus they have Russell and Murray, 4th and 5th rounders, waiting in the wings.

    Berry is still one of the best safeties in the league and Parker is an above average #2. There’s no depth anymore with Branch walking and Abudllah retired, but with 6 quality DBs this is a talented secondary.

    Cincinnati: The Bengals profile looks very similar to KC’s (a glut of talented CBs, good starting safeties but no depth). Jones is still one of the better #1s in the league, and contract-year Kirkpatrick figures to be an improvement of the 2015 iteration. Even with Jackson lost to injury, Dennard and Shaw qualify as above average subpackage guys. Even Lewis-Harris has been average when called upon, and he’s an end a special-teamer.

    Iloka could be even better this year as he figures to play more of a SS role with Williams taking over for Nelson. Williams himself has been an above average centerfielder when called upon, but there’s zero depth behind these two.

    Denver: Denver doesn’t have much in the way of depth, but their starters are legit. Harris is great and while Talib is a touch overrated, he’s still a great #2. Roby may end up being the best corner of this bunch, but he’s been relegated to slot duty for his career. Behind him however there’s zilch – don’t let anybody tell you Webster is decent, that’s all based on his 3rd round selection. He’s trash.

    Ward is a solid box safety while Stewart is above average in centerfield. 3rd round rookie Simmons sits behind them, but their depth evaporated after Bruton left.

    Green Bay: The Packers have the best group of corners in the league. Shields is a decent #1 – nothing special but solidly above average. Rollins was special last year in a limited role, and he’s already worked his way over Randall to a starting spot in 2016. Randall himself was above average last year, while undrafted FA Gunter was surprisingly decent in limited snaps.

    Clinton-Dix gets all the media hype, but Burnett might be able to lay claim to being the star of this group. Both are near elite players, and while Hyde is a very serviceable #3. They go can go 7 deep in the secondary and still be above average.

    New England: Depth everywhere is what gets it done for the Pats. Butler is a great #1 and Ryan is a decent #2. Jones has already worked his way into the nickel role, while #4 Coleman was average at worst last year when called upon.

    IMO the Pats have the best group of safeties in the league. McCourty is the media darling and while he’s been very, very good in his own right, Chung has exploded and might be even better. Plus both Harmon and Richards are VERY good backups – they would form a decent starting duo for most other teams.

    Like

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