By Amber Boskers
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
Oh my goodness, am I ever pumped to kick off the Arizona Cardinals 2013-14 season (unlike last year when I couldn’t wait for it to be over!). It’s going to be a return to relevance for the Cards. But, before we get into all the analysis, let me warn you of one thing: I’m Cardinals Birdgang through and through! Being impartial is impossible. Being critical is guaranteed. And being emotional is mandatory! Just saying.
Now let’s get on with some football…
I’m not quite sure what was more exhilarating last year, starting the season 4-0 or beating the New England Patriots in Foxborough en route to starting 4-0. Arizona Sports Talk radio was great entertainment; but then it happened. Then again. And again. And again (slowly repeat five more times and you might feel the agony). It was sickening to see a team implode before our eyes, and be a laughing stock in the NFL because of too much power, complacency and incompetence. Their 5-11 season finally ended and President Michael Bidwill made his first brilliant decision of 2013 and fired Ken Whisenhunt, Rod Graves, and every other offensive coach, save for Freddie Kitchens. Three cheers for FINALLY!! That, my friends, was my best football day of the season (the Niners loss in the Superbowl was another, but I digress).
In fantasy, the Cardinals offense were a team to be avoided at all costs, ranking 28th in the league for pass yards, 31st for points, and dead last for yards and rushing yards. The revolving carousel of quarterbacks and an offensive line that couldn’t hold the phone, held Larry Fitzgerald out of the top 40 for WR fantasy points, limited the running backs to less than 10 fantasy points a game (combined!), and basically all offensive players benched or on the fantasy waiver wire. The defense was much better though, scoring an average of 9.1 fantasy points per game, with 38 total sacks, 22 interceptions, and 4 touchdowns. But all that’s water under the bridge because the Cardinals are under new management. Get your cheat sheet ready and fantasy caps on ’cause General Manager Steve Keim and the NFL’s 2012 Coach of the Year Head Coach Bruce Arians are calling the shots now; and they’re in it to win it.
Acquired (23): QB Carson Palmer, QB Drew Stanton, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Dan Buckner, WR Jarett Dillard, WR Robert Gill, TE Alex Gottlieb, P Will Batson, OG Paul Fanaika, OG Chilo Rachal, DL Frostee Rucker, DL Matt Shaughnessy, LB Lorenzo Alexander, LB Jasper Brinkley, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Colin Parker, CB Antoine Cason, CB Bryan McCann, CB Jerraud Powers, SS Yeremiah Bell, SS Curtis Taylor, FS Jonathon Amaya, CB Javier Arenas
Drafted (9): OG Jonathan Cooper, LB Kevin Minter, S Tyrann Mathieu, LB Alex Okafor, OG Earl Watford, RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Ryan Swope, RB Andre Ellington, and TE DC Jefferson
Lost (25): Basically half the team and I’m not kidding.
QB Kevin Kolb, QB John Skelton, QB Brian Hoyer, RB Beanie Wells, RB Javarris James, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, WR Early Doucet, WR Isaiah Williams, OT D’Anthony Batiste, OT Brandon Keith, OT Pat McQuistan, OT Adam Snyder, OG Richard Ohrnberger, DL Nick Eason, DL Vonnie Holliday, LB Stewart Bradley, LB Quentin Groves, LB Paris Lenon, CB Michael Adams, CB William Gay, CB Greg Toler, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Kerry Rhodes, FS James Sanders, FB Anthony Sherman
The 2012 Cardinals offensive line was decimated by injuries. As one of only two NFL teams not to draft o-lineman in the first three rounds of the previous five drafts, inevitability finally caught up with them. First came the loss of left tackle Levi Brown, who played in at least 98.7% of all offensive snaps over four seasons, to a season-ending triceps injury. Then right tackle Jeremy Bridges went down with a thumb injury, leaving 7-year veteran right tackle D’Anthony Batiste to switch sides to replace Brown, so rookie right tackle Bobby Massie could be thrown into the lion’s den. Both struggled immensely as did the rest of the line, surrendering a league-high 58 sacks. But Massie managed to turn things around in remarkable fashion. In his last nine games, Massie had a pass blocking efficiency stat of 97.3% compared to 14.5% over his first seven. If he had maintained that 97.3% all season he would have ranked third best among all offensive tackles. Now Brown is back, albeit rusty, at LT, Daryn Colledge flipped sides to RG to accommodate first round draft pick Jonathan Cooper at LG, Lyle Sendlein at C, Massie returning to RT, and Nate Potter (also a rookie last year) getting reps at RT, LT and possibly guard to be reserve. They have work to do, but the foundation is in place to give Palmer the time to do what he does best.
One Up: Cardinals defense. When Bruce Arians signed on as head coach there was no doubt defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would follow,and Ray Horton was a casuality of circumstance. Ranked 12th overall, 3rd in red-zone coverage and 5th against the pass, the defense was consistently good at keeping the Cardinals in a position to win week after week (with a few exceptions). The obstacles now are numerous but it’s all manageable under Arians’ master plan, including an overhauled and younger roster, a potential transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 system, and a significant 4-game substance abuse violation suspension for LB Daryl Washington. Veteran DE Darnell Dockett seems to be enjoying the idea of more package playing time, as is DE Calais Campbell. NT Dan Williams reported to workouts slimmed down and focused, and Karlos Dansby’s return to the team takes care of Washington’s void, but I don’t expect Washington to get any hand-outs upon his return with Jasper Brinkley and 2nd-round draft pick Kevin Minter eager to prove their worth. The cornerback depth chart is deep with Patrick Peterson and Jerraud Powers from Indy plus five others. Then there’s the whole safety Tyrann Mathieu situation, if he can hold it together under the mentorship of Peterson, this kid could be a huge play-maker. All in all, this defense has Top 10 written all over it, based on depth, talent, experience and coaching.
One Down: RB Ryan Williams – Lil’ Sweetness has not turned out as expected. The 5’9″, 207 lb running back from Virginia Tech was drafted 38th overall in the second round of the 2011 draft. He’s going into his third year with 58 carries, 2.8 yards per carry and zero touchdowns, and has had two-season ending injuries. He spent his entire rookie season on IR due to a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, and was back on IR last year due to a shoulder injury. Despite Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling being released, the Cardinals appear to be moving in a different direction by drafting RBs Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington, and acquiring Rashard Mendenhall. Williams will enter training camp as the clear backup to Mendenhall, so expect Williams to get limited opportunities in his third year. He still has the upside to be a three down back in the NFL, but it’s time to put up or shut up. The clock is ticking on Williams, if he can’t produce it’s guaranteed that someone else will.
1) After bringing in Carson Palmer, can Larry Fitzgerald return to fantasy stardom?
Yes, yes, and more yes. Last season, Larry Fitzgerald had only 798 receiving yards, 11.2 average yards per reception, 4 touchdowns and 2 catchable passes over 20 yards. He finished the season outside the Top 40 for fantasy points among WRs, was 21st in receptions and 35th in receiving yards. Having John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer combine for 11 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and a 55.4 completion percentage would do that. Meanwhile, in 15 games with the Oakland Raiders, Carson Palmer threw for 4,018 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt, 61.1 completion percentage, and a QB rating of 85.3. He’s a significant upgrade to the QB position, and has shown to have no issue throwing into double and triple coverage which is exactly where Larry likes to be. Fitzgerald is still the same talent that averaged 93 receptions for 1296 yards and almost 9.8 TDs from 2007-2011. This season, Larry will return to Top 10 fantasy WR form, and will post double digit touchdowns.
2) Rob Housler is the athletic TE that fantasy owners can salivate over, can he take another step forward in 2013 and be a relevant fantasy TE?
Drafted in the third round (69th overall) by the Cardinals in 2011, Housler’s 6’5″ 250lb frame and 4.46 40-yard dash speed were hindered by the QB carousel last season. He ended the season with only 45 receptions for 417 yards, an extremely disappointing total for someone with athleticism compared to Aaron Hernandez. HC Bruce Arians has already spoken highly of Housler and considers him a wide receiver playing tight end. He said that when he was with the Steelers, he considered drafting Housler and making him a big wide receiver. Although Arians likes to call the deep ball, he has not typically used the TE that often which suggests he hasn’t had the opportunity to benefit from a Housler-type presence. This may be a break-out year for Housler, definitely a sleeper to watch out for.
3) Can Rashard Mendenhall resurrect his career behind such a suspect O-line?
Resurrect his career? Absolutely. It doesn’t get any better for a soon-to-be 26-year old RB when he’s got history with his Head Coach. A history that includes four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Superbowl appearance against the Green Bay Packers in 2010. On June 19, HC Bruce Arians confirmed that Mendenhall would be the Cardinals No. 1 every-down back tossing out the popular committee approach. Mendenhall came to the desert to work with his old coach (no, I’m not calling Arians old, word from the Bird’s Nest is that “sixty is sexy”) and the 1-year $2.5 million contract with potential for an extra $1 million was a surprise to most, but Mendenhall is an important part of Arians’ vision and for the first time in years, Mendenhall is all in. Suspect O-line? Hardly. This is not last year’s team and thank goodness to that.