2016 season preview: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals set a franchise record last year with 13 regular-season wins and an NFC West title. Unfortunately, their worst team performance of the season came in the NFC Championship game, and they fell short of reaching the Super Bowl. The majority of Arizona’s key players are back on both sides of the ball, along with some impact newcomers like G Evan Mathis (Broncos), DE Chandler Jones (Patriots), and DT Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss). The Cardinals’ precision downfield passing attack and aggressive pressure defense should make them one of the more entertaining teams to watch in 2016 and a true NFC-title contender.
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
Carson Palmer coming off MVP-caliber regular season
Quarterbacks: Sixth in PFF’s season preview rankings
In 2015, Carson Palmer produced an MVP-caliber regular season in which he played at a consistently-high level and finished Week 17 as our No. 1 ranked quarterback (in terms of overall grade). Head Coach Bruce Arians and Palmer both like to be aggressive and attack downfield, and that was evident in Palmer’s league-leading 11.3 yards average depth of target. However, Palmer’s play dipped dramatically in the Cardinals’ postseason run, where he played his only negatively-graded games of the season, and was our worst-rated postseason quarterback. If the Cardinals can get Palmer up to his 2015 regular-season form again, they could be playing for a Super Bowl. If things start to tail off, though, perhaps Arizona will decide to run more of the offense through RB David Johnson.
David Johnson likely a star in the making
Running backs: 23rd
Second-year running back David Johnson is a star in the making. His big-play ability as a runner, receiver, and returner was immediately apparent as a rookie. Johnson quickly emerged as one of Bruce Arians’ favorite mismatch players in the passing game, as well. He has the size, elusiveness, and pass-catching ability to be the focal point of the team’s red-zone offense if needed, and his 2.12 yards per route run ranked No. 3 among the league’s running backs in 2015. Andre Ellington has been a home-run threat when healthy, and an excellent pass-catching running back as well. Ellington will be rotated in and could possibly see the field at the same time with David Johnson in a two-back package. Veteran Chris Johnson will return to pick up key snaps and to provide depth.
Talented receiving corps boasts both size and speed
Receiving corps: Second
The Cardinals’ wide receiver group is composed of small, fast players that can run by opponents, as well as big, physical targets that can outmuscle opponents. The Cardinals would like to get more consistent performances from their speedy receivers—breakout candidate J.J. Nelson is still in the early stages of his development, and John Brown left too many plays on the field late in the season, and could have been more productive than he was in 2015. Larry Fitzgerald has been around long enough to have a wide-array of impressive receiving statistics and records to his name. However, one of his most impressive and selfless attributes is that his 84.5 run-blocking grade was No. 1 among wide receivers last season. Fitzgerald continues to be a productive receiver (especially in the postseason), but his leadership and blocking set a tone for the offense as a whole. Michael Floyd’s 82.6 overall grade ranked No. 24 in 2015, and he has flashed dominance at times; he’s headed into a very important contract year, which could serve as motivation to produce the best season of his career. Tight ends Gresham and Niklas are talented, but the big plays inn Arians’ passing game will come from the wide receivers or running backs.
New faces along O-line likely to affect season outcome
Offensive line: Ninth
The left-side of the line is still intact from last year, and performed admirably last season. Left tackle Jared Veldheer graded positively as a pass-blocker and run-blocker. LG Mike Iupati was the fourth-ranked run-blocking guard in 2015. The center of the line will be manned by either A.Q. Shipley or rookie Evan Boehm. Free-agent addition Evan Mathis (Broncos) was our top-graded run-blocking guard last season, but he is also the oldest guard in the league, and his wingman will be second-year player D.J. Humphries, who hasn’t started a game yet. The Cardinals have an MVP-caliber quarterback and are loaded at the skill positions, so the performance of these new faces along the offensive line will likely be a determining factor in how far the Cardinals can go in 2016.
Pass-rushing upgrades could tip postseason odds in Arizona’s favor
The Cardinals have historically tried to generate pressure by blitzing frequently, partly out of philosophical reasons, and partly to compensate for a lack of pass-rushers in their front-seven. Calais Campbell’s 11.5 run-stop percentage ranked third among 3-4 defensive ends, but he has yet to generate the consistent pass-rush commensurate with his contract. The Cardinals added Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss) in the draft to help provide some interior pass-rush along with Campbell. The trade for pass-rusher Chandler Jones (Patriots) was the big story among Arizona’s offseason roster moves; Jones is both physically and stylistically different from his counterpart, second-year player Markus Golden, whose 12.3 pass-rush productivity mark led all rookie edge-rushers. Jones wins with length and athleticism, while Golden does so with leverage and effort; their vastly different styles and body-types will make a difficult matchup for opposing blockers. The Cardinals hope Jones and Nkemdiche can add pass-rush production to the team and make the other rushers around them better. At inside linebacker, Arizona has used smaller and faster players for several seasons, but they have continued to shrink over the years from 240-pound Karlos Dansby, to 230-pound Daryl Washington, to the present 210-pound Deone Bucannon.
Young, talented secondary is identity of team
The Cardinals feature two of the best young defensive backs in the NFL: Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. These two have become the leaders of the defense and a big part of the team identity. The Cardinals defensive backs are asked to play man-coverage quite a bit, as they often blitz to generate pressure. Peterson often travels with the opposing team’s best wide receiver, and he only allowed a reception once every 19.5 snaps he was in coverage last season—a rate that led all cornerbacks. Mathieu’s incredible versatility allows the Cardinals to move him inside, outside, deep, or to blitz. Before he was injured, his run support and coverage grades both ranked No. 1 among cornerbacks. The big question at this point is who will play the cornerback spot opposite of Peterson. Justin Bethel improved last season, but he still isn’t playing at the consistent level the Cardinals would like to see. While Bethel will be given every chance to succeed at the No. 2 spot, the team also drafted three defensive backs to provide a push. On the back end, safeties Tyvon Branch and Tony Jefferson are solid in terms of production.