Every year the NFL has its share of surprising teams. People often talk about who has the potential to go from worst to first. However, one team was a victim of regression. The Arizona Cardinals entered the season with high expectations coming off their NFC Championship appearance in 2015. After a 7-8-1 finish, the Cardinal faithful are still wondering, what on earth happened?
2016 Evaluation – offense
In 2015, the Cardinals had a prolific passing attack. They specifically had a great down field passing game, which is something that didn’t carry over in 2016. There are two main reasons for this drop off in production. The first is the emergence of David Johnson as an elite offensive player. This doesn’t necessarily mean they ran the ball more though. In fact, the 2015 Cardinals ran the ball 452 times versus 399 in 2016.
The usage of David Johnson in the pass game is what led to the decrease in downfield production. Johnson is uniquely talented, but rarely was he running routes further than 10 yards down the field. This would explain Carson Palmer’s decline in yards per attempt from 8.7 in 2015, to 7.1 in 2016. The difference is even more staggering when looking at the adjusted yards per attempt: 9.1 in 2015 to 6.9 in 2016.
We know David Johnson impacted the downfield passing game, but how much of the decreased production falls on Carson Palmer? Palmer had 65 completions of 20+ yards and a staggering 15 completions of 40+ yards in 2015. In 2016, Palmer’s production decreased sharply with only 48 completions of 20+ yards and 6 completions of 40+ yards.
Palmer was also sacked 15 more times in 2016, which absolutely impacts production. However, this kind of decline in production has more to do with attempting to throw the ball downfield, rather than protection breakdowns. As a whole, the Arizona Cardinals offense was still productive, finishing sixth in points and ninth in yards. With minor upgrades at certain positions like right guard and tight end, this offense can easily ascend back to its 2015 greatness.
2016 Evaluation – Defense
While the offense took a step back in 2016, the Cardinal’s defense was still productive. They finished 14th in points allowed and second in yards allowed this season. Compared to finishing seventh in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed the previous year, there wasn’t much of a drop off. This defense has play makers at every level like Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones, and Patrick Peterson among others. Unfortunately, injuries kept this unit from excelling with players coming and going at different points in the season.
There are two positions in particular that could use an upgrade. Those would be cornerback and defensive end. In fairness, any corner playing opposite Patrick Peterson will be targeted heavily. However, players are expected to improve with more playing time. Marcus Cooper was above average against the run, but that’s not what corners get paid to do. Hopefully Tyvon Branch and Justin Bethel can return healthy next season so that Cooper’s role on defense is limited.
Frostee Rucker needs to be upgraded or needs a reduced role in this defense as well. Rucker played mostly in their base defense, but was still a liability against the run. Arizona often featured their nickel package with Markus Golden playing defensive end. This would put Tyrann Mathieu in the slot with the ability to make plays against the run. The nickel package of Arizona is their best defense because of the range their secondary players possess, as well as their pass rush ability.
In my opinion, Arizona is just as good as Seattle. They just have a different style of player at the quarterback position that can’t mask other offensive holes. Russell Wilson is able to extend plays and avoid rushers and Carson Palmer can’t. Palmer is perfectly capable of stepping up and moving in the pocket, but when pressure is coming from the middle, he isn’t as mobile. The Cardinals need to secure the middle of their offensive line, specifically at right guard. Earl Watford, a tackle by trade, played the position in Evan Mathis’ absence. Sadly, Mathis is not under contract for the 2017 season and is 35 years old. The Cardinals could resign Mathis, or they could look to add depth through the draft.
With the 13th pick in the 2017 draft, the Cardinals have a lot of options. Marlon Humphrey and Adoree Jackson could reinforce an already strong secondary. Corey Davis could serve as the successor to Larry Fitzgerald and potentially help the Cardinals return to attacking defenses downfield. Solomon Thomas could address their need at defensive end and has experience in the 3-4 defense. The point is, they could go in a variety of directions, all of which could greatly impact their franchise moving forward. I would like them to address their offensive line with a significant investment, but there isn’t a guard that warrants selection at the 13th spot.
The Cardinals proved this year that they can compete with and beat Seattle. With a few adjustments in personnel and refocus on the downfield passing game, this team can retake the top spot in the NFC West.
Post Season Prospects
I’ve already made it clear that this is a playoff team. Just for some perspective, here is how the Arizona Cardinals stack up to the 2016 postseason teams in the most important statistics.
We’ve outlined how the Cardinals have slightly regressed this season. As a whole, they are still an effective offense. To make the playoffs, and win playoff games, you can’t have glaring holes on your team. Every playoff team this postseason were at least top 15 in two or more of these offensive categories. Clearly, the Cardinals meet that criteria and are an above average NFL offense that can still improve if they have a good draft and make smart free agent choices.
It’s one thing to be top 15 in two or three of these critical criteria, but the Cardinals are top 15 in every significant metric. This defense was the reason why they were able to beat Seattle on the road and neutralize them at home to force a tie. The points allowed metric can be affected by the offense. If they turn the ball over or give the defense bad field position, then teams are going to score more points. Despite the impact the offense had on points allowed, they still finished in the top 15. The Cardinals are in great shape defensively, they just have to stay healthy for the majority of the 2017 season.
This team is poised to make another postseason push. Having a top 15 draft pick will only help this team reach its potential, but they have challenges looming. The Arizona Cardinals have over 15 players who are free agents. They must make smart decisions on what players to re-sign and what players they can replace in the draft. If free agency is handled correctly and the draft is a success, this team will absolutely challenge Seattle for the top team in the NFC West. Next season, I like the Arizona Cardinals to finish 10-6 and win the division.
“From Our Haus to Yours”