As we have done every year before the regular season, at least since I have been running the site, we got together with Football Outsiders to do a question and answer.
FO also puts together one of the most complete football books you can find -- the Football Outsiders Almanac. You can purchase it in digital form for $12.50 or get the paperback version on Amazon. Today it is $17.46.
Aaron Schatz answered five questions about the Arizona Cardinals for the upcoming season.
ROTB: What would be a real expectation from a healthy Andre Ellington for 2014? Can the Cardinals viably get him 20-22 touches a game?
FO: The one thing that will keep the Cardinals from getting a healthy Andre Ellington 20-22 touches per game is that almost nobody gets 20 touches per game in today's NFL. Six backs did last year, seven the year before, and six the year before that. Our projections have him about 18 touches per game. But we really really like him. He was fourth in rushing DVOA last year among backs with at least 100 runs... oh, and Mendenhall was 36th behind the same blockers. He's also a talented receiver. We do a Top 25 Prospects list every year that isn't of top college players, but rather top under-the-radar guys, young players in years 2-4 who were chosen in the third round or later. Ellington is our No. 1 guy for 2014.
Rookie numbers like Ellington's aren't necessarily a guarantee of a great career. Here are the most similar rookies to Ellington in our sim scores system: Onterrio Smith 2003, Selvin Young 2007, James Brooks 1981, Blair Thomas 1990, Tashard Choice 2008, Kenny Watson 2002, Ricky Ervins 1991, Steven Jackson 2004, Montee Ball 2013, and Frank Gore 2005. Some stars in there, and some flameouts, and the four guys taken in the fourth round or later (Smith and Choice in the fourth, Young and Watson undrafted) were flameouts. On the other hand, those four guys didn't gain their coaches' confidence the way Ellington has. They weren't handed a job in their second seasons. The guys who were handed jobs generally are the guys who became stars. And of course the sim scores don't consider OL quality, and consideration of that is part of what makes Ellington look so promising.
ROTB: Just how good was the Arizona Cardinals defense in 2013, and can they keep up those numbers in 2014, even with the loss of their inside linebackers?
FO: It was really, really good. According to our DVOA ratings, the Cardinals had the best run defense in the league, and the second-best overall defense behind Seattle. (They were only seventh in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed in part because mediocre offense and poor special teams left them defending shorter fields and put them on the field more often, tied for fourth in the NFL facing 199 opponent drives.)
Unfortunately, defense tends to regress towards the mean more than offense does, and it is hard for defenses to stay this good for three straight years. (Arizona was sixth in 2012.) The age is an issue. There are three starters in the front seven age 33 or older. Age doesn't definitely mean decline, but it raises the odds. As far as the inside linebackers, that's a mixed bag. We know those were really important players to this defense, and the drop to the new starters is big. Foote doesn't have much left and Minter is a real unknown and very inexperienced. On the other hand, ILB in general just isn't as important a position when we consider personnel changes from year to year. The most important positions on the defense are usually pass rusher and cornerback. The first is stable for Arizona and the second should be improved as long as Antonio Cromartie rebounds from his 2013 off-year (likely).
I will say that out of curiosity, I thought it would be interesting to see if we can expect less regression towards the mean from a top defense that has been good for two years not just one. So I went back and looked at every top five defense in our ratings. The defenses that were above average the year before they were a top five defense declined by an average of 8.0% DVOA the year after. (Arizona would be one of these.) The defenses that were below average the year before they were a top five defense declined by an average of 10.5% DVOA the year after. (Buffalo would be a 2013-2014 example in this category.) It's a small difference, but a distinct one.
ROTB: Carson Palmer really played two very different halves of 2013. Looking at his career, is he more likely to continue his second half play or regress to the first half play? What would be some reasonable expectations from the veteran?
FO: Looking at his career, I think the answer is "neither." Since his injuries in Cincinnati, Palmer has essentially been a league-average quarterback. Last year, he was worse than that for the first half (-13.2% DVOA, 24th out of 32) and better in the second half (19.2% DVOA, ninth out of 32). It's one thing if one half really stood out compared to Palmer's recent career, like with Tom Brady, whose first-half struggles last year were SO much worse than his usual performance, and then his second-half performance was right in line with his usual level. But neither Palmer's first half or second half really stand out. It just kind of looks like it might be random variation. Maybe with a hint of "Michael Floyd takes the step forward," I suppose.
In general, we've found that second-half improvements and declines actually don't carry over to the next season the way people expect, esp. if they aren't related to an expansion in usage for a RB or WR. But one of the things we need to do at some point is try that study again but separate things between older players and younger. My hypothesis is that second-half improvement matters for younger players, not for older. Unless, like Brady, you have a guy whose first half is so much worse than his last few years and looks fluky.
Anyway, I expect Carson Palmer to be an average quarterback again this year, who maybe looks a little worse than average because of the schedule he has to play.
ROTB: Bruce Arians loves the deep pass, but the team was not very successful at it in 2013. How different was the passing attack (short vs. intermediate vs. long) in the first seven games of the season than the final nine?
FO: I don't know if the strategy was really any different. They basically had the same ratio of short to deep passes before and after the bye week, and the deep passes weren't really going any deeper. They just hit more of the deep ones. 22-of-59 with 3 DPIs before the bye week on passes of 16+ yards through the air, 31-of-62 with 4 DPIs after.
ROTB: What type of improvement will the offensive line make with Jared Veldheer replacing Bradley Sowell, Jonathan Cooper replacing Daryn Colledge and Bobby Massie replacing Eric Winston?
FO: "Type" of improvement is probably more of a scouting question and thus not my area of expertise but I'm pretty sure that there will be improvement, although I've always felt Winston is underrated and I'm not a Massie fan. But that left tackle improvement is big. I don't know what's up with the unhappy reports about Cooper coming out of Cardinals camp but I've got to think by the end of the season he's a better player than Colledge would be, and of course the real thing here is potential to have a solid top guard for a decade, like Jahri Evans or Logan Mankins.
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