Here locally around the Arizona Cardinals, there is a ton of optimism for the 2015 season and high expectations. That sentiment is not the same throughout the NFL world. You can count Football Outsiders among the skeptics.
As we have the last few seasons, SB Nation and Football Outsiders get together for some team previews. Vincent Verhei responded to some questions about the Cardinals. The Football Outsiders team has their 2015 Almanac out. You can get it here. It is always full of information for the football junky like yourself.
Everything around the Cardinals is centered on Carson Palmer's health. Just how important is Palmer to Arizona?
Well, quarterback health is critical for every NFL team. We track what we call adjusted games lost for every position on every team. It measures the number of games each player missed during the season, but it also accounts for players who played after showing up on the injury report, because theoretically they were fighting through injury and not at 100 percent. We mentioned this in the chapter, but in the past three years, 26 teams have suffered at least 2.0 AGL at quarterback, and only three of those teams made the playoffs: the 2013 Eagles (who saw Nick Foles come off the bench and catch fire), the 2013 Packers (who won a horrible NFC North at 8-7-1), and last year's Cardinals. In those same three seasons, 32 teams put up a perfect 0.0 AGL at quarterback, and 16 of those teams made it to the postseason. Keeping your passer upright and healthy for 16 games looks to be half the battle in making it to January.
However, we don't see Carson Palmer as any kind of savior. If you look at his long-term track record, he's a fragile, turnover-prone quarterback on the downside of his career. I mean, he's a hell of a lot better than Ryan Lindley, but he's not a franchise passer at this point in his career.
Should the Cardinals really be talking about Super Bowl aspirations? Are they really contenders?
We don't think so. Our average projection for the Cardinals is just 6.7 wins, and they made the playoffs less than 20 percent of the time in our simulations. We think the losses on defense will be too much to overcome. We're not believers in Carson Palmer. And between the dominant Seahawks and the improving Rams, it's hard to see Arizona emerging as division champions. That means, in a best-case scenario, a wild card berth and a need to win three playoff games on the road to get to the Super Bowl. Bruce Arians seems to always do much better than we think he will, but he doesn't have much to work with this season.
Tyrann Mathieu is playing in the offseason like his rookie year. How much of an impact will a fully recovered Honey Badger have on the defense?
That's a hard question to answer, because through two seasons the Cardinals' still haven't quite figured out how to use Mathieu. His first season he was primarily a corner, and not a very good one (though rookie cornerbacks almost always struggle, so that's not surprising). Then last year he was primarily a safety, though he often moved into a slot corner role when opponents went with three or four wide receivers. So he wasn't targeted very often, and when he was it was very short - his average target came just 5.6 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2014. That's barely half as deep as his 11.0-yard average in his rookie season. Most of the players with similar stats to Mathieu have played in the past two or three years, which could be a reflection of the way the game is changing, and how nobody has quite figured out what to do with these hybrid DBs yet. I guess the most likely scenario is that Mathieu remains a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none - a versatile piece who can give Arizona depth at multiple positions, but not the kind of guy who is going to single-handedly turn games around week after week.
Just how much better should the running game be with the additions to the offensive line?
We think Mike Iupati has failed to play up to his reputation for a couple of years now. According to our charting numbers, he was among the bottom five guards in football in snaps per blown block in 2013 and 2014. Between holding penalties and sacks, hits, and hurries allowed, we marked Iupati with 20 blown blocks on pass plays last season. Only one interior lineman had more blown blocks on passes: Ted Larsen, who played left guard for Arizona last year but will now move over to center. That's a bad combination to have side-by-side, especially when you must play Aaron Donald, Brandon Mebane, and ex-teammate Darnell Dockett twice each. Hopefully Jonathan Cooper will finally be healthy, but D.J. Humphries is unlikely to start as a rookie. We like the tackles, particularly Jared Veldheer, but that interior is pretty scary.
What is the potential for John Brown?
Brown's rookie numbers were pretty inefficient, with a catch rate below 50 percent. We had him in the bottom 20 wideouts last year in value per target. However, we need to put those numbers in context. Brown spent most of the year as a deep ball specialist for a pair of backup quarterbacks. Pretty much any rookie outside of Randy Moss would look inconsistent in that environment. Everything we've heard from Arizona is that Bruce Arians loves the kid, and given Arians' prior success developing smaller wideouts (see Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh and T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis), we wouldn't be surprised to see Brown finish 2015 as the Cardinals' top target.