The SI rank: Beller: No. 7 QB, No. 70 overall | Fitz: No. 7 QB, No. 76 overall
The consensus rank: No. 7 QB, No. 68 overall
Carson Palmer’s 2014 season ended with the second torn ACL of his career, which typically doesn’t bode well for a quarterback who’s about to turn 36. In that vein, no one will blame you if you didn’t see the best year of his career coming. Palmer set new career highs across the board, and helped lead the Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game, where they fell to the Panthers.
Palmer, previously left for dead after a disastrous two-year stint in Oakland, has revived his career in Arizona. He threw for 4,671 yards, 8.7 yards per attempt and 35 touchdowns—all career bests—last season. He also threw just 11 interceptions, the lowest number of his career in a season in which he played at least 10 games. By every objective measure, 2015 was the best season of Palmer’s 13 in the league.
It’s hard to look around in Arizona and think the only thing that could hold back Palmer is health. Every player needs to stay healthy to reach his potential, so rarely is it even worth mentioning. It is here, though, because Palmer is a 36-year-old with two torn ACLs in his rear-view mirror. Every player in the NFL has a baseline risk for injury that’s higher than, say, your average baseball player’s. Palmer’s is higher still because of his age and history.
For the sake of conversation, we have to assume that Palmer will be healthy all year. Little has changed in Arizona from last season, and that’s excellent news for everyone involved. Bruce Arians went from running a great offense in Pittsburgh to running a great offense in Indianapolis to running a great offense in Arizona. He has one of the brightest offensive minds in the game, something that has showed ever since he got his first coordinator gig with the Steelers in 2007.
From Arians’s brain flow the offensive concepts into Palmer’s right arm. Arians has thrived with traditional quarterbacks, going from Ben Roethlisberger to Andrew Luck. Palmer fits right into that mold. GM Steve Keim has assembled an elite cache of weapons around Palmer, starting with one of the best trios of receivers in the game. Larry Fitzgerald continues to get it done into his 30s, and while he slowed down as the season progressed last year, he still racked up 109 catches, 1,215 yards and nine scores. John Brown has quickly become an imposing deep threat, topping 1,000 yards last season, the second of his career after working his way all the way up to the third round while playing his college ball at tiny Pittsburg State. Then there’s Michael Floyd, who has all the elements of a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Floyd’s career has been characterized by fits and starts, but he flashed his true potential last season, when he overcame a broken hand suffered in training camp to finish the year by catching 44 passes for 745 yards and six touchdowns in his final 10 games.
The one major difference in Arizona isn’t exactly a difference, but rather a recasting of roles in the backfield. David Johnson started last year as a complementary piece in the Arizona offense. Johnson, who was in his rookie year out of Northern Iowa, clearly looked like the most talented back on the team, but Arians has a history of keeping his rookies under wraps early before unleashing them later in the year, as he did with T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis. When Chris Johnson went down with a fractured tibia in late November, the younger Johnson was ready for his starring role. He had 442 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 216 receiving yards and five total touchdowns over the last five games of the season, helping cement his role as the starter in his second year in the league.
From my vantage point, I see two potential hurdles to keep Palmer from reaching his ceiling and more or less matching what he did last season. The first is David Johnson, who could carve out a larger role for the run game in general than Chris Johnson did early on last season. This year’s starter doesn’t have much of a track record, but it was easy to see a potential star in the making last year. He’s more dynamic than Chris Johnson, and superior in every facet of the game at this stage of their respective careers. More touches for the run game, especially inside the 10-yard line, could rob Palmer of some of the touchdown passes he had last season.
The other is Arizona’s team success. Unless the unexpected strikes the desert, the Cardinals are going to be a top-tier team again this season, likely featuring one of the league’s best defenses. Palmer likely won’t have to throw the Cardinals back into too many games this season, or carry them to a ton of shootout victories. This team was a win away from the Super Bowl last season, and likely only got better with the additions of Chandler Jones, Robert Nkemdiche and Tyvon Branch. That’s great news for the Cardinals and their fans, but slightly dispiriting news for Palmer’s fantasy value.
Palmer’s running back and team are too good? Oh man, what a poor guy. Sure, he might not throw 600-plus passes, but a huge part of the reason the Cardinals are expected to compete for the Super Bowl again is thanks to Palmer and the passing game. If he’s healthy, he’ll easily be a top-10 quarterback, with the upside to climb into the top five.
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