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What If Carson Palmer Is Lost For The Season

What would happen to the Cardinals' offense if Carson Palmer was lost for the season?

Carson Palmer’s year-end stats don’t move the needle much, especially when eliminating Week 17, during which he padded a forgettable season with an additional three touchdown passes and 253 yards. In the context of the fantasy season, he was the 17th ranked quarterback in points per game, and the 19th quarterback overall. But he also ranked ninth in passing yards and ninth in attempts, so should he be lost for the season, there would be negative consequences that trickle down to the rest of the Cardinals’ offense.

BUY

No one. The loss of a veteran quarterback, or really any quarterback, doesn’t create a buyer’s market. You could maybe dangle a few trade offers to see if any of your league-mates are nervous, but David Johnson owners aren’t letting go.  

HOLD

David Johnson, RB – Every running back is tied to the success of his offense, which in turn is tied to the success of the quarterback. Johnson is theoretically matchup proof, game script proof, and probably even quarterback proof. The biggest concern would be a drop-off in targets. He led all running backs in receptions last year with 80, and was 25th overall in targets among all players. It’s reasonable to expect those numbers to regress in 2017 regardless, but losing Palmer would certainly accelerate that regression.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR – It would be irresponsible to just flat out say Fitzgerald will survive without the veteran play of Palmer. In fact, we can point to the 2014 season as a measure of what happens to Fitzgerald’s numbers without Palmer who missed Weeks 2-5, and Weeks 11-17.

In that first stint (three games), Fitzgerald managed only 12 catches for 142 yards and zero touchdowns (WR78 in standard scoring). Of course, he was forgettable in the first game of the season even with a healthy Palmer, which may have more to do with getting to know Bruce Arians’ system since it was his first year as the head coach. Palmer took over the offense from Week 6 to Week 10 (before getting injured again) and Fitzgerald returned to form with 31 catches for 461 yards and two touchdowns (WR11 in standard scoring).

But things got ugly with Palmer sideline for the rest of the season. Fitzgerald, with below average quarterbacks leading the offense, managed only 19 catches for 159 yards and zero touchdowns from Week 11 to Week 17 (five games). Clearly, he needs a good quarterback in order to thrive, as most wide receivers do. The good news is, if Palmer goes down, the Cardinals will at least have Blaine Gabbert who actually looked great during the first preseason game of the season, and is surely better than Ryan Lindley, who played in place of Drew Stanton from Week 15 to Week 17 in 2014. Not that Stanton would be completely terrible either. In Week 5 of last year, with Palmer on the sideline, Stanton targeted Fitzgerald eight times and connected on six of those attempts for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Fitzgerald would end up as the third highest scoring wide receiver that week in standard leagues and fifth in PPR. His numbers might suffer, but he is worth a roster spot with or without Palmer.

SELL

John Brown, WR – While we can remain confident in holding on to a veteran receiver with two of the best hands in the league and capable of running every route in the book, an inexperienced, injury-prone speedster should give us pause. Brown is certainly capable of being a terrific player, and it should be noted that he has proven he’s more than just a deep threat:

But it’s hard to imagine him thriving with Gabbert under center. Brown’s aDOT (average depth-of-target, introduced by Mike Clay in 2012 and explained here) in his explosive 2015 season was 14.9, which ranked ninth of all players with at least 50 targets. Gabbert is notorious for lacking touch and deep-ball accuracy, so it’s difficult to assume this scenario being favorable to Brown’s fantasy outlook.

J.J. Nelson, WR – See Brown, John above. Nelson is one of the fastest players in the NFL, which posturizes him as a boom or bust fantasy option since he’s primarily deep-threat field-stretcher with a limited route tree. His aDOT last season was 16.9, which was tied with Robby Anderson as the second highest of all players (minimum 45 targets). There has been some hype regarding the fact that Nelson has worked on, and has improved, his route running, but that’s pure conjecture and it should be noted that wide receivers are supposed to work on routes during the offseason. Nelson is already a bubble player for WR3 in this offense. His volume carries an ugly floor without Palmer.

ADD

Blaine Gabbert, QB – For all the negative words pointed at Gabbert so far in this piece, he could provide immediate relief and depth in two-quarterback leagues, and maybe even a streamer option in regular leagues. We don’t want to put too much stock in his performance during the Hall of Fame game, but we don’t want to completely ignore it either. He completed 78.5 percent of his passes for 185 yards, looked competent and confident while navigating his offense to two consecutive touchdown-scoring drives. Of course, the Cowboys’ defense isn’t very good even when the starters play, so we should discount Gabbert’s success to a degree and keep in mind that everything changes during the regular season against legitimate pass rushes. But given offensive weapons the Cardinals’ offense provides, it stands to reason this is the most talent Gabbert has ever been surrounded with and he could certainly be a starter-level quarterback in all formats, assuming he wins the backup role.

Jermaine Gresham, TE – The Cardinals don’t bother to use tight ends in their offense outside of pass-protection. But if Gabbert ends up as the starter, it’s important to note that he targeted tight ends with four of his 14 pass attempts during the Hall of Fame game. Backups thrust into starting roles have a tendency to lean on their bailout options, meaning they stare down their first read and then immediately look for an emergency blanket, which happens to be running backs and tight ends. Of course, this is purely speculative, but Gresham is a decent tight end playing in a system that doesn’t care. He could see a bump in targets should Palmer be out for an extended period of time.