The entire NFC playoff picture was thrown into flux last week when Carson Palmer went down with a torn ACL. The Cardinals managed to beat the Rams despite losing their starting quarterback in the fourth quarter, and still hold the league’s best record at 8-1, but their offense is now in the less-capable hands of Drew Stanton. That opens up the possibility that Arizona may not be the favorite to earn the top spot on the NFC side of the bracket. It also affects the fantasy values of Andre Ellington, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, and that’s what we’re concerned with here.
Even before Palmer’s injury, changes were afoot for Floyd and Brown. Floyd, the former first-round selection out of Notre Dame and chic breakout pick by fantasy prognosticators from coast to coast has given way to the third-rounder Brown out of tiny Pittsburg State. In the last three weeks, Brown has 12 catches for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Floyd has five grabs for 47 yards and zero scores in that span. We’ll get to the Stanton effect in a bit, but first let’s focus on one immutable fact about this offense.
Fact: John Brown’s raid on Michael Floyd’s fantasy value is a mirage
All signs pointed to a Floyd breakout in 2014. Always a receiver with plenty of raw talent, he was coming off a season in which he caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns. He did it by excelling on deep passes and in the red zone. Floyd got 26 targets that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last year. He caught all nine that were catchable for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He was one of three receivers with a minimum of 100 target, at least 25 percent of which were of the deep variety, and had zero drops on those deep balls. The other two were DeSean Jackson and Calvin Johnson. Floyd also caught half of his 12 red-zone targets, with two of those going for scores. With Carson Palmer still under center and another year of maturation under his belt, it only made sense that Floyd would become, at worst, a borderline WR1 this season.
The only problem with that train of thought is that seemingly nonsensical events happen all the time in the NFL. Floyd may still have the same deep-ball skills he did last year, but he has just six catches for at least 20 yards, and two for 40-plus yards. He hasn’t had a reception go for 20 yards in the last three weeks. Floyd hasn’t surpassed the 50-yard mark since Week 3, and he’s tied for 51st in the league in targets. Whether it has been Palmer or Stanton under center, the Arizona quarterback has been happy to spread the ball around, and not force it to Floyd, which has only contributed to his fantasy owners’ discontent.
Meanwhile, the rookie Brown has received five more targets than Floyd this year, catching 29 passes for 399 yards and five touchdowns. Of course, Brown didn’t have a snap percentage north of 60 percent until Arizona’s fourth game of the season. While he has outperformed Floyd since then, he’s not exactly setting the world on fire. In his last six games, he has 20 receptions for 290 yards and two scores. In that same stretch, Floyd caught 13 balls for 148 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Neither of those are anything to write home about. Brown may have more targets, catches and yards over the last six weeks, but Floyd is still the No. 2 guy behind Fitzgerald.
All the “Brown has overtaken Floyd” hype focuses on their recent performances, so let’s take a look at the Cardinals’ Week 10 win over the Rams. Floyd caught just one of four targets for 11 yards, while Brown had five grabs for 73 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner, notably thrown by Stanton. However, Floyd still had chances to make plays down the field. His quarterbacks just weren’t able to connect.
The screenshot below is taken right before the snap of an Arizona 1st-and-10 from the St. Louis 35-yard-line. Floyd is to the top of the screen with single coverage. Fitzgerald is in the slot on the same side of the formation, while Brown is the lone receiver to Palmer’s left.
This is a simple go route for Floyd, and he burns E.J. Gaines. Floyd’s presence in the slot no doubt helps, ensuring Floyd man coverage. He does the rest, as you can see in the screenshot below.
Unfortunately for Floyd and his owners, Palmer simply overshoots him. If Palmer puts this ball where it needs to be, Floyd gives his owners a double-digit fantasy-point game, and the narrative is at least a little altered. Instead, through no fault of his own here, Floyd is rendered a bum.
Later on the same drive, the Cardinals run a nearly identical play, only with Floyd and Brown flip-flopped. This time, Floyd is the only receiver to Palmer’s left, while Brown is outside the numbers to the right. Fitzgerald is once again in the slot to the right, but this time Andre Ellington bunches up next to him. Here’s what it looks like just before Palmer takes the snap.
Unlike Floyd did a few plays earlier, Brown does not come close to beating Gaines. The corner is with him step for step, but Palmer puts it up for Brown anyway. Take a look at Brown and Gaines at the top of the screen with the pass heading their way.
If this were Floyd, a jump ball might make sense, as the Notre Dame product can use his 6-foot-3, 225-pound size to go up and win the battle. Brown, however, is just 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds. He does a lot of things well, but winning a jump ball isn’t one of them. He and Gaines get to the ball and precisely the same time, resulting in an incompletion.
This is anecdotal, but it goes to show that the Cardinals are a very aggressive team that wants to challenge teams deep down the field. Regardless of his production to this point, Floyd is the best man for that job.
But, you say, didn’t Brown catch a 48-yard touchdown pass? Wouldn’t that qualify as challenging teams deep down the field? Yes he did, and of course it does. However, take a look at the play and you see a grisly blown coverage from the St. Louis secondary.
Brown begins this 1st-and-10 play on the left side of the formation, all the way at the bottom of the screen. Fitzgerald is again working out of the slot, with Floyd alone to Stanton’s right. Brown is manned up with corner Trumaine Johnson, but there’s a safety just outside of the screenshot shading to his side of the field.
The reverse angle shows a St. Louis defense in zone, with Johnson doubling Fitzgerald over the top and seemingly passing off Brown to the safety, Rodney McLeod. The only problem is McLeod is late in getting over to his responsibility on Brown. He ran a simple post corner here, and the catch is undoubtedly outstanding. Still, if McLeod sticks to his assignment, this is an incomplete pass.
If you need any further proof that McLeod blew the coverage here, check out Johnson pointing in Brown’s direction as the pass is on its way, almost like zone defender in basketball calling out a cutter.
This is not meant to knock Brown in any way. He’s a fine receiver who has brought a lot to the table for this Arizona offense in his rookie year. To say he has unseated Floyd, however, is overzealous. They both have WR3 ceilings the rest of the year, but if you can only have one, Floyd is the guy you want.
Unfortunately for both, things are about to take a turn for this passing attack.
Fiction: Drew Stanton can be a reasonable facsimile for Carson Palmer
If you don’t bother digging beneath the surface at all, you might think Stanton has done an admirable job filling in for Palmer this year. They’re 2-1 in games with Stanton as the starter, and he entered last week’s win over the Rams with the Cardinals facing a 14-10 deficit. In approximately 12 quarters of action, Stanton has 614 yards and three touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Stanton’s efficiency stats tell a much different story. He has completed just 49.5 percent of his passes this year and is getting 6.6 yards per attempt. Don’t expect the Cardinals to tailor the playbook to Stanton. Head coach Bruce Arians wants to take shots down the field, and that doesn’t change depending on who’s at the helm. Palmer had 31 pass attempts that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, good for 13.8 percent of his total throws. Stanton has 23 such passes on 93 attempts, which translates to 24.7 percent. His accuracy percentage – receptions plus drops – on deep balls is 39.1 percent, which ranks 19th in the league. Couple that with his struggles in the short and intermediate passing attack, and that’s just not going to get it done in terms of yards per dropback.
What’s more, the Cardinals face a nightmarish schedule for quarterbacks the rest of the year. Their next two games are against the Lions and Seahawks. They get the Chiefs in Week 14, Seahawks again in Week 16, and finish the season with a trip to San Francisco. From a real-life perspective, the balance of power in the NFC may have just tilted toward the Midwest in favor of Green Bay and Detroit. In fantasy terms, Palmer owners lost a quarterback who entered Week 10 ranked seventh in points per game, while Fitzgerald, Floyd and Brown owners waved goodbye to their best friend in the Arizona passing game.
Finally, Andre Ellington owners shouldn’t expect a significant uptick in his touches, if the team’s tendencies in Stanton’s first three starts are an indication of how they will handle the rest of the season. Ellington had 16, 21 and 20 touches in Stanton’s three starts. On the season, he’s averaging 22.67 touches per game. The injury to Palmer lowered the ceiling for the overall offense in Arizona. It did the same for each player individually.