Arizona Cardinals Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: David Johnson Is Worth No. 1 Pick

Wednesday August 2nd, 2017

Picking the right players in fantasy football is tricky work, and picking the right players in real football is even trickier. As chronicled in the Amazon series “All or Nothing,” the Cardinals failed upward in spectacular fashion when they took David Johnson in the third round of the 2015 draft only because the running back they preferred, Ameer Abdullah, was taken a few picks in front of them. Abdullah is a talented back who might still turn out to be a jewel if his body starts to cooperate, but Johnson has already started walking a path toward Canton.

Running Backs

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
David Johnson RB1 RB2 Bow reverentially

Johnson led all non-quarterbacks in fantasy scoring last year, piling up 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. As noted by Rotoworld’s Evan Silva (@evansilva), Johnson’s receiving yardage alone—80 catches for 879 yards and four TDs—would have tied him with Rishard Matthews as the WR30 in PPR leagues last season. Add the 1,239 rushing yards and 16 touchdown runs and you have a player who’s an obvious candidate to be the No. 1 pick in fantasy leagues.

I say “candidate” because Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell has been producing similarly eye-popping number on a per-game basis. Johnson has been the preferred choice of early drafters, with a Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of 1.01 overall vs. Bell’s 1.02. I find it so difficult to parse the differences between Johnson and Bell that I’d prefer the No. 2 pick to the No. 1 pick just to have the choice taken out of my hands. Johnson has had fewer medical issues (though he sprained his MCL in Week 17 last season and probably would have missed multiple weeks had the injury occurred earlier) and doesn’t have a marijuana-related suspension on his record, as Bell does. Bell has a better offensive line. I lean slightly toward Bell because of superior blocking, but if I’m fortunate enough to draw the top draft pick in two leagues, I’ll take Bell in one and Johnson in the other.

Johnson owners seeking to handcuff his backup appear to be out of luck: It’s not entirely clear who’s No. 2. If Johnson were to go down, we’d probably see the Cardinals rotate a two-back combination from among Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington, Kerwynn Williams and perhaps rookie scatback T.J. Logan. Unless one of these four clearly establishes himself as the top backup during the preseason, it’s not worth grabbing any of them.

Quarterbacks

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Carson Palmer QB20 QB19 Pray for health

If Carson Palmer can stay healthy, he’ll be a near-lock for a 4,000-yard season in head coach Bruce Arians’ aggressive passing attack. Palmer has averaged 279.3 passing yards per game in his four seasons in Arizona, and the only time he failed to reach 4,000 yards for the Cardinals was when he missed 10 games in 2014 due to shoulder and knee injuries. While Palmer is a consistent yardage producer, his touchdown numbers usually aren’t as impressive – he’s topped 26 TD passes only once in the last 10 years. It’s fair to wonder if Palmer will be able to survive a 16-game season. He’s 37, plays behind an iffy offensive line and has the mobility of a baby grand piano.

Palmer finished QB19 in fantasy scoring last year but missed one game and didn’t have the luxury of a healthy John Brown. At his current ADP of QB20, Palmer looks like a solid value.

Wide receivers

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Larry Fitzgerald WR30 WR24 Pay homage
John Brown RB41 RB37 Buy at discount
J.J. Nelson RB61 RB71 Pass

Larry Fitzgerald turns 34 exactly one week before the season begins, and it’s been widely speculated that this will be his final season. I don’t think we have to be concerned about an age-related crash for Fitz. Since the merger, 37 wide receivers have turned in 1,000-yard seasons at age 34 or older. And, of course, Fitzgerald’s worth ethic is the stuff of legend. On the other hand, Fitzgerald’s ceiling isn’t what it used to be. Although he’s had more than 100 catches and 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, his yardage per catch has been in decline, plummeting to a career low of 9.6 last season. Fitz has reached double digits in touchdowns five times in his career, but he’s done it only once since 2010, and over the last three years he’s averaged 5.7 TDs per season. I expect about 100 catches, 1,000 yards and 5-6 touchdowns from Fitzgerald, whose ADP of WR30 looks like a bargain.

John Brown wasn’t physically right last year, dealing with complications from the sickle cell trait that caused him leg pain and made him feel sluggish. He also had offseason surgery to have a cyst removed from his spine. The Cardinals’ medical team believes it has the sickle cell issue under control, and Brown supposedly looked terrific in OTAs last month. Brown had 65 catches for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015, when he had to share targets with not only Fitzgerald but Michael Floyd, who had 89 targets and 52 catches that year. Arians loves to challenge defenses vertically, and Brown can flat-out fly. If he stays healthy, he’ll have an excellent chance to return a tidy profit on his current price of WR41.

The Cardinals’ probable third receiver, at least to begin the season, is J.J. Nelson, a 5-10, 160-pound road runner with 4.28 speed. Averaging 19.3 yards per reception over his two-year career, with eight touchdowns on 45 receptions, Nelson has shown that he can hit the occasional home run, but the only spot where I’d be willing to put down a bet on a pint-sized outside receiver would be in the last round of a best-ball league, where you can cash in on the long TDs without fretting too much about the lack of volume.

There was some OTA-related buzz regarding third-rounder Chad Williams, an uber-athletic Grambling product who posted a 90-1,337-11 stat line in his final college season. He has the potential to marginalize Nelson and might become playable in fantasy leagues if any of the receivers ahead of him go down.

Tight Ends

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Jermaine Gresham N/A TE33 Bleh

They haven’t grown tight ends in the crusty soil of the Arizona desert for years, and we won’t see anything sprouting in 2017. Veteran Jermaine Gresham had 37 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns last season, but even those modest numbers were probably falsely enhanced by Brown’s physical limitations, which siphoned targets elsewhere.

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