If the Cardinals were in the AFC they would have made the playoffs in 2013 with their 10-6 finish. Instead, they were on the outside looking in as the seventh-best team in their conference.
While commissioner Roger Goodell hopes to expand the NFL playoffs in the near future to help teams like Arizona, it doesn't make the Cardinals feel any better after missing out a year ago. This season, the team hopes to accomplish the feat without any outside help.
Arizona definitely has the pieces in place to make it happen. The offense should be better with a full year in coach Bruce Arians' system, as well as an improved offensive line with the return of left guard Jonathan Cooper and the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. The defense will miss linebacker Daryl Washington (suspension), but this is still an above-average unit without him.
From a Fantasy perspective, there is a lot to like about this team. Carson Palmer could be a surprise option as a No. 2 Fantasy quarterback with starter potential. Andre Ellington is a breakout candidate at running back, and Stepfan Taylor is a sleeper. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd could easily finish as Top 20 receivers. And the DST is a Top 10 unit coming into the season.
Whether or not the Cardinals make the playoffs is not really our main concern. But we hope there are a lot of points coming out of the desert this season as they try to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Breakout No. 1 ... Andre Ellington
In separate conversations this offseason, two members of the Cardinals organization used lofty comparisons for Ellington when talking about him as having a similar skill set to Jamaal Charles. We hope that's accurate, but it will be hard for the second-year running back to become that good right away.
Still, there is a lot to like about Ellington this year. In a secondary role behind Rashard Mendenhall last year, Ellington was the No. 24 Fantasy running back in standard leagues with 118 carries for 652 yards and three touchdowns and 39 catches for 371 yards and one touchdown.
Mendenhall retired this offseason, and Ellington will handle the featured role. Arians has said he'd like Ellington to get 25-30 touches a game, and if he can repeat his averages from a year ago -- his 5.5 yards per carry led the NFL among running backs with at least 100 carries, and he had 9.5 yards per catch -- then his production could be outstanding.
Taylor has the chance to lead the Cardinals in rushing touchdowns because Ellington isn't suited for short-yardage situations at 5-foot-9, 199 pounds. But he could get 1,500 total yards with seven touchdowns, and I'd gamble on that type of production with a pick as early as Round 3 in the majority of leagues.
Ellington is one of my favorite players coming into this year. As for Taylor, target him with a late-round pick since Mendenhall had eight rushing touchdowns in 2013, and Taylor could help pick up that slack.
Breakout No. 2 ... Michael Floyd
I like third-year receivers, especially ones with big-play ability in a high-powered offense. Floyd fits the bill, and he has the chance for a standout season in 2014.
He already had a big year in 2013 with 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns, and he posted nine games with at least eight Fantasy points, including four with double digits. But there's still room for improvement, and he could easily be a Top 20 Fantasy receiver this season (he was No. 24 last year).
The Cardinals have said collectively that the offense feels more comfortable this season after a year playing for Arians, and he will continue to attack defenses down the field. While Fitzgerald still draws plenty of attention, Floyd should continue to thrive in single coverage, and he's clearly developed a solid rapport with Palmer.
You can draft Floyd as a No. 2 Fantasy receiver this season, but ideally he will be your No. 3 option or a flex. If he scored one more touchdown in 2013 he would have been the No. 19 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues, so he doesn't have far to go to breakthrough as a Top 20 option.
Still capable ... Carson Palmer
|Rashard Mendenhall||235 (217 car., 18 rec.)||29.8%|
|Andre Ellington||157 (118 car., 39 rec.)||19.9%|
|Larry Fitzgerald||84 (2 car., 82 rec.)||10.6%|
|Michael Floyd||65 rec.||8.2%|
|Stepfan Taylor||44 (36 car., 8 rec.)||5.6%|
Palmer might be near the end of his career, but he's not finished as a Fantasy quarterback. He played well last season, his first in Arizona, with 4,274 passing yards on 63 percent completions with 24 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. It was a career high in passing yards but also a career high in interceptions.
He seemed to grasp Arians' offense as the season went on, especially following the bye in Week 9. In his final eight games, Palmer had four outings with at least 24 Fantasy points, four games with at least 300 passing yards and five games with multiple touchdowns.
That should carry over to this season, especially with an improved offensive line with Cooper and Veldheer now in the fold. The Cardinals have an elite receiving corps with Fitzgerald, Floyd and newcomer Ted Ginn, who adds another speed element at Palmer's disposal. And Ellington out of the backfield only adds to the mix.
The good news with Palmer is you don't have to draft him as a starting option, but he could easily become a Top 12 quarterback by the end of the year. This offense is poised for greatness, and Palmer could end up as a steal on Draft Day with a late-round pick.
The Cardinals only have one game on the East Coast for a 1 p.m. start, which is Week 2 at the Giants. They benefit with 11 games indoors with road matchups at Dallas, Atlanta and St. Louis to go with their eight home outings. And getting the defensive-challenged Cowboys and Falcons on the docket is a huge bonus. The matchup at Denver in Week 5 should be an offensive bonanza, and we hope the Cardinals can hold up at home against the Seahawks in Week 16 for the Fantasy championship game in most leagues.
Training camp battles
Who's the starting tight end? Arians has made it known he doesn't depend on his tight ends to catch passes, which hurts Rob Housler as a potential weapon. John Carlson and rookie Troy Niklas were added this offseason, and both should be better blockers than Housler. Neither of these tight ends will help your Fantasy team, but Carlson has the best chance to start based on his blocking prowess, his experience and Niklas suffering a broken hand in June. He should be fine for training camp, but the missed time will hurt his chances to start.
What's the pecking order at receiver? The Cardinals have a solid foursome with Fitzgerald, Floyd, Ginn and rookie John Brown. While the first two are the only ones who will be drafted in the majority of leagues, don't overlook Ginn and Brown as sleepers in deeper formats. Ginn actually played well as a receiver for the Panthers last year in a far inferior passing attack with 36 catches for 556 yards and five touchdowns, and he could be a threat downfield for Palmer. And Brown could be the slot receiver after he caught 185 passes for 3,380 yards and 32 touchdowns at Pittsburg State. Keep them on your radar in the preseason.
It's almost unfathomable that Fitzgerald has gone two years in a row with fewer than 85 catches and 1,000 yards. He did rebound last season with 10 touchdowns, which was the first time since 2009 that he reached double digits in touchdowns, but he's no longer considered an elite Fantasy receiver.
While that's fair, especially with the development of guys like Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Dez Bryant, Fitzgerald can definitely qualify for the next tier. We expect him to return as a Top 12 receiver this season. He was No. 16 in Fantasy points in a standard league last year, so he doesn't have far to go.
He closed last season playing at a high level when the Cardinals picked up their production in the passing game with double digits in Fantasy points in five of his final seven games. And that's what you can expect for the majority of this season.
I would love to get Fitzgerald in Round 4 in most formats, but don't hesitate to draft him in Round 3. He will have his best year since 2009, and he'll return as a Top 12 option.
John Brown (hamstring), probable for start of training camp. ... Troy Niklas (hand), questionable for start of training camp. ... Tyrann Mathieu (knee), questionable for start of season. ... Daryl Washington (suspended), out for season