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Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the Cardinals will be “okay” if Carson Palmer retires

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Tennis: BNP Paribas Open-Halep v Williams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported over the weekend that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is seriously contemplating retirement this year. If he goes, there’s a very good chance that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald would retire as well, as Fitzgerald said a year ago that “A lot of (my retirement decision) is tied to Carson.” I think a lot of Seattle Seahawks fans have met the news with the idea that Bruce Arians is a “QB whisperer” and that “the team is good enough in general to withstand the loss of Palmer and Fitzgerald,” but I’m here to argue that those points are getting ridiculous.

If Palmer retires, the Cardinals could very well go in the tank and not return in the near future.

Last July, after Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t rule out retirement in 2017, I gameplanned how dire Arizona’s future could be, beginning as soon as this offseason:

Fitzgerald turns 33 before the season and he could be a free agent after this year. (When he renegotiated his contract in 2015, it essentially gave the Cardinals immediate financial relief but included two automatically-voided seasons in 2017 and 2018 that will count over $4 million against the cap.) If he leaves via free agency or retires, that might not be the only problem for Arizona: Michael Floyd, Tyrann Mathieu, Calais Campbell, Chris Johnson, Evan Mathis, and Chandler Jones are also set to be free agents. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that Carson Palmer is turning 37 in December.

If Arizona hasn’t hit on it’s recent draft picks — including Robert Nkemdiche (currently behind schedule because of a high ankle sprain), D.J. Humphries (missed all of rookie season due to injury), Markus Golden, David Johnson, Deone Bucannon, Troy Niklas, and John Brown — then the next rebuild may be sooner than we realize, and more difficult than the last one. Notice that none of those players are quarterbacks, and that their most recent heir apparent to Palmer, Logan Thomas, has already been released.

The Cardinals look like a legit Super Bowl contender this season but the thought of losing Fitzgerald next year is a reminder of how Arizona’s window for being that good could close quickly with a disastrous 2017 offseason.

The update on that post is that Floyd was released, Mathieu wasn’t very good, Chris Johnson went on IR after four games, Humphries had a good season before a concussion ended his year early, Nkemdiche was silent, Brown became an afterthought, Bucannon had less of an impact than he appeared to have in 2015, and the Cards went 7-8-1. Of course, David Johnson had an MVP-type season, Golden had 12.5 sacks, Jones had 11, Campbell had eight.

But this team will be in a significant hole without Palmer and Fitzgerald.

If Palmer and Fitzgerald retire after June 1, the team will open an additional $28.4 million in cap room for 2017, giving them $62.3 million to work with. (Note: June 1 cut is not a magic potion. The money doesn’t just disappear off the books, it is simply pushed back to next year. Arizona still has to deal with that at some point.) I imagine they’ll also cut Daryl Washington and save another $4 million, so great, money isn’t an issue. This should allow them to re-sign Mathis, Campbell, Jones, and Tony Jefferson, if they want to and those players want to come back, plus be able to play in the free agent market and in trades.

None of which means a lot to me if you’re starting Drew Stanton at quarterback.

The Cardinals are set to pick 13th overall this year, and it’s a pretty good class of QBs: DeShone Kizer, DeShaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, and Pat Mahomes have all gotten first round love. But the teams ahead of Arizona who need a quarterback include the Cleveland Browns (pick twice ahead of the Cards), San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and possibly the Jacksonville Jaguars (staying committed to Blake Bortles but probably also realistic that if they love a QB in the draft, they’ll take him), LA Chargers, and New Orleans Saints.

That’s four quarterbacks and nine picks ahead of Arizona who could reasonably take a QB, and probably at least three teams — Browns, 49ers, and one other team (Bears, Jets, Bills) — that definitely will. In this case, it’s very possible that Mahomes will be the only QB with a first round grade left on the board at 13. After the combine, players like Trubisky and Kizer may have already solidified themselves as top-5 picks. Maybe Watson does. Either way, these mid-first round QBs always feel more like reaches than steals.

With no intention of cherry-picking, I looked at QBs taken between 9 and 22 in the Super Bowl era. Here are the Pro Bowl QBs:

Ben Roethlisberger (11th overall, 5x Pro Bowl, also contemplating retirement)

Jim Kelly (14th overall, 5x Pro Bowl)

Joe Namath (12th overall, 5x Pro Bowl, actually drafted one year ahead of the Super Bowl era but I’ll add him)

Daunte Culpepper (11th overall, 3x Pro Bowl)

Jay Cutler (11th overall, 1x Pro Bowl)

Chris Miller (13th overall, 1x Pro Bowl)

Greg Landry (11th overall, 1x Pro Bowl)

I list Pro Bowl nods not because it’s the end-all, be-all of anything, but just because I like to use it as a gauge for: Most great players don’t go their entire careers without a Pro Bowl nod, especially at QB. Above are four QBs taken in this range who went to multiple Pro Bowls. I wouldn’t think I’d be able to win a Super Bowl with Cutler, Miller, or Landry, which is really what we’re looking at here.

These are four players out of 30. Really, four out of 32 because I went back an extra year for Namath. Four of 32, is a hit rate of 12.5%. Actually, I will add zero-time Pro Bowl QB Joe Flacco, 18th overall selection. Five of 32 is 15.6%.

Not mentioned: Johnny Manziel, EJ Manuel, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Brady Quinn, Matt Leinart, JP Lossman, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, Chad Pennington, Cade McNown, Dan McGwire, and so on. The best case scenario there was Pennington, who I’d place on the same pedestal as Cutler; perfectly reasonable as a starter, not a Super Bowl QB. Not a special QB. Not Carson Palmer by any stretch of the imagination.

The problem with the idea of “trading up” in this draft is that unlike in 2016, there are a bunch of teams who need a QB and these prospects may be better, shinier, more desperately-needed than Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Last year, these teams sat in the top 12: Titans (had Mariota), Browns (had RGIII, wanted to rebuild first), Chargers, Cowboys, Jaguars, Ravens, 49ers (wanted to give Chip Kelly a year with Kaepernick, Gabbert, even if they had no idea what they were actually doing and still don’t), originally Eagles (acquired pick from Miami in Byron Maxwell deal) who traded up for Wentz, Bucs (Winston, then traded down with Bears, who had Cutler still and were gonna stick with that), Giants, Bucs, Saints, Eagles.

The teams that felt they really needed a QB last year were the Eagles and Rams, clearly. The other teams that I’m saying need a QB now that didn’t a year ago, are one year closer to retirements like that of Eli Manning and Drew Brees, or a lot less sure of the QBs they went with a year ago, like Bortles and Cutler.

I don’t think that the Cardinals can trade up with any significance unless they play a dear price, like their second round pick this year and first round pick next year, depending on how high they want to move up and for which QB. “Trading up” sounds improbable. “Finding a great QB — for 2017 mind you” seems improbabler. (Webster’s word of 2017, I hope.)

But they have as many dollars to spend as we have years since the dinosaurs were killed off, right? Sure. Go that route. It works out ... like, once every 10 years.

Kirk Cousins isn’t leaving the Washington Redskins for anything less than two first round draft picks and a lot of money. Believe that.

Tyrod Taylor is a special quarterback in that he is a specialized quarterback. I don’t see how he fits in Arizona’s offense at all.

The Patriots have no incentive to trade Jimmy Garoppolo for anything less than a first round pick, and even then, do they feel the incentive to deal a 25-year-old QB when the starter is about to be 40? The Cards would be giving up the 13th overall pick and then some for a player with 1.5 regular season games under his belt. A first round rookie may have no experience, but he does come with a cheap(ish) five-year contract. Garoppolo would require an extension that could make Brock Osweiler’s deal look like it came from the 2 DVDs for $10 bucket.

Same goes for the over-inflated market vying for the services of Mike Glennon.

Cutler, Kaepernick, Nick Foles, RGIII, AJ McCarron, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and so on, the available and potentially-available will not be remembered for what went right in their careers, but for what went wrong. Maybe Palmer’s career will also go down as a disappointment, but he was arguably the MVP in 2015, leading the NFL in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, and posting a career-high rating of 104.6.

In 2014, Arizona went 6-0 when Palmer was starting and 5-6 when it was Stanton or Ryan Lindley.

Of course, there is one more option left: Tony Romo. With the extra cash, the Cardinals could pay the 36-year-old Romo enough to join them, while maybe getting a little bit of a discount because they were in the NFC Championship a year ago. Romo probably sees a lot more incentive to play for Arians and the Cardinals than he would from any other team except for the Denver Broncos. A new report suggests that the Broncos would indeed be interested in talking to Romo if he is released, but not interested in trading for him. At this point, it looks like no team is interested in trading for him.

Okay, but what are you getting with Romo? I have been a strong advocate for Romo all season, as many have argued against me that he’s old, injury-prone, and maybe overrated. I still disagree, and I think it’s worth a shot for a team close to contending to bring him in. Romo was incredible in 2014, but has thrown just 125 passes in the last two years, almost all of which came in 2015. That could be a good thing, he’s rested perhaps, but it’s not like I’m ignoring the potential issues with Romo either.

I actually wouldn’t even say he’s “injury prone” and I don’t know if people who use that term use it in a way different than I would; he played consistently from 2011 to 2014. He was injured in 2015 and missed all but four games. If not for Dak Prescott, he wouldn’t have missed the entire 2016 season, though he would’ve missed a big chunk of it.

He may be just as “injury prone” as Palmer, in my mind. So it’s a double-edged sword. Getting Romo, who is almost the same age as Peyton Manning was when he went to Denver, means getting a QB with a lot more talent than any other QB you could acquire, barring drafting one, which is incredibly difficult to do or predict. But he is also four months younger than Palmer. Who is to say that his retirement isn’t next?

And yes, losing Palmer probably means losing Fitzgerald. Though he is 33, aka “Abe Vigoda status” for NFL players, Fitzgerald has caught 216 of 295 targets in the last two seasons, good for a 73.2% catch rate and 15 touchdowns. His 10.6 yards per catch is below what I like to see from a receiver, but he’s important for so many reasons. Not only will they have to replace their most reliable receiver, the Cardinals will also still be on the lookout for the big play receiver they still desperately need with or without Fitzgerald.

David Johnson is already Arizona’s best receiver. Potentially without Fitzgerald, Brown, and already moved on from Floyd, the Cards next best receiver becomes JJ Nelson, followed by Jaron Brown.

I don’t see a lot of teams in today’s NFL that are successful by building an offense that revolves solely around a great running back. The Pittsburgh Steelers have Le’Veon Bell — and Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. The Dallas Cowboys have Ezekiel Elliott — and Prescott and Dez Bryant. The Miami Dolphins have Jay Ajayi — and Ryan Tannehill and Jarvis Landry. The Atlanta Falcons have Devonta Freeman — and Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and Tevin Coleman.

Look at successful running backs on mediocre and bad teams: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans (Closing in, need more receiver help.) LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills. I mean .... David Johnson and the Arizona Cardinals. Johnson had one of the greatest seasons of all-time and despite already having Palmer and Fitzgerald, they posted a losing record.

How are people trying to fansplain to me that the Cardinals are going to get better without Palmer and Fitzgerald?

Replacements won’t come easy, if they come at all, and Arians’ ain’t “whisperin’” Stanton, Mahomes, Cutler, or Foles into playing on par with what he had in Palmer. Remember that in the last decade, the magic “QB Whisperer” has exclusively worked with Ben Roethlisberger (PIT 2007-2011), Andrew Luck (2012), and then had management trade for Palmer despite trying to convince the world that Stanton was the starter and he’d be great at it. And while Palmer has had some of his best games under Arians, then we also must note that Roethlisberger is averaging 27 touchdowns per season since Arians left, which is four more per year than during Arians’ tenure. And that Luck was great for a rookie, but considerably more outstanding in the last few years. There is zero evidence in Arians’ past that suggests he can turn a molehill into a mountain. That may be why they go hard after Romo, should Palmer retire, but that’s still a band-aid on a heart attack.

As it already stands, Arizona is in trouble. Without Palmer and Fitzgerald, the issues mount to a point where we can’t even tell if the Cardinals offense is better than the Rams or 49ers. The Seahawks biggest opponent in the next couple of years might just be complacency.