Over the last few years, the Cardinals have supplanted the 49ers as the Seahawks primary division rival. The flavor of the rivalry is certainly different and has yet to reach the intensities of the 49ers rivalry. But as the Cardinals have assumed the most threatening position to the Seahawks for the 2017 season, I thought I would deconstruct their chances a bit.
Where They Were
In 2016, the Cardinals had tons of hype. Many pundits pegged them as either the NFC's representative in the SB or at least making it to the NFC championship game. And then they fell flat on their faces straight out of the gate. In the first four games, they lost to the Brady-less Patriots, got blown out by Buffalo, and lost to the Rams. They would be sitting at .500 with 7 games to go after beating the 49ers, but would lose 4 of their next 5 to dash any playoff hopes. Here is a more quantitative description of their season.
|Total DVOA (rank)||1.7% (16)|
|Off. DVOA (rank)||-6.2% (21)|
|Def. DVOA (rank)||-13.9% (3)|
|ST. DVOA (rank)||-6.0% (30)|
What They Gained
Their point differential paints a prettier picture than the DVOA. This might be due to the Cardinals facing the 3rd easiest schedule in the league. The defense was pretty damn good. Carson Palmer, who was absolutely robbed of the 2015 MVP award, regressed towards his career numbers in basically every way. He had a higher INT% and Sack%, and lower TD%, YPA, and ANY/A.
The easiest place to start is the draft. They drafted a pass-rushing LB in Hassan Reddick in the 1st and PNW favorite (and high school teammate of my younger bro) Budda Baker after trading up in the 2nd. They selected WR Chad Williams in the 3rd and, in one of the potential steals of the draft, grabbed Dorian Johnson in the 4th after he fell due to concerns about a liver condition. All in all, they selected 7 times and drafted 4 offensive players and 3 defensive players.
They stayed relatively quiet in free agency. They signed Antoine Bethea to a 3 year 12.75 million dollar contract with 4 million guaranteed. Bethea has been a good player in the past, but at age 32, the Cards gotta hope his age doesn't catch up with him this season. Their second biggest signing was paying Phil Dawson $1.5 million guaranteed on a 2 year, 6 million dollar contract. They also willingly paid Blaine Gabbert money, but fortunately none of it is guaranteed. In a neat parallel to the Luke Joeckel signing, the Cardinals signed Jarvis Jones, a former first round pick that had been disappointing with his original team.
What They Lost
The Cardinals had a great defense. It'd be a shame if they... lost 5,144 snaps in free agency. That's exactly what happened. But 5,144 snaps is a big number, what does it actually mean. Well, 5,144 divided by 16 games divided by 11 starters is 5.35. The Cardinals lost the equivalent of 5 starters. That great defense lost Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Marcus Cooper, DJ Swearinger, Kevin Minter, and Alex Okafor. Not all these players are great, but the loss of Calais and three defensive backs is going to hurt. I don't think the Arizona defense is going to be terrible, but it tough to see it as an ascending defense with all those snaps lost.
Additionally, in the trade to snag Budda Baker, the Cardinals paid approximately 150 cents on the dollar according to Football Perspective's Draft Trade calculator. Arizona would recoup some of this by trading down in the draft, but the fact remains that Budda Baker cost *4* draft picks (2.45, 4.119, 6.197, and next years 4th). I had hoped to root for Baker to succeed, but now that he has donned Cardinals colors, I hope he doesn't succeed until he gets a change of scenery in about 4 years.
What Comes Next
As a Seahawks fan, I hope they lose all 16 games, but I think that's a bit unrealistic. In my opinion, the team's success is going to primarily depend on three players.
First and foremost, Carson Palmer is going to have the biggest impact on the team. If he regains his 2015 form, the Cards can beat any team in the league as long as their defense is even average. However, a 37 year old QB regaining his peak performance does not seem particularly likely. Additionally, there are some other worrisome signs. Bruce Arians is limiting his throwing this offseason. Now, maybe this is common practice, but I haven't heard of it before. This is bad news. Depending on your perspective, it might be catastrophic or just slightly concerning, but I don't think there is any way to spin it to make it good news. Additionally, QBs do not age gracefully. As Brian Burke puts it "Successful, established QBs will generally continue to be successful until one day they're not."
Second, the Cardinals are going to need pass rush to cover up the holes left by the exodus of free agents. That is why I think that Robert Nkemdiche's play is going to be the second biggest factor in Arizona's success (or failure) next year. To call Nkemdiche's first season a disappointment would be an understatement. He only played in six games and recorded a whopping 1 assisted tackle. He was outperformed by a 2014 5th round pick Ed Stinson, who played in 4 games, had 30 more defensive snaps, but had 6 tackles. This is a troubling start to Nkemdiche's career and, frankly, the excuses aren't reassuring. Either Nkemdiche was unmotivated or he was injured. I detest the unmotivated label for prospects because its based on a bunch of armchair psychology. However, with Nkemdiche, the label was not just a nebulous term scouts attached to him in the pre-draft process, but was directly stated by his own head coach. t isn't a good sign When your own coach says you didn't work as hard as the 1st round pick they red-shirted for an entire season. And then there is the injury history. He had a high ankle sprain last offseason and then re-injured his ankle later in the season. It is early to call him injury prone, but he certainly doesn't have a pristine bill of health. He could absolutely come back and be the interior demon he was at Ole Miss, but it is far from a sure thing.
Finally, the third most important piece to the 2017 Cardinals is the rookie Budda Baker. From everything I have heard about him, he is an absolutely great person. This is going to be a shorter section because I am not at all a scout. Budda appears to fill a similar role to Mathieu on the Cardinals defense. This Nickel DB/Safety position is perhaps the defining element of Arizona's defense over the last couple of years, so having a backup for Mathieu is certainly important. However, I wonder how they are both going to play at the same time. Mathieu and Budda are almost exactly the same size and having two DBs under 5' 10" on the field at the same time seems like a recipe for mismatches. Additionally, Budda Baker is a below average athlete at CB (-0.4 sigma)*. Athleticism isn't everything, but Budda is going to be matching up against bigger and faster players than ever, and is going to have to rely on technique rather than physical gifts to hang with them. Ultimately, I don't now if Budda + Mathieu actually makes the Arizona defense better and if Budda is sitting on the bench or playing out of position, I don't know if that is going to generate much value for the Cardinals in 2017. He might very well prove to be an excellent Mathieu successor going forward, but value and 2018 and beyond isn't the point of this piece.
Doom is a relative term and I certainly don't think the Cardinals will be terrible next year. However, I feel like they are going to have a season that disappoints the fanbase. They have enough talent to be dangerous to any team in the league, but the massive losses to the defense and potential for Carson Palmer to fall off of a cliff make it tough to see them breaking the 10-win barrier. Official prediction: 8-8, with one last minute annoying-bullshit type win against the future Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
* NB: Read some of Zach Whitman's old SPARQ articles (both on FG and his website, 3sigmaathlete.com), SPARQ ain't everything but it's an important method of looking at prospects).