Carson Palmer’s 15th NFL season didn’t start off exactly as planned, with three interceptions and only one touchdown pass on opening day. His 8.9 NFL fantasy points weren’t what his fantasy owners were looking for, either. Fortunately, in five games since, he is averaging 317.6 passing yards per game, while passing for eight touchdowns and only three interceptions. He hasn’t failed to deliver 15 points or more each week and has a pair of 20-plus point games already.
Is that enough to make him a must-start quarterback the rest of the season? How about this week? Here are a few things to consider.
How is he doing it?
You could say the Arizona game plan radically changed between Week 1 and Week 2. That happens when you lose an all-world running back like David Johnson. Try as they might, Arizona could not find someone to create a rushing threat in the backfield. They brought Chris Johnson back. Kerwynn Williams was given a shot at it. But the only production that came from behind the line was Andre Ellington’s pass catching.
Without a running game, Palmer had to throw more. JJ Nelson and Jaron Brown were adequate secondary targets after Larry Fitzgerald while John Brown healed a damaged quad. His offensive line, playing with second-string players at left tackle and left guard, was built to run. They were not holding up well against defenses who knew there was no explosive back about to run past them. That Pro Football Focus offered metrics saying the Cardinals were better at creating a push on rushing plays than they were at creating a pocket for Palmer made their lack of running game perplexing. It was an offense in flux, but the veteran Palmer was making the most of it. He proved mobile for an older quarterback. After the Cardinals’ victory in Week 4, Coach Bruce Arians said Palmer looked quicker and more accurate than he had been in years.
But can he keep it going?
Philadelphia flat out whipped the Cardinals in Week 5. Palmer was only sacked twice, but he was hit eight more times. The running game was completely shut down to the tune of 2.1 yards per carry, helped by a 14-yard end around from JJ Nelson. I was writing an article wondering why Arians wasn’t giving Andre Ellington a shot at the feature back role. As I looked for an Arians quote from five years ago when he announced he would build an offense around Ellington, an alert came across my screen. Adrian Peterson was traded to Arizona.
Early returns seem positive for Peterson’s impact on the Cardinal offense. They jumped out to a 31-0 lead before letting off the gas pedal against Tampa Bay. Not only did Peterson run for a lot of yards, but Palmer found time to throw. He wound up with three touchdowns on an efficient 283 yards.
The efficient part raises my interest. Palmer threw only 22 times in Week 6. Peterson ran 26 times out of the 35 total rushes. Arizona appears poised to return to their run-first scheme that Arians loves. In this game, it didn’t matter much as Palmer’s 18 of 22 passing included a 12.9 average per catch, roughly four yards more than the previous two weeks.
Adrian Peterson’s presence helped Palmer hold onto the ball longer. Play options are much more effective when you have a legitimate running threat. Cardinal receivers were open on every play. Will deeper passes continue to offset fewer throws enough to maintain NFL fantasy-worthy yardage? Will that result in more multiple-touchdown games for the Arizona quarterback, further offsetting the lower number of attempts? How can we know?
We can’t predict the future, but…
We can see the history of Carson Palmer’s game stats when he had a real running threat. Palmer’s NFL fantasy points per game are amazingly steady. His 2017 average is 16.5 points, dead center between his 2015 (16.9) and 2016 (16.2) fantasy point averages. His passing yardage and touchdowns are consistent, too.
Last season, over 800 of Palmer’s passing yards went to David Johnson. Peterson was not targeted once in his Arizona debut. He averaged about 200 yards receiving in his last two full seasons. This could be a simple matter of needing to practice more and add more to his playbook. But Peterson is not David Johnson. The running game is more important than trying to teach an old running back new tricks.
So… is Palmer a must-start?
Palmer has a good matchup versus the Rams this week and is a must-start. The extra yards per pass directly results from the Peterson effect. Not only do Palmer and the receivers have a split second longer to find each other, but the whole team has a bounce in their step.
After their Week 8 bye, the Cardinals face the 49ers at home before dealing with a three-game stretch against the Seahawks, Texans, and Jaguars. Unless Palmer and the Cardinals show any sign of trouble in their next two games, I would say Palmer is a must-start regardless of opponent for the season. With the caveat, he is getting old. Hopefully, he won’t slow down as the season lingers on.
Go ahead and start Carson Palmer with confidence these next two games and probably the rest of the season.
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