During the preseason, the talk around Arizona’s offense was whether Jaron Brown or John Brown was going to line up opposite Larry Fitzgerald in the starting lineup. JJ Nelson was predicted to contribute as the fourth wideout.
Fast forward to Week 3. What was supposed to be a complementary passing game in the Cardinals run-first offense is being counted on to lead the team through David Johnson’s injury. John Brown is fighting another vague injury and has fallen out of favor with his head coach. Jaron Brown is a high-volume possession receiver. And flying down the field as a viable deep threat is… JJ Nelson.
After leading the team in passing yards and air-yards per target in Week 1, Larry Fitzgerald was little more than a decoy and third option in Week 2. Jaron Brown saw the bulk of targets, but it was Nelson who caught the 45-yard touchdown and led the team with 120 yards.
Is JJ Nelson ‘the guy’ in Arizona for now? Does being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week make him a must-start in Week 3?
What really happened?
Nelson’s target total in game two was only one more than he saw in the first week. He caught five of six targets for 43 yards and scored a touchdown in the season opener, too. Most of those targets came before the injury to Johnson. To say he was not already a big part of the Cardinals’ plans would be a mistake.
Arizona had a lead most of that game until it all fell apart with Johnson’s wrist in the fourth quarter. That is enough to explain the shorter targets. There was no reason to push the ball up the field in what was a ball control offense.
Was Larry Fitzgerald laying low to see which of his young teammates would step up? Was he a decoy? We’ll never know, but we do know that the game involved a few looks that will determine how the Cardinals play offense going forward. It might not have been just the running backs who were shuffling for a place in the pecking order.
Will it happen again?
Arizona goes up against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football this week. After watching them make Trevor Siemian look like an All-Pro, Carson Palmer is hoping he can take advantage of their banged-up defensive backfield, too.
Does that mean more work for the perceived deep threat of JJ Nelson? Not necessarily.
Jaron Brown’s average per catch in the Indianapolis game looked significantly lower than JJ Nelson’s in the box score. In fact, if you took Nelson’s 45-yard touchdown away, Brown (four catches, 73 yards) and Nelson (four catches, 75 yards) saw extremely similar results.
Larry Fitzgerald is feeling fine going into the Monday showcase. For all we know, the crafty veteran was saving himself for the bigger television audience. He could just as easily take the next long touchdown pass or two.
For that matter, the fourth wide receiver, Brittan Golden caught a 29-yard pass against Indy and tight end Ifeanyi Momah ran one down for a team-best 46 yards. Either of them might just as easily get the big targets on Monday.
So… is JJ Nelson a must-start?
Not yet. He is a good start against a weak defensive secondary on a team playing a big game at home. Either Jaron Brown or Larry Fitzgerald is just as good an option. Based on targets so far, Brown might have a higher floor and is a better PPR value. Until we see more of a body of work, it looks like Arizona’s star receiver of the week could change with each game.
If you don’t have a better option, Nelson is worth a shot. But he is not a must-start.
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