Don't Sleep on Carson Palmer in Fantasy Football

The Arizona quarterback is currently the 20th signal-caller off the board in standard 12-team leagues. Is that the right value given what he's done in recent years?

What a difference a year makes.

Coming off a 2015 season during which the Arizona Cardinals finished 13-3 and clinched the first first-round bye in franchise history, fantasy football owners flocked to buy shares of Arizona skill players, and for good reason.

During that campaign, Carson Palmer threw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdown passes, some young dude named David Johnson was starting to emerge, and their 408.3 yards per game as a team on offense was tops in the league.

Now hit the fast-forward button on your DVRs to 2016, where Cardinals went 7-8-1 despite an unbelievable season from Johnson. The team took a step back, and Palmer was a big part of that. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, his Passing NEP per drop back rate of 0.11 was below league average. From a fantasy perspective, Palmer ranked 19th among quarterbacks in points per game.

Name PPG Rank
Aaron Rodgers 23.63 1
Matt Ryan 21.59 2
Tom Brady 21.38 3
Drew Brees 20.77 4
Andrew Luck 20.25 5
Kirk Cousins 18.77 6
Dak Prescott 17.93 7
Tyrod Taylor 17.93 8
Ben Roethlisberger 17.58 9
Matthew Stafford 17.36 10
Carson Palmer 16.07 19

As draft season starts to heat up, Palmer is a bargain basement option, currently being selected in the 13th round in standard 12-team leagues according to as the 20th quarterback off the board.

So, what's the right spot for Palmer? Is this the beginning of the end for the former USC Trojan, or was it a one-year blip? Let's dig in and find out.

The Struggles of 2016

Taking a closer look at Palmer last season, his efficiency was slightly under league average. In looking at a counting statistic like passing yards, his mark of 4,233 yards is down only 448 from the previous season, which equates to 18 total fantasy points, or about one point per week.

Palmer dropped back to pass 60 more times in 2016 (597) versus 2015 (537), so volume isn't an explanation. But he did throw nine less touchdown passes (26 versus 35), while throwing three more interceptions (14 versus 11).

Season Drop Backs TDs TD Rate %
2016 597 26 4.4%
2015 537 35 6.5%
2014 224 11 4.9%
2013 572 24 4.2%
2012 565 22 3.9%
2011 328 13 4.0%
2010 586 26 4.4%
TOTAL 6,040 285 4.7%
ARIZONA 1,930 96 5.0%

While 2015 may seem to be a bit unfair to compare as a baseline -- it was a career-best touchdown rate for him -- his performance from last year reveals that his touchdown rate dipped closer to 2013, which was his first year out west.

You could also make the argument that in looking back to 2010, Palmer's 4.4% touchdown rate is reasonably in line with what he's done over the last seven seasons.

What also sticks out from the data set is that Palmer's yards-per-attempt dipped precipitously in 2016. In fact, the 7.09 number he posted was his lowest since 2010, and that could be the result of not connecting on the deep ball with his receivers.

Season Drop Backs Passing Yards YPA
2016 597 4,233 7.09
2015 537 4,671 8.70
2014 224 1,626 7.26
2013 572 4,674 8.17
2012 565 4,018 7.11
2011 328 2,753 8.39
2010 586 3,970 6.77
TOTAL 6,040 44,669 7.40
ARIZONA 1,930 15,204 7.88

All in all, there were warning signs, which explains the aggressive drop in his draft stock.

Hope and Change

It's not all gloom and doom, though. At his current opportunity cost, he's being drafted as a late QB2, making him a cheap flier -- especially for a dude who was a firm QB1 in the 2015 season.

Name PPG Rank
Cam Newton 24.32 1
Tom Brady 21.48 2
Russell Wilson 21.02 3
Drew Brees 20.28 4
Blake Bortles 19.63 5
Tyrod Taylor 19.33 T-6
Carson Palmer 19.33 T-6

It is interesting to note, however, that while his 2016 numbers took a dip and 2015 may have been an outlier, Palmer has been fantastic as a member of the Bruce Arians-run offense. He did miss a key receiver in John Brown due to a sickle cell issue last year, so maybe that was part of the drop in production. Fortunately, there are positive signs for Brown's involvement in 2016, and there are many more reasons to believe outside of whether Brown can return to form.

Scoring points is what truly matters in fantasy football. In 2015 and 2016, the Cardinals ranked in the top six with regard to points scored. Points will be scored, and we want some of that action.

If we take a broader look, let's use Palmer's average touchdown rate (5.0%) and yards per attempt (7.88) as a four-year member of the Cardinals (2013-16) and apply those averages to his 597 drop backs from last year. He's recorded 560 or more drop backs in four of the last five seasons, which includes two years that were shortened by injury (2011 and 2014).

Extrapolating those numbers, Palmer would throw for an additional 470 yards (18.8 fantasy points) and an extra 3.7 additional touchdowns (14.8 fantasy points). Those extra 33 points now shove Palmer from QB19 to averaging 18.30 points per game, back into the QB1 territory at QB7, tucked in between Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott.

The Verdict

It's safe to say that 2016 did not go as planned for the Arizona Cardinals. While they finished second in the division, it was a steep fall from grace for a team that made the NFC Championship game the year before.

As the leader of their offense, Palmer also experienced similar struggles, which we could easily see by using both traditional metrics and numberFire's efficiency metrics. A closer lens shows how good Palmer has been out in the desert, though.

While 2014 was cut short because of a torn ACL, 2013 and 2015 were terrific campaigns that vaulted the Cardinals into the league's elite squads.

From a fantasy perspective, Palmer owners took a massive hit last year, too, and that's reflected in his current draft position. As part of a solid offense with a pile of weapons, though, he looks to be a major draft-day steal who could become the QB1 of old.