Is Carson Palmer a Fantasy Football Sleeper?

With weapons all around him and an improved offensive line, could Carson Palmer be a great value for fantasy owners in 2014?

A fantasy football draft is a little bit like going trick-or-treating on Halloween. Some players you pick are full-size Snickers bars or other favorites, some players are situationally good, and others don't get you excited until they give you a reason to be.

File Carson Palmer in the last category, where you are ambivalent by what you're getting at the time, but if you end up picking him, his Milk Duds-like predictably may mesh well with the rest of the candy you have in your fantasy draft basket. Or when combined with his 2014 premium candy teammates, he may explode like Pop Rocks.

Palmer's Recent Years

Since 2009, Palmer hasn't done much to inspire the average fantasy football owner to think that he's anything more than a backup option for your fantasy squad. Using numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which is a measure showing the number of points added or lost by a player over the course of a season, we can take a glimpse into Palmer's recent performance as a signal-caller on the three teams he's played for since 2009.

TeamYearGames Played# DropbacksPassing NEPRank

What you see in the table above is that Palmer is, at best, in the middle of the pack among quarterbacks with 300 drop backs over the past five seasons in Passing NEP, which is a cumulative statistic over the course of a season. What you don't see in the table are some key things that bring Palmer's Passing NEP down - namely turnovers and sacks taken. For instance, in 2013, while Palmer had a career high in drop backs (613) and passing yards (4,274), he also had 22 interceptions, 6 fumbles lost and 41 sacks taken to go along with his 24 touchdown passes. Those turnovers and sacks are killers to Passing NEP, yet offer hope that, if the offensive line and running game improve in 2014 (Arizona did go from scoring 20 points per game in 2013 Weeks 1-8 and 27.3 points per game in Weeks 9-17), Palmer could turn things around and be a little more efficient.

2014: Something's Gotta Give

There are potential fantasy football studs in Arizona this year. For starters, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd form one of the most formidable pass-catching duos currently in the NFL. Fitzgerald is still an NFL superstar, and is currently being drafted as a high-end WR2 (WR13 overall) in fantasy drafts according to Fantasy Pros. Floyd, who I wrote about extensively here, is climbing up fantasy mock drafts and is currently going as the 24th wide receiver in mock drafts.

Additionally, Andre Ellington offers a significant talent upgrade to the running game, and an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield that the plodding Rashard Mendenhall couldn't come close to offering Palmer. The table below highlights how Ellington replacing Mendenhall should only help Palmer, ranking both players compared to 2013 running backs registering 100 carries or more.

PlayerCarriesReceptionsTargetsRushing NEP/RushRec. NEP/Target
Ellington11739570.06 (8th of 47)0.50 (4 of 47)
Mendenhall2181821-0.11 (41st of 47)0.25 (25 of 47)

As you can see, Mendenhall ranked near the bottom of running backs with 100 totes or more in Rushing NEP per carry, while Ellington was on the other end of the spectrum. Both were solid in Receiving NEP per target, but Ellington was ranked fourth, which shows elite level efficiency when Palmer looks his way. This should only help Palmer in 2014.

Almost equally important in this mix is the potential improvement of the offensive line, which ranked dead last (32nd out of 32 teams) in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus' 2013 Offensive Line Rankings. This may explain Palmer's career high in turnovers and his 41 sacks taken.

The Cardinals offensive line in 2014 figures to look markedly different than 2013, especially on the left side. Hulking left offensive tackle Jared Veldheer was signed to a big contract in free agency, and the team gets back 2012 number seven overall pick Jonathan Cooper at left guard after missing all of 2013 with a left fibula injury. Additionally, while they are not necessarily known for their pass blocking, the Cardinals added two enormous tight ends this offseason in free agent signing John Carlson and rookie second-round draft pick Troy Niklas. With these additions, the Cardinals pass blocking and offensive line figures to be much better in 2014, and should ideally result in less Palmer turnovers.

In addition to the key moves on the offensive line and tight ends, the Cardinals added a few more pieces to augment head coach Bruce Arians' vertical offense, targeting players with blazing speed. Those additions include Ted Ginn Jr., signed as a free agent from the Carolina Panthers, and third-round draft pick John Brown out of Pittsburg State.

Arians seems to be really high on Brown, and when the name T.Y. Hilton comes up as a comparison, fantasy owners need to pay attention.

Bruce Arians: Offensive Mastermind?

In football circles, Arians gets credit as an offensive guru who features a high risk, high reward, vertical passing game. We took a look at Arians' impact on the Cardinals offense prior to the 2013 season, but let's take another look at how he's coached his quarterbacks in order to see if we can find a potential ceiling for Palmer in 2014.

QuarterbackYearTeamPassing NEPRank
Palmer2013ARI25.818 of 30
Luck2012IND36.715 of 30
Roethlisberger2011PIT80.59 of 29
Roethlisberger2010PIT88.27 of 30
Roethlisberger2009PIT89.210 of 27
Roethlisberger2008PIT23.618 of 29
Roethlisberger2007PIT90.05 of 25

Once again, these rankings highlight Arians' quarterback rankings in Passing NEP compared to quarterbacks with 300 drop backs or more in a given season. You see here that Palmer's 2013 season ranks worst among the seasons above, which highlights that, with another year under Arians and with significant weapons to throw and hand off to, Palmer has room to grow in 2014, especially if he can limit turnovers and take less sacks. This upside is limited though given the recent sample we have on Palmer: a middling starting quarterback in the league.

Let's briefly take a look at where Arians ranked quarterbacks have finished in fantasy points among quarterbacks since 2009:

PlayerYearFantasy PointsRank

You can see in terms of fantasy points in standard leagues, no Arians quarterback in recent history has finished higher than 9th or lower than 17th (Palmer's 2013 ranking). For comparison, Palmer has finished 17th three times and 13th once during this time, with similar fantasy outputs in most of those seasons (save for 2011 when he missed time due to injury). You more or less know what to expect with Palmer, and the Arians' system most likely isn't going to turn him back into the top-five quarterback option he once was.

What It All Means

While no one will be drafting Palmer close to Arians' former pupils Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger, Palmer's current number 26 average draft position among quarterbacks shows that he's probably being undervalued. In fact, we have him ranked 21st. Given his weapons, he should still be able to produce solid QB2 numbers for your fantasy team. There's still enough upside there to snag him, though his upside is more than likely capped given his recent play and the lack of true fantasy love Arians' offenses have provided quarterbacks.

So when you're considering who to add as a late-round quarterback, consider that, while Palmer may not be a full-size Snickers bar, you as a fantasy owner may be more than satisfied with what you are getting when you open up the wrapper.