What Should We Expect From Carson Palmer in 2015?
Close your eyes and imagine a play from the 2014 Arizona Cardinals.
You’re either imagining an exotic defensive alignment leading to a well-schemed blitz, or an errant Ryan Lindley pass.
Let’s not fool ourselves. You’re thinking of the Lindley pass. Such was the Cardinals’ offense, and subsequently playoff hopes, during the 2014 season.
Including the playoffs, Lindley only started three games for Arizona and appeared in another. It was time enough, though, to long for any type of competent quarterbacking.
The Cardinals weren’t in that situation because of bad planning. Lindley was effectively the team’s fourth option at quarterback. Ask any team to start its fourth option at any position and results will be disastrous, or close enough. Most teams don’t even have a fourth option. The Cardinals didn’t either, as Lindley started the 2014 season in San Diego.
But enough about Arizona’s bad quarterbacks. Let’s talk about the number-one option, Carson Palmer. The plan is to have Palmer under center, or in shotgun, for Week 1, just 10 months removed from tearing his ACL. If there was anything to help appreciate Palmer’s ability as a quarterback, it was Arizona’s quarterbacking without him -- done now, promise. It also helps that before his injury, Palmer was on pace for a career year.
Good Things in Small Samples
Palmer only played in six games during the 2014 season, which led him to drop back 233 times. Those happened to be a pretty good six games and 233 drop backs, however you want to measure it. Since you’re reading this article on numberFire, let’s measure it using New Expected Points (NEP). NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data, and a player’s NEP score indicates how he performed relative to that expectation.
During 2014, Palmer was worth 0.18 Passing NEP per drop back. That ranked seventh among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs last season.
That was his best finish in Passing NEP per drop back since 2005 when he finished third at 0.21. Obviously its unfair to suggest Palmer would hold that rate of success over a full season, but even that type of success over a small sample of games is encouraging. Even aggressively regressing Palmer’s performance in half for the remainder of the season would have kept him among the top half of quarterbacks in 2014.
Signs of Regression?
With regression in mind, there are few factors that could take a hit for Palmer come 2015. Anything over a six-game sample can fluctuate, but one stat could be a key to progress in Palmer’s performance. Palmer has typically been an aggressive thrower during his time in the NFL -- his career interception rate is 3.2 percent. During his six game stretch in 2014, Palmer threw a pick on just 1.3 percent of his passes. That’s significantly below his previous career low of 2.4 in the second season of his career in Cincinnati. Palmer was unlikely to finish the season with a sub-2 percent interception rate and is more unlikely to achieve that feat in 2015.
There are some signs, however, that an emphasis was placed on limited Palmer’s interceptions.
In 2013, his first year with Arizona, the average Palmer pass traveled 4.23 yards in the air, the seventh highest average in the league. With noted vertical enthusiast Bruce Arians as head coach, that might not come as a surprise. Though in 2014, Palmer’s air yards per attempt dropped to 3.66, which was the 20th highest average. Combine that with a significant drop in sack rate from 2013 -- 6.7 percent to 3.9 percent -- and it’s clear an emphasis was made to get the ball at quicker. It wasn’t a full Alex Smith, but there does appear to be a philosophy shift for Palmer. It should be of note that this went out the window with Drew Stanton at quarterback, who averaged 4.33 air yards per attempt, sixth most in the league.
With a strong group of receivers lining up for the Cardinals, maybe Arians felt he could trust the quarterback to get the ball to those receivers and allow them to make plays instead of relying on the 35-year-old quarterback.
That strategy was hit-and-miss throughout the season but could again come into play during 2015. Each receiver in Arizona has a unique set of skills that can help Palmer in the passing game. Add in running backs with receiving skill like third-round pick David Johnson and maybe a small role for Marion Grice, along with Andre Ellington and Palmer will not have a shortage of options when throwing the ball.
While there’s plenty of reasons Palmer could succeed in 2015, there’s still one giant sign of caution -- the knee. This will be Palmer’s second return from a torn ACL, but his first one was when he was still in his 20’s. Now entering the season at age 35 (he turns 36 in December), there will be some questions around how his knee can hold up.
It will be hard to compare Palmer’s two recoveries. He suffered the first injury in a 2006 playoff game and returned as the starter for the start of the 2007 season. He also lost no production from his ‘06 season, in which he was voted to the Pro Bowl, to ‘07. His Passing NEP per drop back remained unchanged at 0.12 (ranked sixth in 2006, but 11th in 2007).
During OTAs, Palmer worked on his footwork to keep his mechanics in line. If the same strategies can be implemented with a mix of short and efficient throws, both Palmer and the Arizona passing offense can be effective in 2015.
Our projections have Palmer at just under 3,800 passing yards with 22.33 touchdowns and 13.48 interceptions. Those numbers place him as the projected 17th-best quarterback in 2015.
Those numbers are represent a solid average expectation -- as most projections can be -- but with health Palmer can have the ability to surpass those numbers. It’s fair to expect Palmer to be okay in the upcoming season, but it wouldn’t be crazy to expect a little more.