There is no doubt that the Arizona Cardinals have one of the best starting receiver tandems in the NFL. However, there is some doubt about who is their best receiver.
Larry Fitzgerald may not make the hall of fame, but he will have a very strong case when he retires. At 30 years of age, his career is far from over but he has endured two underwhelming seasons of production. An altered role under new head coach Bruce Arians combined with declining physical skills have limited Fitzgerald to two seasons of less than 1,000 yards.
Most significantly, Fitzgerald's average per reception dropped from 17.6 yards per reception in 2011 to less than 12 yards per reception in each of the past two seasons.
Now that Fitzgerald's physical decline appears to be affecting his play on the field, third-year receiver Michael Floyd is set to become the team's number one receiver. Floyd was selected with the 13th overall pick of the 2012 draft. He struggled to stay on the field as a rookie and subsequently finished the year with just 45 receptions for 562 yards and two touchdowns.
Floyd didn't appear to be in great shape during his rookie season. He measured 6'2" and 220 lbs when he was drafted, but he was sluggish and hesitant too often on the field during his first year in the league.
During his second season, Floyd looked a lot more confident in the scheme and he appeared to be in much better physical condition. As a 16-game starter, Floyd caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns. He showed off the kind of talent that made him worthy of being a top draft pick in college. Now that he is 24 years of age and entering his third season, Floyd should be about to enter the prime of his career.
In many ways, Floyd and Fitzgerald are similar receivers.
Both are big bodied players with the athleticism to make big plays down the field. They also both comfortably catch the ball away from their bodies, can absorb contact and aren't limited in the routes that they run. Fitzgerald is a little bit bigger than Floyd, but Floyd makes up for the difference with impressive ball skills. Because of his athleticism, he is able to adjust to the ball as comfortably as smaller receivers.
A major aspect of Fitzgerald's game when he was at his best was his ability to make big plays down the field.
In Week 1 of last year's Regular Season, Floyd showed off his ability to go up and get the ball over the head of a defender. On this play, he runs a post route against the smaller Cortland FInnegan of the St. Louis Rams. Finnegan may be a smaller cornerback, but he is also a very physical cornerback who was able to stay with Floyd on this particular play. At the catch point, Floyd fends off the attention from Finnegan and makes a difficult one armed reception while off his feet.
Much like Kurt Warner used to do when he played with Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer only had to loft the ball into the air for Floyd to go and get. He didn't need to be concerned with the timing of the throw or his accuracy.
Floyd isn't the kind of receiver who is going to consistently catch the ball and break off big plays after the catch with his elusiveness. He is athletic enough to bounce off tackles and sprint away from defensive backs when given the opportunity though. He is mostly reliant on poor tackling from the secondary, like on this huge touchdown reception against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One of the most important aspects of wide receiver play is concentration.
A player's ability to consistently concentrate aids him to avoid costly drops. For a bigger receiver who plays in an offense that wants to throw the ball down the field, concentration becomes even more important because the receiver is asked to make more contested catches. On this touchdown reception against the Seattle Seahawks, Byron Maxwell plays perfect coverage and gets his hand on the ball to disrupt the play. Even after Maxwell's impact, Floyd is able to locate the football and recapture it while he falls to the ground.
It wasn't easy for the Cardinals to throw the ball down the field last season.
That wasn't a result of their wide receiver play or even their quarterback play really, it was due to their inability to protect the quarterback. Bradley Sowell started at left tackle for the Cardinals last year, while rookie first round pick Jonathan Cooper broke his leg before the start of the season. Cooper was never adequately replaced and Sowell was one of the worst, if not the worst, starter in the NFL.
Adding Jared Veldheer in free agency to start at left tackle and the return of Cooper should dramatically improve the team's ability to protect Palmer, while blocking tight end Troy Niklas fits perfectly in Arians' scheme that asks the tight end to be a blocker more than a receiver.
Even though Floyd is a very effective downfield threat and he has the ability to make even more plays down the field if used that way, the offense may ask him to do more short and intermediate work next season. Fitzgerald is becoming more of a possession receiver, but Andre Roberts has been replaced by veteran free agent Ted Ginn Jr, who is coming off an impressive season with the Carolina Panthers, and electric rookie John Brown.
Asking Floyd to be a diverse receiver should allow him to show off his skill set rather than overstretch his ability.
On this play, Floyd runs a comeback route against zone coverage. The deep defender sticks tight to him, but Floyd's route is precise so he comes free by the sideline at the first down marker. Palmer's throw isn't perfectly accurate, so Floyd has to reach above his head to pluck the ball out of the air while avoiding stepping out of bounds. He is able to reel the ball in and stay ahead of the first down marker to convert.
On this play, Floyd lines up tighter to the formation. He doesn't run a precise route this time. Instead, he rounds the top of his route which allows the defensive back to stay with him when he breaks towards the sideline. More importantly, when the ball does arrive, Floyd doesn't fade away from it. He makes sure of the catch and uses his big frame to shield the ball from the defender before turning up the sideline to convert for a first down.
If Floyd can continually win at the catch point with his size and ball skills, he won't need to be the best route runner in the NFL or consistently create separation. Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears proved that last year.
Floyd and Jeffery aren't too dissimilar as receiving talents. Obviously Jeffery produced much more during his second season, but part of that was situation and usage. According to Pro Football Focus(Subscription Required), Jeffery had 33 more targets than Floyd last season. If the Cardinals feel more confident in their pass protection, then they should be more willing to throw the ball. Furthermore, with their depleted defense, the Cardinals will likely be playing in more high scoring games next year. High scoring games that should push the offense further way from the running game.
In redraft rankings, the Football Guys staff members have Jeffery as the 19th overall player and Floyd as the 46th overall player. In PPR redraft rankings, Jeffery is 21st and Floyd is 47th. For the price, it appears that Floyd may even be the better option in 2014.
This article was written before James dislocated his elbow.
One of the early injuries in training camp was to San Francisco 49ers backup running back Kendall Hunter. Hunter wasn't expected to be a starter for the 49ers or even a primary backup, but he was a key component in the competition behind Frank Gore. Gore himself is a very old back who needs to continue to fight off the impact of his physical decline, while rookie Carlos Hyde became the favorite to be his backup when he was selected in the second round of the 2014 draft.
Hyde and Marcus Lattimore, who must be considered a long shot because of his dour physical history, are the two most likely backs to take over for Gore if he can't perform any longer. However, if the 49ers are looking for a change-of-pace back, then LaMichael James may step in front of both Hyde and Lattimore.
Like Hyde, James is a former second round pick of the current regime. Unlike Hyde however, James had previously fallen out of favor and wasn't even likely to earn a roster spot before Hunter's injury. In fact, there was plenty of talk about James being traded over the offseason. The 24-year-old back has barely played to this point in his career. He has just 39 carries in the regular season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, with 12 attempts for 65 yards in the playoffs.
James' value to the 49ers comes in his skill set. Unlike Lattimore, Hyde and Gore, he is a speed back who threatens the defense on the edges. His speed asks a different question of the defense and makes them more wary of space in longer situations. James only has one 20+ yard play in his career, but he is the kind of back who gains one yard or two yards before gaining eight, nine and 10 yards. A lack of consistency with his vision hurts his play-to-play numbers, but his quickness and speed helps him keep a high average per carry.
On this play, James brings a dimension to the offense that nobody else on the 49ers roster does now that Hunter is gone. He takes the handoff from Kaepernick in the backfield and relies solely on his speed to turn the corner. Even though he doesn't break any tackles on the second level to extend the run down the sideline, he showed good awareness with one quick cut infield when the opportunity arose.
James alongside Kaepernick is very dangerous for the defense. On this play, the edge defenders of the Falcons are held in place by the threat of Kaepernick running the ball. When James takes it, he is able to exploit the space created by their hesitation to escape outside. With good second-level blocking, James finds his way into the endzone.
James' physical ability isn't preventing him from being an Andre Ellington type of player. Like Ellington last year, his vision is inconsistent and he doesn't project to be a 20+ carry per game runner, but unlike Ellington he is playing in a much better situation from a blocking perspective. What is holding James back from being a bigger piece of the 49ers offense is his technique and/or upper body strength
Despite barely playing, James has 10 fumbles in his career already when you include preseason touches.
That is 10 fumbles on 98 total touches. To put that in context, LeSean McCoy fumbled once on 314 rushes last season, Adrian Peterson fumbled three times on 279 carries, Jamaal Charles fumbled four times on 259 carries and Matt Forte fumbled twice on 289 carries. That's carries, not touches, so those numbers don't even include the added receptions those backs had. It took the most productive backs in the NFL 1,141 carries to match the number of fumbles James had on just 98 touches.
Fumbling is something that can be corrected with a new approach and James clearly has the talent to be effective on the field. Therefore, paying close attention to his ball security during the preseason should be telling about how much he will be involved on the offense this season.
Arian Foster and the Houston Texans offensive line
If you didn't have a way of checking, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Arian Foster is 32 years of age entering this season. Foster is no longer a first round running back in most drafts and he has conceded the fantasy spotlight at the very top of the draft to players such as LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. There are a handful of reasons as to why Foster has fallen:
The first is injury. Foster missed eight games last season because of a back injury. Back injuries can have a severe impact on players at any position, but according to Football Guys' Jene Bramel, the signs are positive for Foster:
"Foster was cleared in March and fully participated in offseason workouts. The medical clearance wasn't a surprise. Five months of recovery and rehab isn't out of the range of expectation. But Foster's participation in offseason workouts is reassuring for two reasons.
Teams hold injured veteran players out of offseason workouts as a matter of routine. There's no reason to risk aggravating an injury that could cost a player critical repetitions closer to the season. The Texans have no established options behind Foster on the current depth chart. Since they were comfortable allowing Foster to practice fully this offseason, it's clear they have no reservations with the status of his back.
More importantly, however, Foster's full participation in May and June means he should be fully conditioned for the start of camp. That's very important for a player who has battled mid and high grade hamstring and calf strains in camp in recent seasons. If Foster is allowed to practice on consecutive days and can avoid a soft tissue injury in the first two weeks of camp, it will be a very positive sign for his 2014 season."
While we can never be sure about the health of any player in the NFL and especially not a veteran running back, Foster's back injury shouldn't make him any more intimidating than the other top running backs of his age. Both Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson have suffered torn ACL injuries in the past, while Peterson missed two games with injury last year and Charles was knocked out of the playoffs by a concussion.
Before last season, Foster had missed six starts in the three seasons since he became a starter in Houston. When he was on the field last year, he was very effective, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
While no top tier running back can expect to perform if he's not in peak physical condition, Foster is better equipped to perform with physical limitations than most. That is because Foster primarily relies on his exceptional vision and footwork to be productive. He is a long strider who can adjust subtly behind or at the line of scrimmage to manipulate the defense, while also being a very decisive cutter who pushes off of his heel to be quicker in tight areas.
Even if you look past Foster's injury issues, concerns over his usagewill come into play. Because Foster was the focal point of Gary Kubiak's offense for three seasons, it's easy to think that he has been one of the most overworked backs in the league.
Even though Foster is seen as the workhorse who is in decline because of his touches, he has fewer than 100 more touches than Charles throughout his career. Peterson is a physical, more powerful player, but that shouldn't negate the fact that he has over 2,000 career carries already. Over 800 more than Foster. You look at someone like Willis McGahee who just retired after 10 seasons and just over 2,000 rushes. During his final season, he could barely move and he was only 31 years of age entering his final season.
Those numbers only reflect carries. They don't include receptions.
When you include receptions, you add 206 more touches to Peterson's total and 189 more touches to Foster's total. Jamaal Charles has the most receptions of all three backs, with 222 career receptions. Importantly, 70 of his receptions came last year during his first season under Andy Reid. Charles had more touches last year than either Foster or Peterson. A big reason for that is Charles was healthy for 16 games, but he doesn't have a significantly different frame to Foster and there is essentially no difference between their ages and number of career touches.
The third argument against Foster is the state of the Texans offense. New head coach Bill O'Brien traded quarterback Matt Schaub to the Oakland Raiders and didn't bring in an adequate replacement. Ryan Fitzpatrick has some impressive numbers in his career, but that has never reflected his actual play on the field. Fitzpatrick is the kind of quarterback who needs to prove he can threaten the defense before the defense will respect him. Even Andre Johnson understands how porous things appear to be in Texas, as he spent most of the offseason trying to force a trade.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that O'Brien's offense will emphasize the zone-blocking scheme runs that were so prevalent in Kubiak's offense.
Foster thrived in that scheme as it perfectly fit his skill set. He was able to use his vision to consistently find gaps in the defense, while his ability to cut quickly and step his way through traffic allowed him to slip into the secondary with ease. Even though Ben Tate became a threat for Foster's job, Tate was never able to match Foster's consistency or his vision so he was never able to become the team's primary option.
While there are question marks, there are also positives. Tate left for the Cleveland Browns in free agency and the Texans didn't bring in a viable replacement to threaten Foster's workload. Andre Brown is an underwhelming veteran addition, Alfred Blue was a late-round draft pick and Dennis Johnson is a second-year player who showed off a limited skill set as a third-down back during his rookie season. By getting worse behind Foster on the running back depth chart, the Texans assured their veteran of his workload. By bringing in Xavier Sua-Filo in the draft, they helped to improve his quality of carries.
Sua-Filo is more of a pass blocking guard than a run blocker, but he has the talent to be more than just an effective player in tight or on the second level. Sua-Filo should take Ben Jones' place at left guard in between Duane Brown and Chris Meyers. Brown and Meyers are aging players, but both are still very effective players. It's Sua-Filo's potential relationship with right guard Brandon Brooks that should excite Foster owners though.
Brooks is a bear. He can maul any defensive lineman off the line of scrimmage and knock any linebacker to the ground in space. He will be 25 years of age at the start of this season, entering his third year in the league. Brooks improved dramatically from his first season to his second. If he repeats that improvement in 2014, he should be an all-pro player.
Statistically, Foster's decline was evident before the 2013 season. His average yards per carry had declined from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1 from 2010 to 2012. Of course, those numbers alone are misleading because Foster also scored 15 rushing touchdowns in 2012 and had over 1,400 yards after just 1,224 yards the previous season. His average per carry rebounded in 2013, as he averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 121 attempts. He only scored one touchdown during that time, but that was as much a reflection of the offense's struggles around him as it was his own ability.
Because Foster is still as talented as the top backs in the NFL, his value at the back end of the first round and early in the second round shouldn't be overlooked in favor of other receiving options. There are very few feature backs left in the NFL. That makes Foster a rare commodity.
Since this article was written, Foster suffered a seemingly mild hamstring injury. I suspect I cursed both him and LaMichael James so watch out Michael Floyd...More importantly, Jene Bramel has updated his thoughts on Foster:
Would watch Foster developments closely. Most of positives in his full return to OTAs go away if this hamstring strain lingers > few days.
— Jene Bramel (@JeneBramel) July 28, 2014
Not a new thing for Foster. Mid-grade muscle strains slowed him in preseason past 2 yrs. Not enough info to know where he is this year yet.— Jene Bramel (@JeneBramel) July 28, 2014