A specific look at where Carson Palmer can improve

Cardinals QB Carson Palmer struggled on deep balls last season, but personnel may have been a major factor.

Carson Palmer ranked well below league average last season on passes thrown 20 yards or more, according to analytics by Pro Football Focus.

USA Today Sports

One of the biggest questions surrounding the 2014 Cardinals is this: How much can quarterback Carson Palmer improve?

We can all agree that Palmer threw too many interceptions last season (22), and we can all agree that he warmed to coach Bruce Arians' offense once he gained familiarity with the verbiage, the personnel and the intricacies of the scheme and playbook.

But that is superficial analysis. In order to examine whether Palmer can improve on last season, it's important to dive down into the numbers and examine just where, specifically, he can improve.

Enter Pro Football Focus, one of the league's most respected analytics sites. This week, the site took an in-depth look at Palmer's successes and failures in 2013 with some interesting findings.

It is important to take all analytics with a grain of salt because they never tell the whole story. Human behavior has yet to be fully reduced to or explained by mathematical equations because there are too many variables to consider. That is especially true for the NFL compared to other sports where analytics are all the rage (MLB and NHL). With 22 players on the field on every play, there are too many things happening in an NFL game to measure a player's success and failure purely through numbers.

But Palmer's numbers still show some trends worth examining. Here are some takeaways from PFF's analysis. For purposes of this analysis, we'll focus mainly on the negatives since those form the basis for greatest improvement.


-- Graded at +5.3 (league average is 0) on third downs, including +4.6 on 3rd-and-long.
-- Sixth-highest grade from a clean pocket (+22.7).
-- Fared well when blitzed (+7.2).
-- Showed well on 4-to-6-yard drop-backs (+3.4).
-- Graded at +4.3 on passes in the 2.1-to-2.5-second range.
-- Graded at +5.5 on passes to tight ends, including a +5.2 grade to inline tight ends.
-- Among the league's best on out routes (+6.6), and ranked fifth with a +8.2 grade on post routes.


-- Graded at -2.1 on second downs.
-- Struggled on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air (-10.5), including a -7 grade in the 21-to-30-yard range and a -4.2 grade in the 31-40-yard range.
-- League's lowest grade when pressured (-19.8), including a -14.0 grade when pressured from a traditional rush.
-- Overall, graded at -4.3 against a traditional rush.
-- Graded at -1.7 on 7-to-8-yard drop-backs.
-- Graded at -3.4 on passes in the 2.6-to-3-second range.
-- Ranked last with a -8.7 grade on go routes.


-- Led the league with 42.4 percent of drop-backs coming from under center.
-- Threw 60.1 percent of passes in between the numbers; fifth-highest in the league.
-- Faced pressure 40.3 percent of the time; eighth-highest in the league.
-- Faced pressure that came in less than two seconds on 15 percent of drop-backs; highest in the league.
-- Second-lowest percentage of drop-backs that lasted at least 3.6 seconds (8.1 percent).
-- Led the league with 3.9 percent of drop-backs in the 1-to-3-yard range.
-- Only used play action 15.4 percent of the time; ninth-lowest in the league.
-- Only 0.6 percent of attempts were running back screens; lowest in the league.
-- Threw the highest percentage of post routes (11.5 percent).
-- Faced five or more defensive backs only 62.6 percent of his drop-backs; below the league average of 70 percent.

One of the first things that jumps out is out how much Palmer struggled on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air, and that he ranked last in the league on go-routes.

When Palmer arrived last season, some analysts wondered if his arm strength had diminished, but GM Steve Keim said he hadn't seen any evidence of that. So, are Palmer's deep-ball numbers a product of reduced arm strength, or were there other factors involved? 

Palmer's primary weapons in the passing game were receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, tight end Rob Housler and running back Andre Ellington. None of those players possesses breakaway speed. They are all more effective in the short to intermediate routes (although Palmer was good on post routes), so that could have been a factor on the deeper routes. 

But it was no secret that the Cardinals adjusted the offense to include less deep routes as the season progressed. Palmer had the second-lowest percentage of drop-backs that lasted at least 3.6 seconds and led the league with 3.9 percent of his drop-backs in the 1-to-3-yard range. This didn't happen because because Arians wanted it that way. A look at PFF's numbers provides a better read on why.

Palmer faced pressure 40.3 percent of the time (eighth-highest in the league), and he faced pressure that came in less than two seconds on 15 percent of his drop-backs; the highest percentage in the league.

The Cardinals had issues at both tackle positions (Levi Brown, Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston all struggled), and offensive line play as a whole wasn't great, so how much of a factor was that in Palmer's deep-ball struggles and the team's move away from such routes?

The Cardinals signed left tackle Jared Veldheer and will get rookie Jonathan Cooper back from injury to shore up the left side (although the right side is still unsettled). They also signed receiver Tedd Ginn and drafted John Brown to add a speed element that Arians considers vital to his offense.

If those players can deliver, we may get a better read on Palmer's down-the-field ability, and we could see improvement on those unimpressive numbers.

A few other numbers to note: It's no surprise that Palmer led the league with 42.4 percent of his drop-backs coming from under center and 60.1 percent of his passes coming in between the numbers; the fifth-highest mark in the league. He is a classic pocket passer, and that is the type of QB Arians wants to run his offense. 

It's also easier to pressure a QB who stays in the pocket. Palmer had the league's lowest grade when pressured (-19.8), including a -14.0 grade when pressured from a traditional rush.

Palmer can certainly watch his own game film and find areas for improvement. He'll also have increased familiarity with the offense and personnel as he enters the 2014 season. But at age 34 with 10 seasons under his belt, he is who he is. 

If Palmer is to improve those lagging numbers while building on the good ones, an improvement in the personnel around him is in order. This offseason, it appears the Cardinals took a stab at accomplishing just that.

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