The David Johnson & Larry Fitzgerald Show
2018 Arizona Cardinals Fantasy Football Preview
After getting canned by the Broncos midseason in 2017, Mike McCoy has landed on his feet as the OC in Arizona. McCoy will call plays under defensive-minded HC Steve Wilks, and hopes to revive an offense that understandably collapsed after losing Carson Palmer and David Johnson early last season. Thoguh they missed out on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, the Cardinals landed Sam Bradford while drafting Josh Rosen for grooming. With Larry Fitzgerald officially returning and Johnson back to full health, McCoy has the weaponry and track record to put up some points here.
General Background / Philosophy
A Variety of Success in a Variety of Ways
McCoy brings nine years of play calling experience to the Cardinals, and an even more extensive NFL background. He first entered the league with the Carolina Panthers in 2000, where he spent 8 of his 9 years as the quarterbacks coach, squeezing out the best of Jake Delhomme while helping craft some explosive aerial attacks in the process.
McCoy's long-tenured success in Carolina ultimately landed him his first playcalling gig with the Denver Broncos in 2009, where he remained the OC for four seasons. Regardless of the ultimate numbers (15th, 13th, 23rd, and 4th in total yardage; 20th, 19th, 25th, and 2nd in points), McCoy always seemed to squeeze the most out of his offensive pieces: Kyle Orton had his only two genuinely useful NFL seasons (and made Brandon Lloyd the top scoring wideout in fantasy?!) in '09 - '10, the offense led the league in rushing with Tim Tebow at the helm in '11, and Peyton Manning's first season out of Indianapolis was a wild success all under McCoy's watch.
He was able to parlay this varied, creative success into a head coaching gig with the Chargers. Again, the overall results differed, despite consistency at quarterback this time in Philip Rivers, who landed top-10 in passing yardage in all four years with McCoy and top-10 in TDs for three of those. Conversely, running game woes led to varied, mostly middling team totals (5th, 18th, 9th, 14th in total yardage; 12th, 17th, 26th and 9th in points). Moreover, late game collapses and some defensive issues led to poor overall records, and McCoy was sent packing in 2016.
McCoy then returned to Denver as the OC in 2017, but ultimately was the scapegoat for an abysmal overall team performance. He was fired before the end of the season.
Overall, McCoy's passing attacks have been prolific, ranking top-10 in passing yardage in six of nine seasons and hitting the top-5 three times. Really, this number should be 6/8, considering Tebow may be the worst passer who's ever gotten under center in the NFL, and a lack of success from Trevor Siemian isn't shocking.
Conversely, McCoy's run games have frequently stalled, cracking the top-15 just twice (one the Tebow year), while ranking in the bottom 20 for four of nine seasons. Moreover, his teams have never topped 13 total rushing TDs, and have never ranked higher than 12th in the league for Rushing TDs, instead finishing 22nd or worse in five of nine seasons. McCoy has by far his most talented workhorse in David Johnson, and could buck this trend alongside defensive-minded HC Steve Wilks.
Scheme & System:
Similar to Todd Haley, McCoy does not subscribe to one specific philosophy or system. Rather, he molds his game plans very specifically to the talent at his disposal and the opponent he faces. As he explains himself:
“Everything is about the players,” McCoy said. “Everything we do is meant to give them the best opportunity to succeed. But you never know what you have until you’re working with them. You see them on paper or film, and they might look phenomenal. But put them in a new environment, where they’re playing with different teammates in different kinds of systems, and everything changes. You have to find out what they do best and build on your strengths.
“Football is football. We might call (the offensive strategy) something different than Dallas does or what the 49ers are doing. Too much is made of, what scheme do you want to be classified as? It’s all just football. It’s about your best players going out there and executing with great confidence because they know they’re in the best position to win.”
Indeed, nearly any coach will tell you this -- their job is, after all, to find mismatches on their own rosters versus the opponent, and exploit these to the fullest. Still, most play callers come with a certain "offensive spine" -- perhaps they're more vertical (Norv Turner) or horizontal (Andy Reid) in their passing attack, or prefer workhorses (Todd Haley) over committees (Frank Reich) in the backfield.
Not McCoy. Year in and year out, he's truly evolved his attack to reflect his roster. This was most evident during his Broncos tenure, where the team adapted from a balanced Kyle Orton attack, to leading the league in rushing under Tim Tebow, to crafting the second pass-heaviest attack in the league under Peyton Manning. He truly stripped down and retooled his playbook each and every year.
Moreover, this offense evolves on a week-to-week basis. Joel Dreesen, a tight end under McCoy in Denver, noted:
“I remember games where we would go no huddle the entire game and stay in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) all the way through and let Peyton Manning do his no-huddle show and put up a bunch of points... Then there were games where he run the heck out of the ball. We’d get in 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver) and grind away the clock and he’d really manage the game.
“When he says he’s going to play to the strengths of his players and attack each defense on a week-to-week basis, I really believe him.”
Thus, projecting McCoy's exact offense is futile. He's going to craft a scheme that best suits his talents, versus seeking out talents that best fit his scheme. Historically, McCoy has loved a reliable wide receiver who can rack up YAC on bubble screens a short routes -- Larry Fitzgerald fits this mold quite perfectly. McCoy's also historically deployed committees, yet isn't afraid to ride workhorses when present. David Johnson couldn't fit the "versatile workhorse" mold any better.
In fact, perhaps the only clue of how this offense will operate, is head coach Steve Wilks' desire to emphasize the run:
“Someone mentioned a pass-happy league, which I agree it is,” Wilks said in his introductory news conference. “But, I still believe this: You have to have a foundation of running the football. As a defensive coordinator, there’s nothing more demoralizing to a team than being able to run the ball. I mean, you’re talking about taking the air out of an individual. So, that’s going to be our premise. When you look at some of the premier running backs in the National Football League, we have one right here in (David) Johnson.”
Again, considering McCoy's tendency to blend to his own talents, plus Wilks' own desires to be run-centric, and a Johnson-focused offense makes perfect sense -- even if McCoy's rushing history is subpar. Expect the attack to feature Johnson's insane versatility and Fitzgerald's reliability.
Everything is about the players...Everything we do is meant to give them the best opportunity to succeed. But you never know what you have until you’re working with them. You see them on paper or film, and they might look phenomenal. But put them in a new environment, where they’re playing with different teammates in different kinds of systems, and everything changes. You have to find out what they do best and build on your strengths. - McCoy on his "Philosophy"
In 2018, Todd Gurley added 881 yards and 13 TDs to his 2017 total.
The Rams also went from dead last in scoring to 1st in the league, more than doubling their points (14.0 to 29.87).
Did the line and WR upgrades help? Of course.
But the most important addition wasn't one with a helmet, but rather the guy with the headset:
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Passing Game Impact
- Past Production
2009 - Kyle Orton: 336/541 (62.1%), 3802 yds, 21 TDs, 12 INTs
2010 - Kyle Orton (13 GP): 293/498 (58.8%), 3653 yds, 20 TDs, 9 INTs (4,496 yd, 25 TD pace)
2011 - Tim Tebow (11 GP): 126/271 (46.5%), 1729 yds, 12 TDs, 6 INTs + 660 rush. yds, 6 TDs
2012 - Peyton Manning: 400/583 (68.6%), 4659 yds, 37 TDs, 11 INTs
2013 - Philip Rivers: 378/544 (69.5%), 4478 yds, 32 TDs, 11 INTs
2014 - Philip Rivers: 379/570 (66.5%), 4286 yards, 21 TDs, 18 INTs
2015 – Philip Rivers: 437/661 (66.1%), 4792, 29 TDs, 13 INTs
2016 - Philip Rivers: 349/578 (60.4%), 4386 yds, 33 TDs, 21 INTs
Overall, McCoy's passing attacks have been prolific, finishing in the top 10 in passing yardage in six of nine seasons, with three of those in the top-5. Really, this should be 6/8, considering Tebow may be the worst passer who's ever gotten under center in the NFL. While he obviously benefited from having elite talent in Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, McCoy also squeezed career highs out of Kyle Orton. Overall, the signal caller will benefit from McCoy dialing up high-percentage YAC opportunities to set up longer, one-move-and-go type of fly routes.
2018 Outlook - Bradford Fits Perfect... for as long as he lasts
When McCoy was first hired, the Cardinals didn't have a single QB under contract. Since then, the team has signed Sam Bradford to a two-year, $40 million deal while also drafting Josh Rosen to groom for the future... until Bradford's inevitable Week 3 shoulder injury.
Bradford, who's should is feeling "really good right now" as he participates in team drills in OTAs, is considered the early favorite to start. His last full game played was his clear career-best, as Bradford went 27/32 (84%) for 346 yards and 3 TDs. HC Steve Wilks expressed a similar sentiment upon drafting Rosen, noting, “We got Sam to be our starting quarterback and I would still say that is the case,” yet also adding “I’m very excited about Josh ... what he can bring. Every position is open for competition.”
Regardless of who's under center, both accuracy-driven passers fit McCoy's high-percentage attack perfectly. Bradford's completed over 70% of his throws over the past two seasons, and has been above 60% in four straight. Meanwhile, Rosen completed nearly 61% of his throws, and was labeled by Dane Brugler (our favorite scout) as, "one of the best middle of the field passers I’ve ever scouted, leading his target to be a catch-and-go threat."
Bradford similarly crushes between the hashes and down the seams, which is perfect as McCoy's scheme centers upon creating YAC opportunities off of high-percentage throws. Moreover, both will have the benefit of two YAC Beasts in David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
While neither Bradford or Rosen project as high draft-day picks, they both possess sneaky upside. Recall: 67% of McCoy's passers have finished among the top-10 in passing yardage, with 33% finishing top-five. Kyle Orton and even Tim Tebow crafted Top-12 fantasy outputs regularly. Expect plenty of matchup streamability from Cardinals' QBs.
- Past Production
2009 - Brandon Marshall (DEN): 154 tgts, 101 rec, 1120 yds, 10 TDs
2010 - Brandon Lloyd (DEN): 153 tgts, 77 rec, 1448 yds, 11 TDs
2011 (Puke Tebow) - Eric Decker: 96 tgts, 44 rec, 612 yds, 8 TDs
2012 - Demaryius Thomas: 143 tgts, 94 rec, 1434 yds, 10 TDs; Eric Decker: 122 tgts, 1064 yds, 13 TDs
2013 - Keenan Allen (SD, rook): 105 tgts, 71 rec, 1046 yds, 8 TDs
2014 – Malcolm Floyd: 92 tgts, 52 rec, 856 yds, 6 TDs; Keenan Allen: 121 tgts, 77 rec, 783 yards, 4 TDs
2015 – Keenan Allen (8 GP): 89 tgts, 67 rec, 725 yds, 4 TDs (178 tgt, 134 rec, 1450 yd, 8 TD pace)
2016 - Tyrell Williams: 119 tgts, 69 rec, 1059 yds, 7 TDs
McCoy's WR1s have typically dominated, with a 1,000 yard player in 6/8 seasons (Tim Tebow was under center for one of the only misses). While Keenan Allen and prime Demaryius Thomas / Brandon Marshall made life easier, McCoy also helped Brandon Lloyd finish as 2010s top scorer and facilitated 1,059 yards out of Tyrell Williams when he lost Allen early in 2016.
The reasoning is simple: McCoy peppers his top targets with high-percentage looks, and lets them do the heavy lifting. After relentlessly pummeling the short and intermediate games, McCoy also loves sending his targets streaking for one-on-one jump balls against a softened up defense. Thus, his WR1s have typically come with high 5+ catch weekly floors, and major ceilings.
2018 Outlook - Another Dominant Season from Fitzgerald?
Fitzgerald's stock saw a massive up arrow with Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen adding some QB clarity and, hopefully, stability. Both Bradford and Rosen thrive at hitting their receivers in stride so there's no wasted motion and catch-and-go routes are maximized. Meanwhile, no receiver is committed to the craft quite like Fitzgerald, who has the sure-handedness, route-running savvy, tackle-breaking power, and open field vision to thrive in McCoy's offense. Fitzgerald will thrive with the tsunami of bubble screens and short game routes he's about to receive. Fitzgerald is also highly capable of red zone domination, as he maintains excellent body control of his 6'3" frame. Another 90-100 catches, and 1,200+ yards is well-within his grasp.
Meanwhile, Christian Kirk was a steal in Rd. 2. Though he remains somewhat raw, Kirk brings 4.47 blazing speed and even quicker agility to the slot. Unfortunately for him, Fitzgerald has firm real estate on the slot role here. If he can adapt to the outside role, Kirk has the tools to be a force someday. I'm not banking on it in 2018, though. Lastly, standing at 6'3" with 4.37 blazing speed, Brice Butler has always had absurd physical tools. Whether he's never been fully utilized or is just a track star remains to be seen; perhaps he'll get his first real shot in Arizona, where targets to appear vacant here with John Brown gone and nothing sure behind Fitzgerald and DJ.
- Notable TE Seasons (+500 yards)
2013 - Antonio Gates: 114 tgts, 77 rec, 872 yds, 4 TDs
2014 - Antonio Gates (14 GP): 98 tgts, 69 rec, 821 yds, 12 TDs
2015 - Antonio Gates (11 GP): 85 tgts, 56 rec, 630 yds, 5 TDs (916 yd, 7 TD pace)
2016 - Antonio Gates: 93 tgts, 53 rec, 548 yds, 7 TDs; Hunter Henry: 53 tgts, 6 rec, 478 yds, 8 TDs
True to his "adaptability" calling card, McCoy has either completely ignored the tight end position, or peppered him depending on his talents. He never had a worthy seam-stretcher until arriving to San Diego, where he inherited arguably the best in Antonio Gates. Though Gates was clearly on his back nine while working with McCoy (33 - 36 years old), he produced plenty, particularly as a Red Zone maven in 2014 (12 TDs). Between this massive season, a strong 2015 pace, and a combined 15 TDs between Gates and Henry in 2016, McCoy has shown the propensity to use his tight ends in the red zone. Both Gates and Henry often split out wide, and were used in one-on-one, jump ball situations.
2018 Outlook - Rick Seals Jones to be unleashed?
With Jermaine Gresham recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, RSJ (our namesake) has a chance to be truly unleashed. He's a converted wideout, carrying a massive 6'5" and 268 lb frame that can move, and RSJ flashed some real dominance for a 2-week span in late November (3-54-2 TDs and 4-72-TD in Weeks 11 & 12). He also has GM Steve Keim in his corner, who couldn't hide his excitement over the young tight end's upside at this year's combine:
"Ricky showed last year he could become a mismatch in the passing game athletically. Suddenness, his ability to create mismatches whether it is in motioning out of the slot, motioning out of the backfield. He is a guy to me that is just now scratching the surface. He’s a player we are excited about moving forward."
On a team devoid of weapons beyond Fitzgerald and Johnson, RSJ does indeed carry some viable upside. However, he completely disappeared after his quick flash, even in some TE-friendly matchups, while also struggling to gain consistent separation on the college field.
McCoy will indeed deploy RSJ in the red area if he can shake free or dominate contested balls more consistently, making him a viable Penny Stock. Still, RSJ might just be little more than a big body, even if the 7-8 TD Upside is extremely real.
Run Game Impact
- Past Production
2009 - Committee-ish - Knowshon Moreno (9 GS): 1,160 tot. yds, 9 TDs, 28 rec (41 tgts), 247 carries; Correll Buckhalter (7 GS): 882 tot. yds, 1 TD, 31 rec (38 tgts)
2010 - Workhorse-ish - Knowshon Moreno (13 GP): 1,151 tot yds, 8 TDs, 37 rec (48 tgts), 182 carries (1,416 tot yd, 10 TD, 45 rec pace); Tebow vultured 6 TDs
2011 - Workhorse-ish - Willis McGahee: 1,250 tot yds, 5 TDs, 12 rec (20 tgts), 249 carries; Tim Tebow: 660 yards, 6 TDs, 122 carries
2012 - Committee / Injuries - Willis McGahee (10 GP): 952 tot. yds, 4 TDs, 26 rec (33 tgts), 167 carries (1523 yd, 6 TD pace); Knowshon Moreno (8 GP): 691 tot. yds, 4 TDs, 21 rec (26 tgts)
2013 - Committee of Horses - Ryan Mathews: 1,444 tot. yds, 7 TDs, 26 rec (33 tgts) 285 carries; Danny Woodhead: 1034 tot. yds, 8 TDs, 76 rec (88 tgts), 106 carries
2014 – Committee / Injuries – Branden Oliver: 853 tot. yds, 4 TDs, 36 rec (45 tgts); Ryan Mathews (6 GP): 399 total yards, 3 TDs
2015 – Committee - Melvin Gordon (13 GP): 833 tot yds, 0 TDs, 33 rec (37 tgts), 184 carries; Danny Woodhead**: 1091 total yards, 9 TDs, 80 rec. (106 tgts), 98 carries
2016 - Workhorse - Melvin Gordon (13 GP): 1,416 tot. yds, 12 TDs, 41 rec (57 tgts), 254 carries (1,743 yd, 15 TD, 50 rec pace)
McCoy's "Team" Rushing totals appear grim: he's cracked the top-15 in yardage just twice, including a year with Tim Tebow, while ranking in the bottom 20 for four of nine seasons. Moreover, his teams have never scored more than 13 total rushing TDs, and have never ranked higher than 12th in Rushing TDs, ranking 22nd or worse in five of nine seasons.
Yet, fantasy-wise, there's still hope. For one, McCoy's top RB has totaled, or been on pace for over 1,000 total yards in all but one injury-marred season. He also frequently utilizes his RBs in the passing game, though he prefers dividing this work between a pass-catching specialist and lead rusher whenever possible. Still, as seen in Gordon's massive 2016 campaign following Woodhead's injury, McCoy will gladly ride a workhorse if the talent is right.
2018 Outlook - David Johnson to Buck McCoy's Trend?
Though McCoy's general use of committees and lack of team rushing success appears concerning, David Johnson has the talent and versatility to easily buck those trends. This is especially true with defensive-minded HC Steve Wilks driving home a run-first philosophy:
“As a defensive coordinator, there’s nothing more demoralizing to a team than being able to run the ball. I mean, you’re talking about taking the air out of an individual. So, that’s going to be our premise. When you look at some of the premier running backs in the National Football League, we have one right here in (David) Johnson.
You have to have a foundation of running the football. You’ve got to run the football and I think you’ve got to have balance off that,” Wilks said. “It opens up the passing game for you. It opens up play-action, so we’re going to run the football.”
More importantly, Johnson's already flashed his health and heavy involvement in early OTAs. Though he's currently holding out over his contract, Johnson looked as explosive as ever while moving all over the formation, including WR, when present:
“I don’t want to get too excited,” new HC Steve Wilks gushed, “but David Johnson, he looked outstanding today. It’s good to have him back there, just flying around. The things that he’s doing right now, it’s pretty exciting.”
Players also took notice, too. “Penny Stock” candidate Ricky Seals-Jones noted, “He’s a different cat, man…the moves David can do are different.”
Moreover, Johnson’s also expressed excitement over some subtle offensive tweaks, like running behind a fullback — which suggests a high-volume run-game is coming. He’ll also benefit from new RB Coach Kirby Wilson, who has coached some of the best out of Curtis Martin, Emmitt Smith, and Adrian Peterson. According to DJ, Wilson is already “always in my ear” and preaching the little intricacies to take his game to the next level.
Last year’s Consensus No.1 is just one season removed from over 2,100 total yards and 20 TDs, and his lofty goals remain 1,000+ yards rushing AND 1,000 yards receiving for 2018. Sam Bradford is a dump off aficionado, Wilks has a run-centric philosophy, and Johnson faces minimal competition. Thus, Johnson's enormous ambitions aren’t impossible, and Melvin Gordon's 2016 pace of 1,700+ total yards, 15 TDs, and 50 receptions feels like a realistic floor for Johnson.
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McCoy arrives in Arizona with a wide variety of offensive success, stirred in with some recent failures. His calling card is "adaptability," as McCoy has consistently crafted attacks that are tailored to his players' strengths and weaknesses, squeezing the most out of guys like Kyle Orton to Peyton Manning to *gasp* even Tim Tebow.
Whenever possible, McCoy has deployed a target-hog WR1s and RBs, capable of racking up YAC on bubble screens, and he'll inherit two prime fits in Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson. McCoy's WR1s have topped 1,000 yards in 6/8 full seasons, but one miss was a Tebow led squad, while the other saw Keenan Allen on pace for 1,450 yds. He loves funneling targets to an Alpha X, and Fitzgerald, thanks to his commitment to his craft, remains elite even at his extensive age.
Meanwhile, RBs haven't experienced quite the same success due to McCoy's mostly committee-based approach; still, the new OC has had at least one RB top 1,000 total yards in all but two seasons of play-calling, (and McGahee was on pace for over 1,500 when injured during one such campaign). The RB outputs aren't nearly as dreary as the low "Team Rushing Totals" might suggest, as McCoy has sneakily churned out productive backs throughout his nine year history. Meanwhile, David Johnson, who looks fully healthy and is moving all over the place in early OTAs, is the most versatile, elite RB talent McCoy's had yet. Meanwhile, defensive-minded HC Steve Wilks brings a "run-centric" philosophy, which should facilitate a workhorse treatment and make Johnson's lofty dual 1,000 yard rushing + receiving ambitions very real.
While Johnson and Fitzgerald appear destined for high-volume, high-production roles, no other players surpass "penny stock" status. You can make a "Penny Stock" case for Christian Kirk, Brice Butler, and Ricky-Seals Jones, though I expect to make my late round stabs elsewhere.
Of course, the whole offense hinges upon the right signal-caller. Thankfully, the Cadinals went from rostering exactly 0 QBs at McCoy's hire, to now adding two perfectly-fitting arms in Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen. Both signal callers excel at hitting their receivers perfectly in-stride over the short and intermediate field levels, thus maximizing "catch-and-go" type of opportunities. Given this is McCoy's bread-and-butter as a play-caller, and Fitzgerald & Johnson's calling cards as talents, this appears to be a perfect marriage of OC and players. The Post-Arians offensive demise so many seem to expect could be grossly overstated, and some high-volume, high-producing fantasy products seem imminent here.
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