Can Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals Bounce Back into Contention in 2017?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 27, 2017

Arizona Cardinals NFL football quarterback Carson Palmer (3) runs drills during a voluntary team workout, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. The Arizona Cardinals have five quarterbacks on their roster. One big reason is a concerted effort to prevent Carson Palmer from doing much of anything in the offseason to preserve the arm strength of the 37-year-old quarterback. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

Only five NFL position players are older than Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who will turn 38 during the final week of the 2017 regular season.  

It's yet to be determined if that will be Palmer's final week as an NFL quarterback. The 2003 No. 1 overall pick didn't confirm he'd be back for 2017 until February, and—per Kyle Odegard‏ of the team's official website—he says he "has no idea" if this will be his last season.

But Palmer can put off having to answer questions about 2018 if he can extend Arizona's season into the new year. That's what he did while putting together the highest-rated season of his career in 2015. The Cardinals went 13-3 en route to the NFC Championship that year, but Palmer's play dropped off in the playoffs, the Cards were crushed by the Carolina Panthers in the conference title game, and the franchise spent most of the next year trying to get its groove back. 

It didn't help that Palmer dealt with both a concussion and a hamstring strain during the first half of the 2016 season, and later in the year Cards head coach Bruce Arians said his quarterback was "a victim of the injuries and things that went on at wide receiver," according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. Those "things" might include the sudden loss of key wideout Michael Floyd, who was released after a DUI arrest in December. 

Oldest quarterback-No. 1 wide receiver duos in the NFL
TeamDuoCombined age*
CardinalsCarson Palmer / Larry Fitzgerad71
PatriotsTom Brady / Julian Edelman71
PackersAaron Rodgers / Jordy Nelson65
SteelersBen Roethlisberger / Antonio Brown64
49ersBrian Hoyer / Pierre Garcon62
*when season starts; via Pro Football Reference

But Palmer is healthy right now, and there appears to be more stability around him. That line dealt with several injuries—starters Jared Veldheer, D.J. Humphries and Evan Mathis missed a combined 23 games—but Veldheer and Humphries are healthy again and have switched sides, which is encouraging because Humphries—a third-year first-round pick—looked good in limited action at left tackle last season. 

Of course, Palmer still has the ageless Larry Fitzgerald, who had a league-leading 107 catches while often dominating from the slot in 2016, as well as All-Pro running back David Johnson, who had a league-leading 2,118 yards from scrimmage last year. And the receiving corps might now be better off without Floyd, because the younger John Brown and J.J. Nelson appear as though they're ready to play larger roles. 

The week after Floyd was cut, the 27-year-old Brown caught five passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. And one week after that, the 25-year-old Nelson had 132 yards on just three receptions (one of which was an 80-yard score).

With Brown and Nelson supporting Fitzgerald and Johnson, Palmer picked it up later in the year despite not having a healthy line.

During his first 10 games of the season, he posted a 15-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 83.3 passer rating while taking 3.2 sacks per game for a team that went 3-6-1 with him starting. But during his final five games, he posted an 11-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 95.9 passer rating while taking just 1.6 sacks per game as the Cardinals went 3-2. 

PirateLife Football @PirateLifeFF

Between weeks 8-17 last year, Carson Palmer had the 4th highest passing grade (via @PFF. GREAT VALUE as QB19 in redraft! #FantasyFootball https://t.co/RD16ELZRIf

But he was less successful on big-time throws. 

Pro Football Focus @PFF

After 2 years of throwing the ball well on deep passes, Cardinals QB Carson Palmer struggled on passes 20+ yards past the LOS in 2016. https://t.co/k6l5tGoB67

And, probably as a result, he took fewer chances. 

Pro Football Focus @PFF

In 2016, Cardinals QB Carson Palmer threw the ball deep less frequently than any other year during his tenure in Arizona. https://t.co/7BYnsCwfxj

It's funny, because we're kind of seeing Palmer's game transform similarly to how Fitzgerald's did a couple of years ago. No longer the home run hitter he used to be, Fitz turned himself into a top-notch slot receiver. Now, Palmer is becoming a quarterback who takes fewer chances. The duo is evolving together. 

But that doesn't mean Palmer can't still sling it, and Arians' review of his performance at the team's mandatory minicamp indicates he could be in for an aerial rebound in 2017. 

"I think [his arm] is stronger than ever," Arians said during minicamp, per Bob Baum of the Associated Press. "He threw a couple of deep balls today that were the old Carson, 55 yards, dropped them in a bucket."

So the stars could be aligned for Palmer to get back on track next season, even if he might not have as much defensive support after the Cardinals lost key defenders Calais Campbell, Kevin Minter, Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger in free agency.

We're left, however, with a lot of "coulds."

He could bounce back, Fitzgerald could again rock, Johnson could again lead the league in scrimmage yards, the line could remain healthy this time, and the defense could hold up with remaining stars Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. 

If that all happens in a division with only one good team (the Seahawks) and two rebuilders (the Rams and 49ers), Arizona could wedge its way into Super Bowl conversations when we reach the holiday season.

Alternatively, Palmer could struggle again, indicating his MVP runner-up 2015 season was an anomaly. And considering he tied for the league's second-most interceptions (22) in 2013 before missing all but six games because of injury in 2014, it's important to keep in mind that he has disappointed in three of his four seasons with the Cardinals.

If that happens, the Cards themselves could become a rebuilder.

And Palmer's career could be over.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.