Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Neil Dutton. Follow him on Twitter @ndutton13 and read his work on RotoViz.
With Carson Palmer excused from playing in the Hall of Fame game, the Arizona Cardinals gave the start at quarterback to Blaine Gabbert. After not re-upping with the 49ers following the 2016 season, Gabbert eventually signed with the Cardinals on May 10th. He, it has to be admitted, didn’t look too bad on Thursday against the second string of the Dallas Cowboys, completing 11-of-14 pass attempts for 185 yards. There is no QB controversy in the desert, as Palmer is certain to reclaim the mantle once the regular season bullets start flying, but the question as to who would back him up is certainly an interesting one. Could Gabbert claim the role Drew Stanton has loyally filled for the last few seasons?
A Brief Reminder of Drew Stanton’s Existence
After signing with the Cardinals prior to the 2014 season, Stanton has appeared in 21 games. He has started just nine of them, compiling a record of 6-3. Five of the wins came in 2014, when he started eight games after an injury to Palmer. Between Week 11 and Week 15, he completed 86-of-147 attempts (58.5%) for 1,097 yards. He only tossed four touchdown passes against five interceptions in this span, and it is noticeable the Cardinals seemed to alter their approach with Stanton under center. Between Week 1 and 10, then again from Week 16 to 17, the Cardinals averaged 64 offensive plays per game, with 37 pass attempts and nearly 25 rushes. During Stanton’s time under center, the rush attempts remained fairly constant, but the number of plays dropped to 57, with just over 31 passes. It seems clear the team was not happy to put the game firmly on his shoulders.
Much maligned since entering the NFL with the 10th overall pick in 2011, Gabbert washed out in Jacksonville after going 5-22 as a starter. In these games, the former Mizzou Tiger completed a distinctly ordinary 53.35 percent of his passes, with 4,357 passing yards coming from his 414 completions. He managed just 22 touchdown passes against 24 interceptions. He was sacked 74 times, with a sack percentage of 8.7 percent. Despite all of this, he entered the 2016 season as the 49ers starter under Chip Kelly, after finishing the 2015 season 3-5. In these eight games, his completion percentage leapt to 63.1, his average yards per attempt was 7.2 after never being higher than 6.0 as a Jaguar, and he also had 10 scores against seven picks. These numbers did not foretell of an emergence as a star, however. His five 2016 starts produced 91 completions from 160 attempts (56.9%) with just 925 yards. Worse, the touchdown number went below the interceptions again.
Gabbert vs. Stanton: Who is the Ideal Arians QB?
Given the love Bruce Arians has for the forward pass, I believe it logical to look at which of these players would be best suited to carry out the field general role should Palmer be forced to miss time. Since the 2013 season, Palmer has an adjusted yard per attempt average of 7.8 or over with six different pass-catchers who have seen a minimum of 50 targets. Both Jaron Brown and John Brown have an 8.6 mark, David Johnson and Michael Floyd share an 8.1, while youngster J.J. Nelson and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald are tied together with 7.8. If we look at Stanton, only one player he has targeted at least 30 times has an AYA mark of more than 6.1 in his career. From 43 targets, Calvin Johnson averaged 11.9 when he had Stanton throwing him the ball. By comparison, Fitzgerald sees his 7.8 average with Palmer drop to 6.0 with Stanton, while John Brown falls all the way to 4.6. Drew Stanton may be a well-mannered gentleman and a wonderful teammate, but he is not the ideal Arians QB.
Gabbert, on the other hand, has demonstrated an ability to get the ball moving downfield. Of the players he has targeted at least 30 times, three of them have an AYA mark of 7.1 or higher. Anquan Boldin, ironically a former Cardinals WR, and Vance McDonald of the 49ers both posted 8.0 yards per attempt from Gabbert, while Torrey Smith had a 7.1 score. (It should be noted Smith has a 9.0 AYA score when Colin Kaepernick was targeting him, and an 8.4 mark from Joe Flacco, but those players have noticeably bigger arms than either Gabbert or Stanton). This, I feel, makes him a better fit than Stanton to sit behind Palmer.
With regards to other Cardinals fantasy options, one would assume a lack of Palmer would mean a heavier emphasis on the ground game. This is good news for David Johnson, despite the fact he is likely in for a heavy workload whoever plays QB. Then there is the question of Larry Fitzgerald. Would the loss of Palmer mean curtains for his fantasy appeal? Since Palmer joined the Cardinals in 2013, the 53 games he has appeared in have produced an average of nearly nine targets a game, with six catches for 67 yards and 0.47 touchdowns. In the nine games Palmer has missed, these numbers drop to under eight looks, four grabs, 42 yards and 0.22 touchdowns. I’d say that, if the Cardinals lose Palmer, you might look into losing Fitz, too.
From Gabbert to GOATbert?
There is an additional factor in Gabbert’s favour, though not one that immediately jumps out when considering the offensive philosophy of Bruce Arians. In his 13 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach, his QB has averaged 96.9 rushing yards per season. This number is highly inflated by 255 yards from Andrew Luck in 2012, and 204 from Ben Roethlisberger in 2007. Gabbert is a lot more mobile than Stanton, and has shown he can tuck it and run in the NFL (at least when he has had the chance and not been destroyed thanks to an offensive line breakdown). In his 43 games, he has amassed 549 rushing yards at 3.7 yards per carry, with three rushing touchdowns. Stanton’s 33 career games have produced 213 yards on just 71 attempts. I am not saying Arians is going to abandon all that he knows as a passing coach and start running the option should Palmer be lost to the team, but the mobility of Gabbert would give opponents something else to consider.
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