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Back to the Future: Larry Fitzgerald

Digging up comparables from the past to try to predict Larry Fitzgerald's future.

Without the help of a flux capacitor or Dr. Emmett Brown, this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. The first receiver in this series is one of the most talented wide outs to ever don the pads, Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's NFL career got off to an incredibly promising start. He posted three 200+ fantasy point totals in his first five seasons(only Randy Moss and Jerry Rice had ever done that before), made it to a Super Bowl, and looked poised to go down as one of the greatest receivers of all time. Within two years, Kurt Warner had retired, Anquan Boldin had moved on and Fitzgerald was left without a proven starting quarterback or legitimate offensive threat on the other side of the field.

In the past four seasons Fitzgerald has posted two very solid WR1 seasons and a couple of stinkers. Last year was rock bottom, with Fitzgerald finishing as the 42nd best fantasy receiver in 2012. While it's highly unusual for a receiver that's performed on the level Fitzgerald has to fall this quickly, it's not unprecedented, and surprisingly, it generally doesn't spell doom for year 10. Here are the career arcs starting at year five for Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, and Rod Smith, and Michael Irvin. All 4 players were trending downward heading in to their 10th season, but look what happened next.

While there's a wide variation in the performance of Smith, Moss and Irvin after year nine, there are a couple of things that tie all three arcs together. All three improved from their five-year low in year ten, and all three posted better numbers than they did in year nine for at least the next two seasons. Since we know that the arrival of Carson Palmer is supposed to help Fitzgerald in 2013 anyway, the more important questions are, how much better can his production be...and for how long? Let's take a look at the three receivers from the past and see what their arcs tell us.

Michael Irvin was the least successful receiver from year nine forward, posting borderline WR1 numbers in year ten before beginning a very quick descent towards his career's end. Irvin scored only one touchdown in year eleven and then played only four games in his final season. Irvin was a very good receiver, but he wasn't as talented as Fitzgerald and as we now know, he wasn't nearly as dedicated to his craft. It's virtually inconceivable that Fitzgerald could be distracted by the same temptations Irvin succumbed to, so we have good reason to expect his resurgence to be longer, if not more impactful.

Rod Smith may have been the least physically gifted receiver in this article, but no one would question his dedication. Smith's bounceback from year nine woes was similar to Irvin's in year ten, but he aged a little more gracefully. The one thing Smith dealt with that makes him similar to Fitzgerald is a lack of stability at quarterback. Brian Griese wasn't quite as bad as what Fitzgerald has dealt with the past few years, but Smith's resurgence came after the team made the switch to Jake Plummer. Because Smith is probably the most similar to Fitzgerald in terms of work ethic and conditioning, we can assume that the end of Fitzgerald's career arc will have a more gradual descent.

The final comparison is one we can all remember a little better, that of Randy Moss. His career was thought to be all but over when the Patriots signed him after year nine. Of course, Moss went on to break all kinds of records in year ten and contribute three more seasons of solid WR1 production. Moss is by far the best comp for Fitzgerald in terms of raw talent, but Carson Palmer is no Tom Brady and I don't think anyone would mistake the '13 Cardinals for the '07 Patriots. We may never see another season like the one Moss put together that year, but how close could Fitzgerald get? Below is a breakdown of the 4 best fantasy seasons a 10th year receiver has ever had:

  Yards TD FP QB
Randy Moss 1493 23 287 Tom Brady
Jerry Rice 1499 13 249 Steve Young
Stanley Morgan 1491 10 209 Tony Eason
Don Maynard 1434 10 205 Joe Namath

Could Fitzgerald join that group and become the 5th receiver ever to score 200 fantasy points in his 10th season? It seems unlikely. One problem is that three of the four quarterbacks on that list are so far out of Carson Palmer's league that he can't even sniff them. The bigger problem is likely touchdowns. Fitzgerald will not be playing on a prolific offense in 2013, making 1400 yards more achievable than 10 touchdowns. What do I expect? Let's take a look.

OBSERVATIONS AND PROJECTIONS

The data clearly shows that Larry Fitzgerald's career arc is not destined to follow the downward trend it's been on for the past four seasons. Receivers, especially extremely talented receivers, are often rejuvenated when they're presented with an upgrade at quarterback late in their careers. The above notwithstanding, just look at what it's done for Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne the past two years. That being said, Carson Palmer is no Tom Brady, and an explosion like Randy Moss had is almost assuredly not in the cards.

I expect Fitzgerald to bounce back into top 10 territory in 2013 and see a strong possibility that he spends the next 2-3 seasons there. His arc should see a spike that resembles the one Moss had, although not as prolific. From there a gradual decrease in production over the next 3-4 seasons is likely. His ceiling is likely top 5 at this stage of his career and while that ceiling lowers a little each year, his floor of mid-WR2 should stay relatively steady. In dynasty I would certainly be making offers for Fitzgerald as his value is likely to increase as positive reports start coming out of Arizona and throughout the year.

Follow Heath Cummings on Twitter @heathcummingssr


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What Went Wrong With C.J. Spiller - April 19
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