It wasn't all that long ago Larry Fitzgerald was considered one of the League's elite football players at any position. His status as the top receiver was rarely questioned, and no one doubted he belonged in the top tier no matter who else you put alongside him. But even the best players in the NFL are subject to the gravitational forces of their teammates. Individual greatness only gets you so far in the ultimate team sport, particularly when you play a position that, by its very nature, is contingent on another person getting you the ball.
So while Larry Fitzgerald's talents haven't receded, his fantasy value is another story.
In spite of racking up 150+ targets for the sixth consecutive season, Fitzgerald was one of fantasy's biggest busts last year -- he finished 42nd at his position despite being drafted as a Top 10 option in the majority of leagues.
The Quarterback Quagmire...Or How I Learned To Live Without Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season, and it's no coincidence that Fitzgerald has endured his two worst seasons since. It's one thing to adapt to a new quarterback after the loss of an all-time great. It's another thing to try to produce amid a flurry of meager talents in a revolving door of ineptitude.
Is it any wonder Fitzgerald has struggled? It's laughable to think a team can find this many bad quarterbacks in a three-year window.
New Coaches, New(ish) System, New Quarterback
Bruce Arians was the feel good story of 2012. Forced into 'retirement' by the Steelers, Arians signed on as Chuck Pagano's offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. Shortly thereafter Pagano was diagnosed with cancer and Arians stepped in as interim head coach, leading the young rebuilding team to a shocking 11-5 record and playoff berth. Last season completely reshaped Arians' trajectory and put him on the short list for NFL head coaching vacancies. He accepted the Cardinals job, replacing Ken Whisenhunt. There is some irony there considering Whisenhunt was Arians boss in Pittsburgh for years.
Arians and Whisenhunt are from the same coaching tree, and on the surface their systems are similar; the devil will be in the details. Arians' offensive philosophy is one defined by simplicity, this isn't going to be an offense meant to fool opposing defenses. The Cardinals will try to win by executing the plays called and leveraging the mismatches Arians' spread formations create. The passing attack is designed to spread out opposing defenses at the line of scrimmage and allow receivers a clean break. One of Arians' strengths as a play-caller is his ability to break zone coverages by stretching defenses both vertically and horizontally (through crossing routes and comebacks). We'll see the Cardinals line up in multiple formations, including empty backfield, 4-wide, 3-wide and 2-TE sets. Bunch formations (where a number of eligible receivers line up right next to each other) are a common part of Arians' game plan. Expect the Cardinals to take a handful shots downfield each game. Larry Fitzgerald and the other wide receivers will see plenty of opportunities to make 20+ yard plays downfield.
The bigger change is the addition of Carson Palmer. Palmer came out of retirement two seasons ago to sign with the Raiders (Cincinnati traded his rights), and Palmer put up a good fight for an awful team. The Raiders' record in Palmer's stead was 8-16, but a careful analysis points to solid play from the veteran passer.
- 544 completions
- 892 attempts
- 61% completion rate
- 6,768 yards
- 7.6 yards per attempt
- 35 TD passes
- 30 Interceptions
Palmer's numbers in Oakland were MARKEDLY better than anything the Cardinals quarterbacks have delivered, and that was in spite of a Raiders receiving corps that was devoid of difference makers. Imagine what Palmer could have done with the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts at his disposal? While there may be some debate about Palmer's place in the hierarchy of NFL passers, there can be no question that he's SIGNIFICANTLY better than anyone Larry Fitzgerald has been thrown to for the last few seasons.
If you believe Fitzgerald remains a transcendent talent, then Palmer will be more than capable of vaulting the receiver's fantasy numbers back into the upper echelon.
Offensive Line and Keeping Defenses Honest
There are two potential flies in the ointment. One, fixing a line that puts the 'offensive' in offensive line. Two, ensuring that the other skill positions are credible enough threats so that opposing defenses can't key on Fitzgerald.
Let's tackle the second issue first -- the supporting cast. I believe the combination of an aggressive, savvy play-caller in Arians combined with a veteran passer in Palmer are clearly improvements. Michael Floyd has enjoyed a picture perfect offseason and looks to step into a key WR2 role. If Floyd delivers the goods (and I believe he will), that puts Andre Roberts into a more fitting role as the WR3. At running back, there are a quartet of backs vying for time, but Rashard Mendenhall will be given the first shot at a feature role. Mendenhall is coming off a major injury but he has a track record with Arians and there's little question he'll fit into the system well. The key takeaway here is Arizona has plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball to make Fitzgerald a centerpiece without being schemed away at every turn.
The offensive line is a much bigger question mark, but there is hope. Arizona drafted road grader Jonathan Cooper in the first round and he should provide an immediate upgrade at left guard. Left tackle Levi Brown returns from a season-ending torn triceps and should start. If he doesn't start, it's because 2nd year Nate Potter was too impressive to keep off the field. The team signed Eric Winston to start on the right side right before the start of training camp; Winston has routinely graded out as one of the better right tackles during his career. The Winston signing helps two positions as it lets promising 2nd year swing man Bobby Massie move inside to right guard. There is also better depth now because Daryn Colledge doesn't have to start, and rookie Earl Watford projects as a future starter.
- Larry Fitzgerald possesses the rare combination of size, speed and physicality that allows him to dominate opposing defensive backs regardless of the route
- Carson Palmer should be a substantial upgrade at quarterback
- Bruce Arians is an aggressive playmaker and has a history of putting his playmakers into positions to flourish
- The offensive line is a work in progress, and can't afford lapses because an injury to Carson Palmer would set Fitzgerald back into the difficult circumstances that kept him out of the Top 40 last year
- The Cardinals have to play six games against the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams -- three teams with excellent and aggressive defenses
- Although we expect Michael Floyd to flourish, if he doesn't step forward the receiving corps could be short of playmakers, allowing defenses to key on Fitzgerald with double teams and lots of shading to his side
Larry Fitzgerald has been an unfortunate victim of circumstance in the last few seasons -- 2012 in particular. In spite of a precipitous plummet last year (WR42), fantasy owners appear ready to forgive and forget thanks to the additions of Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians. Fitzgerald is currently being drafted 26th overall and 7th among receivers. While I do think you can expect Fitzgerald to rebound this year, I'm not sure drafting him in the late 2nd round or early 3rd round offers much upside. I personally will be targeting other players at that spot on the draft, but wouldn't penalize those who choose otherwise. Fitzgerald is a legitimate fantasy WR1 this year, but he's probably the least compelling of the consensus top 10 in my view. A lot has to go right for Fitzgerald to outperform including a belief that Carson Palmer bounces back, Fitzgerald bounces back, the Cardinals offensive line improves significantly, and that Bruce Arians can bring the same magic we saw in Indianapolis last year to a new town. That's a lot of IFs.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE WEB
Footbalguys' own Chase Stuart believes we need to look beyond the simple 'Fitzgerald's quarterbacks stunk' explanation:
Fitzgerald’s four-year run is pretty fascinating – it’s almost like a real life science experiment on how wide receiver production varies due to supporting cast. In 2009, he played with another great receiver so his percentage of the pie wasn’t high, but he also played with a great quarterback, so he produced strong numbers. In 2010, the quarterback and the receiver were gone, which seemed to cancel each other out (more receiving yards, fewer touchdowns, although both of those numbers were due to move in that direction anyway). In 2011, the quarterback play improved, so he ended up eating the same percentage of a larger pie. Then last year, the play fell through the floor… but unlike in 2010, he wound up losing a big percentage of his value.
So what’s the explanation? I don’t think it’s as simple as “his quarterbacks stunk.” Or even if that is the answer, that doesn’t make for a very good post. Let’s investigate his last four seasons under a different microscope...
Kevin Hanson of Bleacher Report profiles Fitzgerald:
Even with last year's dud performance factored in, Fitzgerald has averaged 80 receptions, 1,156 yards and six touchdowns over the past three seasons since Kurt Warner retired. Unlikely to reach 1,400 yards for a fifth time in his career, Fitzgerald is likely to have a bounce-back season with upgrades at quarterback and on the offensive line.
More from Jason Wood:
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