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Spotlight: Larry Fitzgerald

posted by Jeff Haseley on Jul 22nd


Jeff Haseley's thoughts

One of the bigger questions heading into the 2010 NFL season is - How will the Arizona WRs fare, particularly Larry Fitzgerald, now that QB Kurt Warner has retired and Matt Leinart has taken over? In addition to questions surrounding the potency of their passing game, Arizona also has another void to fill - the WR2 role left vacant by Anquan Boldin, who was traded to Baltimore.

Let's try to answer the easier question first - How much will Boldin's departure effect Fitzgerald's production? The answer - not much. Anquan Boldin did not play in the playoffs last year, due to an injured knee/ankle. Early Doucet, took over Boldin's role and played well, totaling 14 receptions for 145 yards and 2 TDs in two playoff games. While many believe Steve Breaston will occupy the team's WR2 role in Boldin's absence, Doucet may have solidified his place in the lineup as the team's WR2 role with his performance in the playoffs. Doucet, like Boldin, plays with a certain physicality that gets results, especially on underneath or over the middle routes that can generate opportunities for yards after the catch. How does this translate to Fitzgerald's chances of success in 2010? There is no question that Fitzgerald is the team's offensive leader. He will lead by example and be a big part of the offensive game plan going forth. Matt Leinart will learn that he can rely on him to make plays. If Fitzgerald is going to see a decrease in numbers, compared to seasons prior with Kurt Warner, it won't be because Anquan Boldin is gone.

Which side of the fence are you on? There are those in fantasy circles who believe Larry Fitzgerald will rise to the occasion and generate similar numbers in 2010 compared to seasons past, simply because he is a HOF talent and that's what players of that caliber do. Others predict Fitzgerald will see a drop in production, especially yards and TDs, due to uncertainties at the QB position and the team's offensive game plan.

What can we expect to happen? To get a better gauge on what might happen to Fitzgerald in 2010, let's look to the past. Below are case histories that depict a very similar scenario. The examples below include stats from a team's leading WR the year before and the year after that team's star QB retired, joined a different team or was injured. I tried to include examples that mirror the games of Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart. Or in other words, one of the league's better QBs vs. a QB without as much promise. This is by no means a definitive answer, but it is worth looking into. This is what I found.

Case histories

Rod Smith, DEN
1998 - 86 rec, 1222 yds, 6 TDs
1999 - 79 rec, 1020 yds, 4 TDs John Elway retired from DEN in 1998, bringing Brian Griese to the forefront in 1999.

Jerry Rice, SF
1998 - 82 rec, 1157 yds, 9 TDs
1999 - 67 rec, 830 yds, 5 TDs
Steve Young was knocked out by Arizona CB Aeneas Williams in week 3 of the 1999 season. Young never played another game and was replaced by Jeff Garcia.

Brandon Marshall, DEN
2008 - 104 rec, 1265 yds, 6 TDs
2009 - 101 rec, 1120 yds, 10 TDs
Jay Cutler was traded from Denver to Chicago before the 2009 season. Kyle Orton replaced Cutler and started at QB for Denver in 2009.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, CIN
2007 - 112 rec, 1143 yds, 12 TDs
2008 - 92 rec, 904 yds, 4 TDs
Carson Palmer suffered a torn ACL in the 2007 playoffs and missed most of the 2008 season. Replacing him was Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Chad Ochocinco, CIN
2007 - 93 rec, 1440 yds, 8 TDs
2008 - 53 rec, 540 yds, 4 TDs
Carson Palmer suffered a torn ACL in the 2007 playoffs and missed most of the 2008 season. Replacing him was Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Randy Moss, NE
2007 - 98 rec, 1493 yds, 23 TDs
2008 - 69 rec, 1008 yds, 11 TDs
Tom Brady was lost for the season with a torn ACL in week one of 2008. Replacing him was Matt Cassel.

In five of the six cases shown above, WRs had a decrease in receptions, yards and TDs with the inferior QB. Only Brandon Marshall had more TD receptions the following year. TJ Houshmandzadeh still had a productive year without Carson Palmer, but his TDs numbers dropped significantly.

On average, WRs in my study saw a decrease of 15 receptions, 279 yards and 4 TDs. I did not include Chad Ochocinco's numbers, simply because they were too extreme. If we subtract the average numbers calculated above from Fitzgerald's 2009 numbers, his 2010 totals would be 82 rec, 813 yards, 9 TDs. That seems low for Fitzgerald, especially the yardage totals. It's hard to imagine him averaging only 10 yards per catch, but the reception and TD totals could be fairly similar.

Positives

  • It's difficult to imagine a scenario where Larry Fitzgerald will have another 95-1400-10 season, but if anyone can rise to the occasion to meet the team's needs it's Fitzgerald. He is a true leader on and off the field. He leads by example, displays good character and other WRs from around the league, stand in line to learn from him in his popular offseason camps.
  • The Cardinals ground game, led by Beanie Wells, is expected to see an increase in plays in 2010. If successful, it will keep opposing defenses from blanketing coverage on Fitzgerald. As a result, he will have more open space to make plays and gain yards after the catch - one of his many strengths.
  • With Anquan Boldin no longer in the picture, Fitzgerald will undoubtedly be the main receiving target for Arizona in 2010, especially in clutch situations. Both Steve Breaston and Early Doucet will garner attention, but Fitzgerald will be the primary focus in the passing game.

Negatives

  • The last time Fitzgerald had a season with less than 1,000 yards was 2006. Incidentally, Matt Leinart started 11 of the team's games that year. It was also the only time in the last six years that Fitzgerald finished the year outside the Top 5.
  • Last year, Fitzgerald saw a decrease of about 3 yards per catch from his previous average. It was the difference between 1,100 yards and 1,400 yards. His yards per catch could be lower once again in 2010, simply because Matt Leinart does not make as many deep throws down field as Kurt Warner.
  • It's very possible that defenses will key on Fitzgerald and force Matt Leinart to be them with passes to both Steve Breaston and Early Doucet. Fitzgerald and Warner were able to establish a very good chemistry with each other. Many times, Warner threw the ball in Fitzgerald's direction even when he wasn't open. He trusted Larry would make the play. It may take Leinart some time to establish that type of confidence, which could result in fewer pass attempts in his direction.

Final thoughts

Prior examples of other similarly talented WRs who endured a similar changing of the guard at QB have shown a decrease in numbers across the board. In seasons prior with Matt Leinart at QB, Fitzgerald did not produce numbers comparable to the rest of his career. Leinart is no longer a rookie QB and Fitzgerald's main competition for targets (Boldin) is now with Baltimore. This opens the door for Fitzgerald to be a big part of the offense going forward. It seems almost unlikely for him to not touch the ball at least once per possession, if not more. This all points to a very productive year for Fitzgerald. His yardage and TD totals will likely decrease compared to seasons with Warner at QB, but he should still see plenty of targets with opportunities to score in the red zone. How does that translate to his end of season ranking? Top 15 seems very likely, but Top 5 could be a stretch.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

MrTwo94 said:

Not sure why his ypc dropped off last year, but I really doubt Leinart is the cure. Those expecting anything close to 100/1400/10 are in for a surprise, although he should still get a ton of targets. People think the Cards are just going to pound the ball now that Warner is gone, but that is a very [simple] way of looking at things. If every team without a star QB could just run the ball instead of throwing it, they would. It doesn't work like that in the NFL. Running is a luxury you must earn. I like Beanie as a football player, but I don't think it will be easy to run without Boldin and Warner as threats. So expect Leinart to be noodling the ball the Fitz quite a bit. We just don't know how productive those targets will be. Maybe Leinart surprises us all and he and Fitz both have awesome seasons. I'm not betting on it, though.

90 rec x 12 ypr = 1080 yds 8 TD

I've seen some nice splits of Fitz with Leinart, Fitz with Leinart without Boldin, but really the sample size just isn't large enough to use the averages to extrapolate anything. Given his ADP, you'll be better off passing on him this year. Take a chance on Chad or Steve Smith (Car) a few rounds later.

SSOG said:

Since 2005, Larry Fitzgerald has averaged 7.0 catches for 105.5 yards and 1.0 TDs per game when Anquan Boldin's been out. That works out to 12/1688/16 over a full season without Boldin. For his entire career, Fitz averages 0.5 more receptions, 16.3 more yards, and 0.2 more TDs when Boldin is out than he does when Boldin is in- that's an extra 260 yards and 3 TDs over a full year.

Losing Boldin isn't a negative for Fitzgerald. No Boldin = more targets. It might mean tougher coverages, but Larry Fitzgerald eats tough coverages for breakfast.

Just Win Baby said:

Games in which Fitzgerald played and Leinart had 20+ pass attempts: 12 games, 97 targets, 60 receptions, 742 receiving yards (12.4 ypr), 4 TDs Per 16 games, this scales to 129 targets, 80 receptions, 989 receiving yards, 5 TDs

All other games (regular season and postseason) played by Fitzgerald from 2006 to 2009:
54 games, 533 targets, 345 receptions, 4847 receiving yards (14 ypr), 46 TDs
Per 16 games, this scales to 158 targets, 102 receptions, 1436 receiving yards, 14 TDs

Obviously there is an enormous difference. This suggests that Leinart will indeed have a negative impact on Fitz's numbers. With Leinart, Fitz averaged fewer targets and his production per target was lower.

Of course, one might argue that Leinart has a chance to be better this year, especially since if he is going to be the starter he will have the chance to work all offseason and preseason with Fitz and the rest of the first team offense. But can that make up this huge gap? I seriously doubt it.

And I'd be concerned that with Warner out and Leinart in, the offense will shift to a more balanced attack, with more running and less passing. Check out where the offense ranked in passing and rushing attempts over the past 4 seasons:

2006 - #7 in passing attempts, #26 in rushing attempts
2007 - #2 in passing attempts, #25 in rushing attempts
2008 - #2 in passing attempts, #32 in rushing attempts
2009 - #3 in passing attempts, #32 in rushing attempts

I expect Whisenhunt to adjust to a more balanced attack going forward, given that he will no longer have one of the best passing QBs in the NFL.

TheDirtyWord said:

It's incredible the impact of Warner's inability to get the ball downfield had on Fitz.

Fitzgerald: On passes thrown 21+ yards in the air

2009: 3/87/2
2008: 10/429/3

Warner: On passes thrown 21+ yards in the air

2009: 10/37/303/3/5
2008: 20/41/811/5/3

...it's really stunning to see the decrease so explicitly from one year to the next and how it affected Fitz and how from 2008 to 2009, Warner lost the ability to make plays down the field. On this basis, you would think that there would be an opportunity for Leinart to come in, show and demonstrate an improvement in this area of the passing game. Here's the problem. These are Leinart's career stats when throwing the ball 21+ yards in the air.

Leinart: 20/64/768/3/6

Historically, Leinart has not shown any ability to improve from the level of what Warner was performing at in the intermediate-to-deep passing game in his final season. And the knock on Leinart coming into the NFL before he started popping up with all sorts of warts, was his arm.

So I think the bet you are placing is going to be on whether you think Leinart truly can make strides in his game. Because rest assured, teams are going to give him the opportunity to beat them deep. Will he be able to take advantage of it? The acquisition of Derek Anderson and his big but erratic arm make quite a bit more sense now.

As for Fitz, while his year in 2009 was largely affected by Warner's decline...I don't think you can count on too many player who are close to a mortal lock for 1100-1200 yards and 10 TD's. With Boldin out of the picture, the passing game is going to rely on Fitz even more in a move the chains capacity. There are probably more receptions to be had out there for him and I could see him setting a career high in that category. And with the Cardinals being a 600 pass attempts team these last couple of years, it would be tough to change their personality to the extreme of even just a 500 attempts in one off-season. So long as Fitz stays healthy, he'll get his production and continue to be a week-in-week out threat.

Dancing Bear said:

Over Larry Fitzgerald's 98 games as an NFL WR he has been elite, and I absolutely love him.

However, you cannot ignore the facts and they are dismal when you compare his performance with Leinart.

With Kurt Warner, he averaged 12.5 ppg, 83.0 yards/appearance, and 0.8 TD's/ game [63 QB appearances].
With Matt Leinart, he averaged 6.9 ppg, 56.5 yards/appearance, and 0.3 TD's/ game [18 QB appearances].
With other QB's, he averaged 7.8 ppg, 51.5 yards/appearance, and 0.5 TD's/ game [30 QB appearances].

The drop-off in performance is undeniable ... in fact it's incredible. A 45% drop-off with Leinart at the helm, and note that it is only 38% with other QB's.


Larry Fitzgerald projections

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