Off the top of your head, can you name the player who led the NFL in receptions last year? It was the 33-year-old Fitzgerald. In fact, Fitzgerald is one of only two receivers to have more than 100 catches in each of the last two seasons. The other: Antonio Brown. The bad news is Fitzgerald turns 34 in August, and last year his efficiency cratered -- 9.6 YPC (40th of the 41 100-target WR) and 6.8 YPT (35th.) Fitzgerald simply doesn't make big plays anymore -- only one catch of 40-plus yards over his last 295 targets, spanning two seasons. He does see red-zone work, however -- 20 targets (8th), four of which he hauled in for scores. With Michael Floyd gone and no pass-catching TE of which to speak, Fitzgerald should again be the team's top target, especially in the red zone, but a healthy John Brown could supplant him as the team's most productive WR.
After catching only 63 passes and scoring two touchdowns during his age-31 season, Fitzgerald appeared to be near the end of the line. But appearances can be deceiving. At 32, while catching passes from a healthy Carson Palmer, Fitzgerald bounced back in a huge way, finishing with a career-high 109 catches (T-5th) and scoring nine times. Fitzgerald was also more efficient than he'd been since 2011 with 8.4 YPT, and he caught 17 passes of 20-plus yards. While he didn't see all that much work in the red zone (18 looks), most of it came at the goal line - his 12 targets from inside the 10 were tied for fourth. At 6-3, 218, with great hands, Fitzgerald is still a high-end possession receiver with the ability to operate in tight spaces, including in the end zone. He's not going to beat anyone deep - only one catch of 40-plus on 145 targets, but that's why the team has Michael Floyd and John Brown. Fitzgerald is probably still the favorite to lead the team in targets, but if healthy, the other two will see more than 200 between them. The other concern is Palmer, who, at 36, has taken a beating over his long career. Palmer is healthy at press time, but his fragility adds some risk to the entire Cardinals receiving corps.
It's hard to get excited about Fitzgerald's prospects this year. He's back in Arizona after agreeing to restructure his contract, and assuming Carson Palmer can get and stay healthy, is still a viable red-zone threat. But Fitzgerald, who even at his peak wasn't fast, is no longer capable of making big plays and will have to share targets not only with Michael Floyd but also second-year man John Brown. That said, at 6-3, 218, with great hands, Fitzgerald should still have a significant role as a possession receiver, and beyond Floyd and Brown, the Cardinals have little depth at the position and lack an established pass-catching tight end. While Fitzgerald will turn 32 in August, he might still have a useful year or two left, especially if the Arizona offense (24th in yards and points) improves.
After several years of wandering in the wilderness, Fitzgerald was finally united with an NFL-level quarterback again. While Carson Palmer isn’t what he once was, especially given his propensity to turn the ball over, his 7.5 YPA made the Cardinals a credible passing team and benefitted the entire receiving corps. Fitzgerald still managed only 7.1 YPT (29th among the 37 100-target WR), and a 11.6 YPC (32nd), but it was a massive improvement over his historically bad 2012 showing (5.1 YPT). At 6-3, 218 and with arguably the best hands in the game (he dropped only two of his 134 targets last year), Fitzgerald is still a weapon in the red zone – his 22 targets there ranked fourth, and he converted six into scores. That’s’ a good thing because he’s not going to do much damage from farther out – only eight of his 82 catches went for 20 or more yards, and only two for 40-plus. That isn’t surprising when you consider the 31-year old (in August) receiver ran a 4.63 40 at his peak. Fitzgerald’s size, intelligence, ball skills, hands and work ethic might perpetuate his status as the No. 1 option in Arizona’s passing attack this year, but third-year man Michael Floyd is bigger, faster and more explosive and should at least narrow the target gap between them.
You know things are desperate when the current incarnation of Carson Palmer is cause for elation and hope. To understand how bad things got, consider that Fitzgerald, a likely Hall of Fame receiver in his late prime, averaged just 5.1 YPT, the lowest mark for any receiver with 35 or more targets last season. As a result, Fitzgerald managed just 798 yards and four touchdowns on 156 looks. It was arguably the least efficient season in NFL history.
While Palmer should be an upgrade over the disastrous Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley, Fitzgerald should also benefit from new head coach Bruce Arians replacing the overly conservative Ken Whisenhunt and the improvement of the team's dreadful offensive line. (The team spent the No. 7 overall pick on guard Jonathan Cooper).
Last year's numbers aside, the 6-3, 218-pound Fitzgerald is still one of the most agile big receivers in the game, has great hands and makes an ideal red-zone target. While Fitzgerald's not especially fast, he's only two seasons removed from a 17.6 YPC season in 2011, when he hauled in eight passes of 40 or more yards, and 25 of 20-plus.
While the new situation is far from ideal – Palmer is hardly Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers – we'd expect Fitzgerald, who turns 30 in August to dominate the team's targets again but with far better results.
While it’s unclear at press time whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton will win the Cardinals quarterback job, it’s abundantly clear that Fitzgerald can thrive with either under center – certainly in comparison to the dreck to which he was subjected in 2010. Fitzgerald managed a career high 17.6 YPC (4th among the league’s 32 100-target WR) and 9.2 YPT (10th), with eight catches of 40-plus yards (2nd). The result was 1,411 receiving yards, good for fourth in the NFL. At 6-3, 218, and with excellent hands, body-control and leaping ability, Fitzgerald’s a top red-zone target, usually among the league leaders in touchdowns. Last season, however the Cardinals – and Kolb in particular – did not look for him as often near the goal line (8 targets inside the 10, tied for 9th). (In the eight games when Skelton was under center, however, Fitzgerald caught six of his eight touchdowns.) At 29, Fitzgerald is still in his late prime and will be among the league leaders in targets regardless of who’s under center. While he’s not especially fast down the field, his size and ball skills allow him to make plays deep even when he’s covered. The addition of rookie Michael Floyd in the first round should create some extra space for Fitzgerald to operate, though Floyd has red-zone skills in his own right and might cut into some of those targets, particularly if Kolb wins the job.
While Calvin Johnson suffered from average quarterbacking, Larry Fitzgerald only wishes he were so lucky. A combination of such luminaries as Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel combined for a 60.5 QB rating, 50.8 completion percentage, 5.8 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Somehow, Fitzgerald managed to stay relevant with 90 catches, 1,137 yards and 60 percent of the team's passing scores as he was third in the league with 173 targets and led the NFL in red-zone and inside-the-10 looks. At 6-3, 215 and blessed with great hands (only four drops all season), agility and leaping ability, Fitzgerald is an ideal red-zone target, as he uses his strength and big frame to outjump and outmuscle defenders. Fitzgerald isn't a burner, but his lack of big plays (only one catch for 40-plus) was mostly due to the miserable situation at quarterback. That should change in 2011 thanks to the Cards acquiring Kevin Kolb from the Philadelphia Eagles for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second round draft pick. One thing that probably won't change: Fitzgerald's generous helping of targets – especially from in close.
Coming off arguably the greatest playoff
showing by a wide receiver in NFL history,
Fitzgerald seemed poised to separate himself
from the pack. Instead he merged with it.
Make no mistake, he still finished the year as
the league’s No. 4 fantasy receiver, thanks to
his league-leading 13 touchdowns. But his 11.3
yards per catch and 7.2 yards per target were
below average, resulting in just 1,092 receiving
yards. Put differently, while Fitzgerald was
sixth in targets (152), he was 16th in yards.
At 6-3, 215, and blessed with great agility,
athleticism and perhaps the best hands in the
league, Fitzgerald’s never been a burner, but he
had been able to use his size, strength and leaping
ability to make plays down the field. But
last season he had just 12 catches of 20 yards
or more and none of 40-plus. And while
Fitzgerald is a perhaps the best red-zone
receiver in the league, he only saw nine looks
from inside the 10 (tied for 11th), five of which
he converted for scores.
With Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald should
continue to be heavily targeted, and it’s almost
certain he’ll have better efficiency numbers
than last year. But whether the Cardinals
offense as a whole takes a significant step back
with Matt Leinart/Derek Anderson replacing
the retired Kurt Warner, or head coach Ken
Whisenhunt turns more frequently to the
bruising running of Beanie Wells from in close
remains to be seen.
After Fitzgerald split the league’s No. 1 defense for a 64-yard go-ahead touchdown catch with 2:47 left in the Super Bowl, it was hard even to imagine how a receiver could be more dominant on the sport’s biggest stage. The catch capped off a four-game playoff run of 30 catches for 546 yards and seven touchdowns – numbers that on a prorated basis dwarf even his league-leading 12 touchdown catches and second-best 1,434 yards.
At 6-3, 215, Fitzgerald has ideal size, combined with excellent quickness, agility and arguably the best hands in the game. While he’s not a burner, Fitzgerald is able to make plays down the field due to his tremendous strength, leaping ability, timing, body control and reach. Quite simply, Fitzgerald doesn’t have to be all that open – Kurt Warner can throw the ball in his direction and trust him to go get it. In fact, Fitzgerald had five receptions of 40 yards or more (ninth), but that doesn’t include the four he had in the playoffs.
Fitzgerald’s development as a downfield threat in no way compromised his status as one of the league’s elite red-zone and goal-line options. He led the league in red-zone targets with 30 and finished second in red-zone touchdown catches with nine. (Teammate Anquan Boldin, who might not be around in 2009, was first with 10, as the Cardinals led the NFL in red-zone attempts). Fitzgerald also tied for the league lead in goal-line targets with 10, seven of which he converted for scores, the most in the league.
The central question for this season is whether Fitzgerald picks up where he left off in the playoffs, during which Boldin missed one game and was dinged up in the others, or whether he goes back to splitting targets (in fact Boldin averaged 10.5 targets per game during the regular season to Fitzgerald’s 9.6). At press time, it looks like the Cardinals will keep Boldin who’s signed at a bargain price – unless another team blows them away with an offer. That would tilt the balance toward another roughly equal split, though it’s possible the playoffs elevated Fitzgerald to an entirely different level from which he won’t look back.
Either way, Fitzgerald has the highest floor in the league, and if the playoffs are any indication, one of the highest ceilings, too.
So much for Ken Whisenhunt's run-first philosophy.
The Cardinals attempted the second most
passes in the NFL last season, the third most
from inside the five and the sixth most from inside the 10. Part of that had to do with a defense that ranked 26th in points allowed, but we also get the feeling Whisenhunt eventually realized where the talent was on his team.
With Anquan Boldin limited to 12 games, the
chief beneficiary was Fitzgerald, who finished
third in the NFL in targets with 166, fourth in
yards, sixth in receptions and fifth in fantasy
points - all despite missing a game with a groin
Fitzgerald might seem like a possession receiver
given his size and lack of deep speed, but
he averaged 14.1 yards per catch and 8.5 yards
per target, a far cry from the T.J. Houshmandzadehs and Hines Wards of the league. Fitzgerald has excellent hands, runs precise routes and is deceptively quick for big receiver. He also had four catches of 40-plus yards, putting him in a nine-way tie for ninth along with Braylon Edwards and Chad Johnson among others. Fitzgerald
was tied for fifth with 19 catches of 20 yards
Fitzgerald's been nagged by muscle injuries
the last two years - he missed three games with
a hamstring injury in 2006 - but when healthy
he's one of the most heavily targeted and reliable
wideouts in the league. The notoriously cheap
Cardinals inked Fitzgerald to a $40 million deal
in March, so perhaps they'll exploit his red-zone
talents a little more in 2008. There's also some
uncertainty as to who will be throwing him the
ball next season - Matt Leinart's returning from
a broken collarbone, but Kurt Warner played
well in Leinart's absence.
Despite missing three games outright, playing the second half of the season on a hamstring that was less than 100 percent and helping the team break in a rookie quarterback, Fitzgerald still managed to bring in 63 percent of his 110 targets (ninth among receivers with 100 or more) and average a respectable 8.6 yards per look.
At 6-3, 226, Fitzgerald has ideal red-zone size, and the Cardinals didn’t hesitate to look in his direction there – his 18 targets tied him for ninth overall, and that was despite playing just 13 games for the league’s 18th-ranked offense. Fitzgerald’s not a burner, and he’s unlikely to make a lot of downfield plays-- in fact, all six of his touchdowns came from within the red-zone. But his outstanding leaping ability coupled with his reach, strength and tremendous hands gives him the ability to go up over defenders in the middle of the field and occasionally on deeper routes – just two receptions of 40-plus yards last year, but four in 2005.
Now that Fitzgerald’s apparently done pouting over the firing of Dennis Green, we expect him to fit in well in new coach Ken Whisenhunt’s more creative offensive scheme. The projected development of quarterback Matt Leinart in his second season and the selection of tackle Levi Brown in the draft bode well for Arizona’s offense as a whole, and Fitzgerald in particular. One concern, however, is that if Whisenhunt puts more emphasis on the running game as he did in Pittsburgh, there might not be less targets to be divided between Fitzgerald and teammate Anquan Boldin.
The other half of Arizona’s 100-catch duo, and the fourth-most targeted receiver in the league, Fitzgerald took a major leap forward in his second pro season, finishing fourth in receiving yards and tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns. Fitzgerald is a smooth athlete, with excellent strength and leaping ability, and like teammate Anquan Boldin, he’s very quick for his size. Fitzgerald has tremendous hands, and plays with great focus, so he almost never drops a pass. Fitzgerald’s not a burner (though he did catch four passes for 40-yards plus), but at 6-3, 221, he’s even bigger than Boldin, and as such, sees more touches close to the goal line – Fitzgerald had four passes thrown to him from inside the five, two of which resulted in scores. As a result, Fitzgerald scored 10 touchdowns to Boldin’s seven, and is probably the better bet in touchdown-heavy leagues going forward. Like Boldin, Fitzgerald could lose opportunities if Edgerrin James’ arrival restarts the running game or if the Cardinals defense takes another step forward. An injury to Kurt Warner, or a poor start by the team could bring on the Matt Leinart era, which wouldn’t bode well for Fitzgerald’s near term production. That said, Fitzgerald is one of the top young receivers in the game entering his third season and playing for a coach (Dennis Green) who has always gotten a lot out of his passing game – the downside here isn’t too steep.
Hyped for his 6-2, 223-pound frame, great hands and outstanding concentration, Fitzgerald didn’t set the world on fire during his first season, but few rookie receivers do. And the Josh McCown-John Navarre-Shaun King quarterbacking trio didn’t make things any easier. Still, Fitzgerald was able to leverage his size in the red zone, converting three of eight passes from inside the 20 for scores, and two of four from inside the five. Fitzgerald’s not a burner – just one catch of 40-plus yards last year – and he’s not shifty enough to avoid tacklers in the open field. But with the arrival of Kurt Warner, and the return of Anquan Boldin for a full season, the Arizona passing game should see a nice lift, and Fitzgerald should benefit, especially around the goal line.
The Pittsburgh prodigy is the best bet among rookie receivers to thrive this year. Not blessed with blazing speed, Fitzgerald more than makes up for it with size, strength, quickness off the line, great hands and precise route running. But Fitzgerald was drafted at age 20 and will likely need to adjust to the superior NFL competition. Plus there are only so many balls to go around in Arizona, and the inexperienced Josh McCown is throwing them.