Savings Accounts and Lottery Tickets, Part Two: Fitz or Reggie?

Reggie Wayne knows what Larry Fitzgerald is dealing with. But can Fitz rebound like Wayne did?

I really like bad football players.

As a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, I have been subjected to some less than stellar football performances during my lifetime. As a child, you could find me parading around blissfully ignorant of just how embarrassing my Alvin Harper jersey had become.

So I was conditioned to like bad football, and formed a connection with bad football players. As a youth watching ESPN and pretending to know it all, I believed Ryan Leaf was clearly a better quarterback than whoever that goofy kid from Tennessee was.

But I got older and wiser. I had set aside my ignorance and I was ready to be a real NFL fan with more informed opinions.

So of course, I was very high on Sabby Piscitelli coming out of college just a few years ago, and hoped the Buccaneers would draft him. He was fast, he made big plays, and he was just the safety the Bucs needed to move on from the John Lynch era and into a new day of dominance from the defensive backfield.

And he was awful.

So I guess it’s no surprise that now as an adult who writes about football, there are still some lingering effects of this affection for bad football players. Last year, I often found myself rooting for the poor Arizona Cardinals and their scrappy bunch of quarterbacks who looked like a Saturday morning blooper reel.

And it’s certainly no surprise that when I learned John Skelton was available this offseason, I let it be known to my fellow Buccaneers’ fans that I thought we should bring him in and give him a shot to backup Josh Freeman, and maybe even take over for him in a year if Freeman didn’t pan out.

I don’t think Larry Fitzgerald and I are on the same wavelength in this regard.

Fitzgerald has suffered with subpar quarterback play since Kurt Warner moved from the field to the broadcast studio, and probably doesn’t have a heart for egregious offenses of football fundamentals.

After all, this is the same Larry Fitzgerald who hauled in over 1,400 yards in 2011 despite a combination of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb at quarterback. Travel back to 2010, and an even less impressive bunch of the aforementioned Skelton, along with Max Hall and Derek Anderson, threw the ball to Fitzgerald as he produced 1,137 yards on 90 catches.

Last year, however, Fitzgerald fell victim to some awful quarterback play, and posted his worst season since his rookie year in 2004. And the Cardinals finally realized that a mixture of ragtag rejects from other teams just wasn’t going to cut it anymore at quarterback. They had to go out and get a franchise quarterback. They had to change the culture and bring in a new passer to get the team going in the right direction.

But they got Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton instead.

So heading into the 2013 fantasy football season, there is a degree of optimism surrounding Fitzgerald, as there’s a general belief that Carson Palmer is going to do well enough to not be a constant blooper reel under center. That should then lead to an increase in production for Fitzgerald, who clearly did all he could last year, but to no avail.

That optimism may have been squashed when you read Alex Hampl's article from about a month ago, poking holes in the notion that the man known as Fitz was a top-tier fantasy wideout at this stage in his career.

Reggie Wayne feels Larry Fitzgerald's pain.

The perennial 1,000-yard receiver in the prolific Peyton Manning-led offense in Indianapolis one day found himself with an abomination of quarterback play instead of the trusty Manning, and saw his numbers fall to their lowest point since a time before Fitzgerald was even in the league.

He had an awful year with an awful quarterback, but found himself back in the saddle last season, posting an impressive set of fantasy football numbers once again with a legitimate quarterback prospect in Indianapolis to provide somewhat decent throws in his direction.

So is there potential value in Fitzgerald? Could he be a "lottery ticket" with a potential payday for owners who gamble on the Cardinals' wide receiver? Could he have a "Reggie Wayne with Andrew Luck" type of season?

Sounds like it's time for another edition of Savings Accounts and Lottery Tickets.

Lottery Ticket: Larry Fitzgerald, Savings Account: Reggie Wayne

As I said earlier, Reggie Wayne knows exactly what Larry Fitzgerald is going through. He had to play wide receiver with Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky at quarterback for almost an entire season. He posted numbers lower than anyone had seen from the Colts' wideout in almost a decade.

But the wily veteran bounced back with newcomer Andrew Luck, and posted a very impressive statistical season in 2012, a season that did not go unnoticed by the projections here at numberFire. His ranking among wide receivers in our projections is 13th, which is in stark contrast to his ranking of 17 according to Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP data.

Furthermore, that ranking is as safe as can be according to the Confidence Interval, which determines the range of probable outcomes for a player based on the most likely scenarios generated by math behind the scenes. For Wayne, his total range of point projections spans just under 48 points.

Compare that to Fitzgerald, who has a range of potential scoring outputs of over 67 points, meaning he could finish either 17th or 2nd should he finish at either end of the spectrum. There is a large degree of volatility with Fitzgerald, but you need to look no further than Reggie Wayne to see why Fitzgerald might be a winning lotto ticket this season.

If Fitzgerald is able to have the sort of bounce back season Wayne had with an improved quarterback situation, then the projections based on his previous dominance at the wide receiver position make more sense, and the higher end of his Confidence Interval (and beyond) are well within reach. But there's reason to doubt Fitz will ever be the same again, or at least not in the same way Reggie Wayne has "bounced back."

Since 2008, both Wayne and Fitzgerald have been among the best in the league at their position. The net expected points numbers here at numberFire support that claim. NEP measures the amount of value a player adds to his team by throwing, catching, or running the ball, based on field position gained and progress made towards scoring points (which is the point of football, right?). And before the QB-pocalypse occurred for either player, they were consistently cranking out impressive numbers in the receiving NEP per target category, which divides up the receiving NEP earned over the course of the season by the number of targets the wideout gets.

But it's what happened during the horrible quarterback year that shows a possible difference between Wayne and Fitzgerald. During the Curtis Painter era in Indy, Reggie Wayne still produced a .60 NEP per target, which was on par with his performance a year earlier in 2010. It was a slight decline from his dominant performances in years prior, but he also saw a huge increase in targets in 2010 as the running backs became less involved in the passing game. Keep in mind, receivers who see more targets obviously find it more difficult to post high NEP per target numbers, because it's tougher to produce favorable plays on a consistent basis with a higher workload. Wayne did post similar total receiving NEP numbers in each of the three season prior to the "Curtis Painter Experience."

Wayne would then rebound in 2012 and post a similar total receiving NEP to those posted during the Peyton Manning era. In other words, there was never a drop in per target efficiency across the three quarterback situations Wayne saw over the past three seasons. The main difference was volume.

The same cannot be said for Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was consistently posting season-long receiving NEP totals in the triple digits with Kurt Warner, and then continued to post slightly less solid numbers with the assembled mess of quarterbacks he had in the years leading up to last season's implosion. But it's the extent to which he fell off in 2012 which concerns me, and proves why he's a riskier gamble than you might be willing to take.

His per target NEP fell dramatically in 2012, almost cutting his prior per target NEP numbers in half. And among qualified receivers with 50 or more catches in 2012, no one had a worse per target NEP than Fitzgerald.

This data could tell us one of two things. He is either a fairly quarterback dependent wide receiver who must rely on an aging and inconsistent Carson Palmer to carry him to fantasy stardom, or he's a fantastic receiver with retained skills who is ready to resume his dominant performances at wide receiver with a slightly less shambolic quarterback situation.

If you believe the former of Fitzgerald, you're probably avoiding him, and taking Wayne. Wayne has proven to be a rock solid fantasy option for years, and should benefit from an improving Andrew Luck in 2013. Wayne has a very narrow Confidence Interval, meaning the projections you see on our website for Wayne are a "what you see is what you get" proposition. Wayne is probably not going to breakout and become a top-5 receiver again, according to the projections, but he's also not going to fall off the map. He's far too efficient and predictable to not be an excellent fantasy option.

He's kind of like a savings account.

But if you want to gamble, take a look at Fitzgerald. If you believe that he's not at all that dependent on his quarterback situation, and simply needs any old NFL-caliber gunslinger to propel him back into the upper echelon, you might strike it rich by buying the Larry Fitzgerald lottery ticket. The metrics here at numberFire allow for the possibility that Fitz could emerge as an elite level superstar in 2013, and that's not to be taken lightly.