Larry Fitzgerald Remains an Ageless Wonder
The age cliff for NFL players is a terrifying prospect for fantasy football drafters. Often, once a player hits 30, naysayers come out of the woodwork claiming that the day is nigh that said player's production will decrease dramatically.
Larry Fitzgerald has a lot of naysayers right now.
Fitzgerald is entering his age-34 season, so it's certainly fair to wonder whether his time as an ultra-productive receiver will end in 2017.
The Arizona Cardinals wide receiver's average draft position (ADP) according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com sits at 6.10. If the naysayers are wrong about Fitzgerald, he may provide insane value for his owners.
The question is, what's the likelihood of Fitzgerald producing big numbers again in 2017? Let's dive into the data to see if we can find out.
A Historic Career
A good way to help determine Fitzgerald's chances of staying relevant in 2017 is to look within the company he keeps from a historic lens. Put simply, Larry Fitzgerald’s career has been awe-inspiring.
Per Pro Football Reference, 23 different players in NFL history have put up at least one 1,000-yard receiving season during or after their age-34 season. Of these, 21 had at least three 1,000-yard receiving campaigns prior to their achieving the 1,000-yard mark at age-34 or above, 19 had at least five 1,000-yard receiving seasons in their career, and 11 achieved at least two seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards at or above age-34. (The near immortal Jerry Rice, remarkably, had four such seasons.)
Moreover, among the 20 non-active players who had at least six seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving prior to their age-34 season and ended up playing in their age-34 season, 12 were able to replicate the feat at least one more time in their career. That's a 60% hit rate following historical trends.
Looking deeper than traditional box score statistics, his career inspires as well. Here at numberFire we use our signature performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), to measure true player impact on the field. NEP goes beyond measuring simple yards and touchdown statistics, utilizing historical down-and-distance data to determine whether a player is positively or negatively contributing to their teams chances of scoring. After all, a 4-yard reception on 3rd-and-7 is significantly worse for a team’s chances of scoring than a 4-yard reception on 3rd-and-2. You can learn more about NEP by checking out our glossary.
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Fitzgerald has achieved at least 100.00 Reception NEP six times, a feat exceeded only by Torry Holt, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Terrell Owens. And he's put up nine seasons of top-20 Reception NEP production among wide receivers in his time in the league. (Note: Our NEP data base dates back to 2000.)
If history is any guide, don't bet against Larry Fitzgerald in 2017. But past isn't necessarily prologue in football.
So what about the Arizona Cardinals' offense could help or hinder Fitzgerald's efforts to defy Father Time once more in 2017?
Fitzgerald's efficiency has gone down in recent years -- his 0.59 Reception NEP per target in 2016 was below league average -- but this is largely a function of his occupying the slot role in Bruce Arians' offense, which by its nature results in shorter, quicker targets. These targets are more difficult to generate high levels of efficiency, requiring volume to keep up high production.
But Fitzgerald produced league-average efficiency in this role in 2015, his age-32 season, garnering a 0.68 Reception NEP per target. And there's reason to think that the Cardinals' offense will be in a better spot in 2017, allowing Fitzgerald to maintain high target volume while boosting his efficiency.
Having a healthy John Brown back as a compliment should help both the Cardinals' offense and Fitzgerald immensely. Brown is very good in his own right, and with him manning the outside and serving as the Cardinals' deep threat, Fitzgerald's underneath routes could become a lot less contested, which would likely help to increase his efficiency. These are also the kinds of throws that Carson Palmer, who did show signs of decline last season, might be relying upon for sure yardage.
Moreover, aside from 3rd-round draft pick Chad Williams, the Cardinals didn't bring in any additional wide receiver talent to compete with Fitzgerald for targets. So unless Brown's target share massively balloons from his very productive 2015 season (101 targets), or unless Williams comes in and steals the show from day one, Fitzgerald's average of 148.5 targets the last two seasons seems likely to be repeated.
A Value Once Again
With a projected steady target share, a likely improved offense with the return of John Brown, and a career firmly entrenched near the top of the list of all-time greats, it'd be foolish to assume that Larry Fitzgerald can't keep putting up numbers in 2017.
Fortunately for his drafters, getting him in the late sixth round is a cheap enough price where it wouldn’t be a death knell to their team if he did fall off the age cliff once and for all.
Once again, Larry Fitzgerald is looking like a fantasy football value. And it's likely, assuming he stays in the league, we'll have to rewrite this article again headed into 2018.