Draft Larry Fitzgerald in Fantasy Football and Don't Worry About It
Each and every year, it seems like Larry Fitzgerald is criminally under-drafted.
Despite that, the most expensive he's been in season-long drafts during that three-year run was last season, when he was drafted as the PPR WR24, per average draft position (ADP) from Fantasy Football Calculator.
Well, it's happening again. Fitzgerald is currently, on average, the 15th wide receiver off the board in 12-team PPR drafts. The fantasy public is yet again treating him like more of a WR2.
What's the deal -- why is the fantasy community down on Fitz?
Well, there are some reasons to be worried. The Arizona Cardinals have uncertainty at quarterback, and do-it-all running back David Johnson is healthy again, which could mean the offense will run through DJ. Oh, and Fitzgerald will be 35 years old when the campaign starts.
Should we be down of Fitz for 2018 or will he be a smashing value once again?
The Cardinals will likely start 2018 with Sam Bradford at the helm. Now, very few would argue that Bradford is an incompetent quarterback. In fact, he’s been very efficient in his last three seasons.
We can peep this by looking at our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team side being adjusted for strength of opponent. A three-yard completion on 3rd and 2 is wildly different than a three-yard completion on 3rd and 4, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their team's total over the course of a season.
Going by our numbers, Bradford has been pretty solid when he's been healthy, especially in 2016. That year, he posted 0.15 Passing NEP per drop back, and the league average was 0.12. His Passing Success Rate -- or the percentage of his drop backs that resulted in positive NEP -- in 2016 was 49.58%, a decent bit better than the 47.02% league average.
|Season||Drop Backs||Passing NEP Per Drop Back||Success Rate|
Of course, injury is always the risk with Bradford. But, in addition to signing Bradford, the Cardinals also drafted Josh Rosen with the 10th pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
Taken as the third quarterback off the board, Rosen has promise as a prospect. But instead of discussing why or why not we think Bradford/Rosen will have success in 2018, let's look at the quarterback performances from the Cardinals' starters in 2017. It's not pretty.
|Quarterback||Games Started||Passing NEP Per Drop Back||Success Rate|
Even with poor execution in the passing game, Fitzgerald was a fantasy stud last year (PPR WR4). It would be tough for the Cardinals' quarterback situation to get worse in 2018. So it’s safe to assume that the passing ability of the Cardinals will not be the reason for a Fitzgerald demise in 2018.
David Johnson's Impact
In 2016, David Johnson had 293 rush attempts for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns. In addition to that, he also had 120 targets and 80 receptions for another 879 yards and 4 touchdowns.
That kind of elite production may have fantasy owners worried that Johnson will significantly hurt Fitzgerald’s 2018 fantasy totals. However, keep in mind two simple things. One, Fitzgerald still managed to finish as the PPR WR11 during Johnson's massive 2016 season. Two, Antonio Brown has managed to be a top-three fantasy receiver in each of the last four years, regardless of Le'Veon Bell's success.
Elite running backs and wide receivers can coexist, and Fitz and DJ have already proven they're capable of doing just that.
No Spring Chicken
With an August birthday, Fitzgerald will be 35 at the start of the 2018 NFL season. He’s is beyond the age apex for wide receivers, so it makes sense to fear that Fitz may hit a wall soon.
But in recent seasons, he hasn’t shown significant signs of decline. In 2016 and 2017, Fitzgerald played all 32 games with a 100% snap share. He also had a 27.2% target share and a 27.4% red-zone target share in 2017. Over the last three years, he's averaged 152 targets for per-season averages of 108 receptions, 1,131 yards and 7 touchdowns.
It sure doesn't look like his aging body is a problem.
Also, it’s helpful to look at how other receivers aged in their age-35 seasons.
Fitzgerald has played 218 NFL games, tied with Randy Moss for 15th-most games played by an NFL receiver. Few players have the same longevity and experience of Fitzgerald. Therefore, the following charts reflect research on all other wide receivers with at least 200 games played.
The only omission from this research was Dwight Stone, who was mostly used as a special teamer after his age-30 season. (In his last 6 seasons, even though he played 92 games, Stone had only 2 receptions.) It should also be noted that Jerry Rice's age-36 season was used instead of his age-35 season because he played only two games in his age-35 campaign.
|Age 35 Seasons||Targets/Game||Rec/Game||Yards/Game||TDs/Game|
|Within 10% of Age-34 Season||32%||36%||36%||16%|
|Greater than 10% Increase from Age-34 Season||26%||24%||20%||32%|
|Greater than 10% Decrease from Age-34 Season||42%||40%||44%||52%|
|Within 10% of Age 32-34 Seasons||42%||20%||24%||16%|
|Greater than 10% Increase from Age 32-34 Seasons||5%||20%||12%||20%|
|Greater than 10% Decrease from Age 32-34 Seasons||53%||60%||64%||64%|
The above chart shows what percentage of these age-35 receivers had similar production, an increase, or a decrease. Reviewing this shows that it's not a definite thing that a wide receiver will have a significant decline in their age-35 campaign.
|Average Increase or Decrease||Targets/Game||Rec/Game||Yards/Game||TDs/Game|
|From Age-34 Season to Age-35 Season||-8.13%||-2.44%||-6.17%||-4.74%|
|From Age 32-24 Seasons to Age-35 Season||-13.89%||-8.48%||-12.92%||-17.25%|
Being safe with projections, I then took the average increase or decrease of all 25 receivers. Whether it was from age 34 to age 35 or ages 32-34 to age 35, they showed decline as a whole. So, I looked at what Fitzgerald's production in 2018 would look like if we applied these average declines.
|Larry Fitzgerald||Tar/G||Rec/G||Yards/G||TDs/G||16-Game Tar||16-Game Rec||16-Game Yards||16-Game TDs|
|Adjusted by Average Decrease for Age 35 Season||9.24||6.64||67.79||0.36||148||106||1,085||5.75|
|Age 32-34 Seasons||9.50||6.77||70.70||0.44|
|Adjusted by Average Decrease for Age 35 Season||8.18||6.20||61.57||0.36||131||99||985||5.75|
This puts his age-adjusted projected PPR points at either 232 or 249, both of which would've made him a top-10 PPR wideout in 2017. That's not too far off from what our projections have for Fitz this year as we peg him to put up 100 catches, 1,055 yards and 5.7 touchdowns.
So factoring in a decline, Fitzgerald would still be a very valuable fantasy football producer. And that's ignoring the possibility of his production staying the same or increasing. The Cardinals are third in vacated targets this offseason with 243 vacated targets (41% of the team total) and 2,589 vacated air-yards (44.2% of team total). It's quite possible that Fitzgerald holds his volume-based production.
That's what we want in fantasy football. Volume. Follow the volume.
Compared to last year, Fitzgerald's quarterback play should see a boost, his volume should (roughly) stay the same, and even though he's going to be 35, it's not as big of a detriment as people would think.
The best thing about all this is that you can get a top-10 wide receiver -- a guy with top-5 upside -- at the back end of the third round in redraft leagues.
Don't get cute, and don't overthink it -- draft Larry Fitzgerald.