Larry Fitzgerald Is the Arizona Cardinals' Wide Receiver to Draft in Fantasy Football
Almost every fantasy site on the web will have at least one piece this offseason touting Christian Kirk as one of the top breakout candidates in the league for the 2019 NFL season -- and as we'll see ahead, there's good reason for that.
In June, fantasy drafters have been selecting Kirk almost 20 picks ahead of his teammate, future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald, though. According to Draft.com's Average Draft Position (ADP) data, Kirk is going at an average pick of 84.1, compared to 103.5 for Fitz. Has the hype gotten out of hand, or can we really expect this to be the year that Fitzgerald passes the torch along?
A Glimmer of Hope in a Lost Season
Kirk was one of the few bright spots on a depressingly terrible 2018 Arizona Cardinals team. When his season came to an early end, landing on the injured reserve following Arizona's unexpected victory over the Green Bay Packers, his 590 receiving yards led the team.
This was impressive for multiple reasons. While his counting stats didn't truly jump off the stat sheet, his performance was noteworthy when compared to his teammates. Kirk averaged 8.68 yards per target, which was the highest mark on the team by over 2 yards. Fitzgerald ranked second on the squad with 6.55 yards per target.
Unfortunately we didn't get to see Kirk finish out the season, but extrapolating his first 12 games to a full season would have resulted in 57.6 receptions, 787 yards and 4 scores. Again, not overly impressive numbers, but encouraging when we factor in his situation -- not to mention that he wasn't a full-time offensive contributor until around Week 6. He played more than 75% of the team's offensive snaps only once in the first five games of the year, but starting in Week 6 he never played 75% or fewer until his season ended.
Kirk was an exciting prospect coming into the league as well. He broke out for the Texas A&M Aggies in his age 18 season -- something that bodes very well for his future in the NFL. He led the Aggies in receptions in each of his three collegiate seasons while contributing as an elite punt and kick returner -- another positive indicator of future NFL production.
As we briefly mentioned at the beginning of the section, Kirk was a more efficient receiver than Fitzgerald in 2018. This held true for virtually any method of measuring wide receiver efficiency, too, including numberFire's Target Net Expected Points (NEP) per Target metric. That measures, on average, how many points were added to the Cardinals' expected total every time the ball was thrown to Kirk. You can read more about NEP in our glossary. Kirk led all Cardinals with 0.28 Target NEP per Target, and Fitzgerald trailed him by a big margin with 0.18.
Per AirYards.com, Kirk had both a higher average depth of target and a higher receiver air yard conversion rate than Fitzgerald as well, meaning that Kirk was getting targets further down the field and converting them into real yards more efficiently than his teammate. And despite missing the final four games of the season, Kirk still led the team with 226 yards after the catch.
It's really not hard to see why Kirk is considered one of the most likely candidates for a breakout 2019 season -- he arguably already broke out in 2018, he just did it in a situation so bad for receivers that no one really noticed. Cardinals quarterbacks threw for just 2,523 combined passing yards in 2018, the fewest in the league and the lowest total since the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars. No receiver could thrive in that situation, but Kirk did the best he could with what he had.
A Perennial Stud
At this point you might be wondering if there's even an argument to be made in favor of Fitzgerald outproducing his young teammate. It's definitely a fair question. And frankly, I don't think there is a very strong one. But given his current price in recent fantasy drafts, there is an argument to be made that Fitzgerald is a better value than Kirk in fantasy drafts.
As mentioned, Fitzgerald has an ADP of 103.5, and he's going as the 45th wide receiver off the board. Kirk -- still a value himself -- comes off the board at pick 84.1, as the WR34. This implies multiple ideas regarding the Cardinals situation. First, it implies that the public believes that Fitzgerald's fantasy production will finally crater for good in his age 36 season. And second, it implies that the public is fading the Cardinals passing offense in general, presumably on the basis of their catastrophic 2018 season.
But despite dealing with that catastrophic offense, Fitzgerald still managed to do what he always does -- lead the team in receiving yards. Kirk had more yards than Fitzgerald when the team shut him down for the year, but Fitz managed to produce a team-high 734 receiving yards in his 16 games -- 29.1% of the Cardinals' total receiving yardage.
According to PlayerProfiler.com, Fitzgerald was still efficient relative to his situation. According to their target premium metric, which evaluates a player's fantasy production per target relative to their teammates, Fitzgerald's 27.5% premium ranked 14th-best among qualifying NFL wideouts. It's worth noting that Kirk ranked fifth overall in that particular metric, but Fitzgerald was still able to have a top-notch premium despite only being the second-most efficient receiver on the team. Efficiency metrics like these that take a player's situation into account suggest that Fitzgerald is still a good NFL receiver capable of producing for fantasy football this year.
Since entering the league in 2004, he has never had fewer than 103 targets in a season. Through 15 NFL seasons, many different coaching staffs, and a chestful of quarterbacks of varying degrees of ability, Fitzgerald has managed to find a way to garner at least 100 targets every single year. On his career stats sheet it looks like 2018 was finally the year his age caught up to him, but Fitzgerald still managed to be produce more efficiently than all but one of his teammates. He's the closest player the league has right now to Jerry Rice, and we should trust him to continue producing in 2019.
And the Cardinals offensive situation should enjoy a nice renaissance in 2019 just on the basis of regression. Regardless of how you feel about rookie quarterback Kyler Murray or new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals offense should bounce back closer to a league-average offense. As I've mentioned throughout this article, the Cardinals offense was truly terrible in 2018 -- unsustainably terrible, in fact. They finished with almost 1,300 fewer passing yards than the average NFL offense had in 2018. Even a genuinely bad passing offense would be expected to regress some from a mark that low, and with Murray and Kingsbury in town it's not even a given that they will indeed by be bad. A rising tide lifts all boats, and both Kirk and Fitz can benefit from that regression.
It doesn't look like Fitzgerald will out-produce Kirk in 2019, but when we factor in draft cost, it does look like he'll prove to be a better value than his teammate -- especially with Kirk's ADP on the rise since the NFL Draft.
Kirk currently finds himself drafted around players like Rashaad Penny, Will Fuller and Marvin Jones -- proven producers and other breakout candidates. Fitzgerald's company is a little less intimidating. Kareem Hunt has an ADP of 103.7, just behind Fitzgerald, and he won't even play until Week 10 this year. A 100-target-plus receiver in the "backup running back range" of your fantasy drafts should be a better value than a typical breakout wide receiver currently being drafted around other, proven producers.
Both players are values heading into the 2019, and every sign is pointed in the right direction for Christian Kirk to enjoy a breakout year. But Larry Fitzgerald is priced like people are expected a repeat of the Cardinals' 2018 struggles, making him a much better bargain than Kirk.