Is Larry Fitzgerald Already in the Twilight of His Career?

Larry Fitzgerald was a spectacular receiver early in his career. Has his light faded a decade later?

There are times as a sports fan when you realize that you are watching true greatness. There are rare moments in history where talent translates to production with one hundred percent efficiency for a player, and there's no question that they will place their name in the history books soon. These are generational talents, and to get a chance to see them play is memorable, to say the least.

Sadly, though, there are a fair few times that we see these talents with massive production never achieve a championship in their sport due to various circumstances. Even worse, there are some players whose elite talent never fully becomes elite production due to poor supporting casts hindering them.

Larry Fitzgerald has always seemed a classic case of the latter situation.

For years since playing with Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald has dealt with quarterback play that can be described as “inconsistent” at best, but more often than not deserves the term “atrocious”. One bright spot of consistency has been the presence of offensive and pass-minded head coach Ken Whisenhunt, but even he proved expendable after the 2012 season.

Now, though, the Cardinals have vertical offense guru Bruce Arians as their head coach and big-armed gunslinger Carson Palmer tossing the ball. But is it too late for Larry Fitzgerald? At age 30, is the sun beginning to set on what could have been a superstar career, or can he have a renaissance in the second year of this Bruce Arians system?

This Side of Paradise

The first thing we want to look at is Fitzgerald’s past production, especially put in context of his quarterback play. If he's produced well despite poor quarterbacking, this should be one good sign for his own ability to sustain value.

To determine both Fitzgerald’s career value, as well as his quarterbacks’, we will use our signature metric here at numberFire: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a representation of how much a player advances his team’s chances of scoring on any drive, measured in expected points. For more on NEP, check out our glossary.

Since 2004, when Larry Fitzgerald entered the league, he's had a fairly prolific career: 10 seasons of 100-plus targets, over 900 yards receiving in every season but two, and an average of 8.7 touchdowns a year. That is – to put it mildly – very good. How does he fare in NEP, though, which helps us peer at the production behind the statistics? The table below shows Fitzgerald’s 10 years in the league by his NEP marks, as well as the ranks for each category among wide receivers with more than 100 targets in a season.

YearRec NEPRankTarget NEPRankRec NEP/ TargetRank
200469.6431st-4.8636th 0.6128th
2005120.134th53.839th 0.7316th
200694.3519th54.025th 0.856th
2007116.067th43.0811th 0.69t-14th
2008132.671st87.911st 0.874th
2009102.3111th42.2713th 0.6717th
2010100.449th2.8429th 0.5826th
2011121.244th35.5815th 0.7912th
201267.3531st-42.7639th 0.4339th
201385.5921st26.7522nd 0.6323rd

There are a few things to notice about Fitzgerald’s career production. First, his best year by far came in 2008, when Kurt Warner stayed healthy and took over 500 drop backs as a Cardinal for the first time (from 2005 to 2007, Warner was splitting snaps with Josh McCown). Fitz’s worst year was alongside the quarterback carousel of 2012 that featured the likes of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley. This disaster of a season, however, is a clear aberration in NEP production, as between his rookie 2004 and 2011, Fitzgerald never ranked outside the top 20 wide receivers in Reception NEP. He has been the most valuable and reliable receiving option for Arizona for most of his career, and this production reflects that.

What is key to notice, though, are Fitzgerald’s Target NEP (all NEP gained or lost during plays on which the player was targeted) and Reception NEP on a per target basis (production efficiency; NEP value per opportunity). In six of his 10 seasons, Fitzgerald’s per target efficiency has been seven or more rankings lower than his raw Reception NEP, showing that his value has been fairly dependent on volume. This is especially true in the last few years, as four of the last five seasons fall into this volume-dependent category of production.

In addition, though Fitzgerald has been a regular top-10 receiver in NEP production (five times in ten seasons), only three years have seen him with a top-10 Target NEP ranking. This indicates that either the quality of targets being provided to Fitzgerald have been supremely subpar, or that he himself has been an atrocious receiving option. With a 57.09% career reception rate, it’s doubtful that it’s the latter. This means that we have to look at his quarterback production to get a full picture of where Fitzgerald’s career trajectory is headed.

The Beautiful and the Damned

Certainly one needs talent to be a great wide receiver in the NFL; no amount of system value or supporting talent can make up for pure talent. However, superstardom is a conflux of talent, support, and usage, and the latter two points are more reliant on a receiver’s quarterback than on himself.

The table below charts out the last five years of quarterback play for the Cardinals, according to Passing NEP (a measure of NEP gained on any drop back by the quarterback) and Passing NEP on a per target basis, and the league ranks for each. The results are fairly grim.

YearQuarterbackPass NEPRankPass NEP/PRank
2009Kurt Warner64.3811th0.12 12th
2010D. Anderson/J. Skelton-78.6238th-0.1636th
2011K. Kolb/J. Skelton-43.9831st-0.08 30th
2012K. Kolb/J. Skelton/R. Lindley-141.4839th-0.2336th
2013C. Palmer25.8019th0.04 21st

We always wonder what might have been if Barry Sanders had played out his career. I wonder what might be if Larry Fitzgerald continues to suffer through miserable quarterback play in his time in Arizona. Kurt Warner’s 2008 season was a complete revival tour, and it buoyed everything around him. Yet Warner’s 2009 was only half as prolific by Passing NEP, and still we saw Fitz as a near top-10 receiver that year. Since then, though, there has been a clown show under center in the desert. For three straight years between 2010 to 2012, nearly every team in the league had a quarterback better than the Cardinals’ committee by every NEP measure possible. It’s almost not worth commenting on how useless the Derek Anderson/Kolb/Skelton/Lindley mess has been.

In 2013, the trade for Carson Palmer gave hope back to the team. Palmer has never been a highly efficient passer, but we can see that even a mediocre top-20 ranking in the passing metrics puts Palmer’s Cardinals contribution well above what Fitzgerald has enjoyed of late. And yet, Fitzgerald had his second-worst non-rookie season by Reception NEP in his career in 2013. The mediocrity of Palmer only made Fitzgerald usable again, not stellar. In 2014, if Palmer doesn't improve, Fitzgerald may retain some value, but not enough to boost him back into elite territory.

All the Sad Young Men

Larry Fitzgerald has been primarily a volume receiver over the latter half of his career to date, relying on heavy target counts to produce big value in the face of lagging efficiency. With a lackluster passing game, Fitzgerald hasn’t received nearly as much quality or quantity in recent years, and has therefore slumped in regards to his early career production. From watching him play, I don’t believe much has changed in his personal ability, but the situation has rapidly worsened around him as his own role in the offense has changed. Simultaneously, we're witnessing the ascent of Michael Floyd, the third-year receiver who – with 20 fewer targets than Fitzgerald in 2013 – outproduced his teammate in Reception NEP by more than 10 expected points.

If this passing game improves in 2014, I expect Floyd – not Fitzgerald – to be the big beneficiary. He already is making more of each opportunity, and his role figures to expand more than Fitzgerald’s. While Fitz may not be in the actual twilight of his career, he has the role of a twilight receiver and that figures to only fade more and more as his spectacular career carries on.