Was Re-Signing Larry Fitzgerald a Smart Move for the Arizona Cardinals?

Fitzgerald and the Cardinals agreed to a two-year deal. Was it the right choice for the organization?

It's hard not to like Larry Fitzgerald.

His entire NFL career has taken place in Arizona on a team that has had its fair share of ups and downs, but his name has been among the wide receiver elite regardless.

This year, despite the Cardinals' locking up a playoff berth, Fitzgerald had, essentially, his worst production in the league since his rookie year and failed to play all 16 games for just the second time in his career.

Things worked well for the Cardinals this year even with injury upon injury, so it's understandable that keeping the squad intact is a priority for Bruce Arians, who deservedly won Coach of the Year.

But with Fitzgerald's failure to secure 1,000 receiving yards for the third consecutive season, it's fair to question his impact on the team.

Statistical Decline

I can kick around Fitzgerald's raw stats for you. His two touchdowns were the fewest he's ever posted, and just the second time in 11 years he failed to secure at least six. His 56.0 yards per game were the third-lowest in his career -- the same rank as his 4.5 receptions per game.

All in all, Fitzgerald finished with the second-fewest receptions (63) and yards (784) in his career combined with the fewest touchdowns (2).

However, Fitzgerald was targeted only 7.39 times per game this year, second-lowest since his rookie year (7.19), and he also missed two games. It's understandable that his total production was down, but how did that affect his receiving metrics?

Analytical Decline?

At numberFire, we have a signature metric called Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP indicates how a player is playing compared to expectation -- or the league-average player. For example, if Fitzgerald secures a 10-yard pass on third-and-11 and the Cardinals have to punt, he didn't add significantly to his team's chance to score. If, instead, he picks up a 10-yard reception on third-and-9, the Cardinals will continue the drive, and Fitzgerald will be rewarded more specifically than just 10 yards and a reception, and each situation on the football field has an expected outcome. If you need more explanation, check out our glossary.

So what does NEP have to say about Fitzgerald's recent performances?

Well, this year, his Reception NEP -- the expected points gained on all of his receptions -- was 67.09. This was the lowest in his career by a slim margin (his Reception NEP in 2012 was just 67.35). This could easily be a product of his lowered reception and target totals.

Still, his Reception NEP per target of 0.65 was just the seventh-best mark in his 11-year career. He did, though, catch 61.17 percent of his targets, which was the fifth-best mark in his career.

Among the Birds

Perhaps the biggest issue with Fitzgerald's recent production is that he's no longer performing -- or being used -- as the clear number-one option at wide receiver.

In Fitzerald's tenure, he has led the Cardinals in Reception NEP in eight of 11 years. Anquan Boldin in 2006 had a Reception NEP of 106.38, which topped Fitzgerald's 95.35. In 2006, though, Fitzgerald missed three games and saw just 111 targets (Boldin had 152). Fitzgerald posted a Reception NEP per target of 0.85 to Boldin's 0.70.

But last year -- 2013, that is -- Michael Floyd actually bested Fitzgerald in Reception NEP (96.41 to 85.59), marking the first real time in Fitzgerald's career that he wasn't the best wide receiver on the team. Floyd's per-target Reception NEP was vastly better than Fitzgerald's, too: 0.85 to 0.63.

Floyd narrowly edged him again this year in Reception NEP (68.22 to 67.09) and in Reception NEP per target (0.69 to 0.65). It's clear that Fitzgerald is no longer a cut above the rest of his teammates in terms of production, so it's fair to see where he stacks up among the rest of the NFL.

Among the Masses

On the season, Fitzgerald ranked just 38th in Reception NEP among the 56 receivers who caught at least 50 passes this year. Per target, though, he ranked 32nd.

In 2013, 45 receivers caught at least 40 passes. Among them, Fitzgerald ranked 21st in Reception NEP and 31st in Reception NEP per target. In 2012, Fitzgerald was 35th of 49 in Reception NEP and last on a per-target basis, adding just 0.43 points per target.

When adjusted for schedule strength, the Cardinals team Passing NEP hasn't ranked higher on a per-drop back basis than 14th since 2009, but that hasn't necessarily meant bad news for Fitzgerald's production before.

SeasonCardinals Adj PNEP/PRankFitzgerald Rec NEPRank
20140.062167.0938 of 56
20130.061785.5921 of 45
2012-0.153167.3535 of 49
2011-0.0422121.244 of 47
2010-0.2331100.4410 of 47
20090.0614102.3111 of 47
20080.176132.671 of 47
20070.0814116.067 of 52
20060.081094.3519 of 43
2005-0.0219120.134 of 40
2004-0.122869.6431 of 42

There's no real way to say that the Cardinals overall have been a good passing team in the past three seasons, three of Fitzgerald's least effective in his career. However, Fitzgerald has posted top-10 Reception NEP totals with passing squads outside the top 20.

Still, Fitzgerald's splits with Carson Palmer were undeniably better than in the 10 games without him.

2014 SplitsTargetsReceptionsYardsYards/Reception
Without Palmer7.783.7836.899.76
With Palmer6.835.3380.5015.09

Palmer is coming off an ACL tear, and at 35, his recovery is a bit worrisome. However, for what it's worth, he feels good expects to participate in mini camp and training camp.

Did the Cardinals Get It Right?

While the financial details of the contract are still a bit unclear, general Manager Steve Keim indicates that the Cardinals can both be aggressive in free agency and retain the face of the franchise as a result of the agreed-upon figures. Fitzgerald's old contract would have been a $26.3 million cap hit in 2015.

Fitzgerald's metrics have declined in a significant way during the past three seasons, and while the sub-par quarterback play didn't help, he had been able to overcome such a handcuff earlier in his career. Fitzgerald hasn't produced much more than average metrics since a phenomenal campaign in 2011, but he displayed his potential with Palmer this year.

It's easy to knock Fitzgerald's waning metrics, but considering that he restructured to improve the team and allow it enough cap space to contend in free agency, that he's not grossly unproductive (i.e. he's been about average in the past three season), and that he really did perform well with Palmer, this deal is hard to criticize.