Making Sense of the Larry Fitzgerald Renaissance
As recently as January, a near-consensus of reports out of Arizona were closing the book on the Larry Fitzgerald era, and in a rather undignified manner at that.
Coming off a 2014 season during which he made 63 catches for fewer than 800 yards and just 2 touchdowns, the prevailing opinion was that Fitzgerald was nearing the end. Declining stats, emerging young wideouts, and a looming $23.6 million cap hit -- coupled with Fitzgerald's reported dissatisfaction with his diminished role in the offense -- had rendered his departure from the desert a foregone conclusion.
Even after the Cardinals unexpectedly restructured Fitzgerald's contract, guaranteeing him $22 million over two years, he largely remained an afterthought heading into the 2015 season. The offseason chatter coming out of Glendale was concentrated on a different Cardinals receiver -- second-year speedster John Brown -- much like the spotlight was fixed on Michael Floyd in the lead-up to the 2014 season.
By the end of the offseason, Brown's average draft position (ADP) had surged nearly a full round ahead of Fitzgerald. Even Floyd, whose disappointing 2014 campaign had left many wary fantasy owners in its wake, had an ADP hovering about three spots ahead of Fitzgerald before he dislocated three fingers in early August.
Still Life in His Legs
As we enter week five, it appears that two years of eagerness to crown Fitzgerald's heir were a bit premature. He's off to a blistering start, having amassed 30 catches for 432 yards and five touchdowns in the season's first four weeks -- an otherworldly 120-1,728-20 season-long pace. Fitzgerald currently ranks third among all wide receivers in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) with 41.26, behind only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. NEP, by the way, indicates how well a player performs compared to expectation-level.
While his efficiency is surely unsustainable -- he has enjoyed an 81 percent catch rate and 1.12 Reception NEP per target, an elite number-- his volume is not. His 148-target pace is in line with the 156 targets he averaged at his peak between 2007 and 2013, a span that saw him average 88 catches for 1,176 yards and 9 touchdowns per season. Some regression is inevitable, but it's clear that Fitzgerald still has plenty left in the tank.
A Foreseeable Resurgence
Should we have seen Fitzgerald's revival coming? With Carson Palmer under center, Fitzgerald has posted an adjusted season-long line of 89-1,150-10 in 26 games since 2013, compared to just a 62-602-0 pace in the 8 games without his starting quarterback.
His 2014 touchdown total (two) appears to be an anomaly as well. Last season, Fitzgerald was held scoreless on 12 red zone targets -- more targets than any other wide receiver held without a red zone touchdown -- despite converting 6 of 24 opportunities in 2013 and boasting an impressive career mark of 29 percent.
From a talent evaluation standpoint, the assumption that Fitzgerald was washed up last year at age 31 was always a specious one. Standing just under 6'3" and having ran an unremarkable 4.48 40-yard dash at the 2004 combine, he was never the kind of physical specimen that one would typically expect for a top three overall pick. Fitzgerald has always relied on his exceptional hands, his crisp routes, and his football acumen -- attributes consistent with wide receivers capable of remaining effective well into their 30's.
With a healthy Palmer and a renewed focus on featuring Fitzgerald in one of the league's most efficient offenses, there's very little reason to doubt that he can continue on at least a top-15 wide receiver pace this season (as our remaining projections expect).
Only months removed from being written off, the football world is now watching Fitzgerald write just another chapter in his legacy.