Will This Be the Year Larry Fitzgerald Finally Falls Off the Production Cliff?

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been talking about retirement. Is 2016 when his production finally slows?

Not long ago, there was a particularly rainy day in Minnesota, with wind that seemed to wail against windows and shake the Twin Cities to their core.

It was bitterly cold and strangely quiet for how violent the weather was. It was that morning that the North Star State woke up to find that one of its favorite sons, the legendary musician Prince, had passed away.

I know this is a somber way to lead off an article, but there was joy in that communal sorrow; that night, Minneapolis was literally and metaphorically lit purple. Thousands of people flocked to the First Avenue music venue, where Prince made his name, and celebrated him together at a tribute concert. It was beauty in the midst of sadness.

The reason I bring this up is that the city of Minneapolis might watch another hometown hero’s career end in 2016, as Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has said that he is seriously pondering retirement after this year. Still, we shouldn’t mourn what might be the end of a potential Hall of Fame career -- we should celebrate it like it’s 1999.

Will Larry Fitzgerald’s possible swan song season zoom like a little red Corvette, or will he just “let it go”?

When Cardinals Cry

I’ve always loved the fact that Larry Fitzgerald comes back to his original high school, the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minnesota, to run a football camp for kids in the offseason. My fiancée, an AHA alumna, proudly reminds me that she could someday see the nine-time Pro Bowler at alumni events.

In just about a year, Fitzgerald might be spending a lot more time in Minnesota eating tater tot hotdish at reunions, but until then, he has at least one encore to go on for in the desert.

Fitzgerald has performed at an incredibly high level for almost every one of his 12 years in the NFL, but going on age 33, his own natural abilities may be waning. It’s therefore imperative that we look at the Cardinals’ team situation to assess his 2016 value.

The table below shows the number of passing attempts the Cardinals’ offense has had over the past three seasons (since head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer joined the team), and the percentage of those attempts targeting wide receivers.

Year Attempts WR Share
2013 574 67.07%
2014 568 63.91%
2015 562 68.86%

In each year since Palmer and Arians gave Fitzgerald a real reason to keep playing for the Cardinals, the team’s total passing attempts have gone down. Still, the percentage of targets to wide receivers has stayed relatively stable, despite the slight decrease of total opportunities flying around for the Cards.

The main reason for the minor dip in passing appears to be a major uptick in rushing success for Arizona, as measured by numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can learn more about in our glossary. Arizona ranked 28th in the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt in 2013, but they were 8th last year. With less of a need to throw, they’ve shifted out of air raid mode towards a more balanced offense, accruing a 1.31 pass-to-run play call ratio in 2015; the league average was 1.44.

At numberFire, however, our algorithms appear to indicate that that passing attempt total will swing back upward a fair amount in 2016. Carson Palmer is projected to toss 607 passing attempts this year, which would be 45 more than last year, and around 30 of those targets appear ticketed for the wideouts.

Can Fitz capitalize on this?

Let’s Go Crazy

Another key facet of Fitzgerald’s 2016 value will be how the Cardinals decide to deploy him.

In 2015, Fitzgerald ran 56.94 percent of his routes out of the slot (per Pro Football Focus), despite his stereotypical outside receiver frame at 6’3”, 218 pounds. The Cardinals realized last year that Fitz was struggling to gain separation as a full-time boundary receiver, and moved him to a higher-percentage position. We’ve recently looked at how the slot affects a wide receiver’s fantasy production, but how has this shift affected Fitzgerald himself?

The table below shows Fitz’s production over the last five years in terms of Reception NEP, Reception Success Rate (the percent of plays converted to positive NEP), catch rate, and target market share (percent of targets Fitzgerald himself accounted for). Is he on the decline?

Year Targ Market Share Catch Rate Rec NEP/T Success Rate
2011 154 28.00% 51.95% 0.79 92.50%
2012 156 25.66% 45.51% 0.43 74.56%
2013 135 23.52% 60.74% 0.63 81.71%
2014 103 18.13% 61.17% 0.65 82.54%
2015 146 25.98% 74.66% 0.68 88.07%

From 2011 to 2014, Fitzgerald’s targets dropped from 154 to 103, a severe decline. More than that, however, his market share dropped from over one-fourth of the Cardinals’ receiving offense to under one-fifth of the team’s targets. It had gotten bad very quickly.

We know that 2012 was when the Cardinals’ quarterback situation bottomed out with the likes of Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and John Skelton, so we can forgive some of the atrocious value stats that year. Still, even when Carson Palmer arrived in town, both Fitzgerald’s catch rate and Reception NEP per target only rebounded to about the league average for wide receivers over the past five years: a 58.26 percent catch rate and 0.66 Reception NEP per target.

Last year, as he became a movable chess piece and versatile weapon, Fitzgerald saw a nearly 50 percent increase in his targets, an additional seven percentage points to his market share, an increase of 13.49 percentage points in his catch rate, and a slight tick up in Reception NEP per target and Reception Success Rate.

The slot did him wonders, as he caught 81.25 percent of his slot targets (52 of 64) and was targeted on 20.25 percent of his routes from this spot. Among the 41 receivers with at least 30 slot targets, Fitzgerald ranked 11th in yards per route run in the slot. Outside, he was targeted at a higher rate -- on 31.80 percent of his routes -- and still caught 75.00 percent of them, and ranked fifth among the 77 wide receivers with at least 30 boundary targets in yards per route run outside.

The versatility that he showed in 2015 leads me to believe that Fitzgerald could survive in the NFL for a few more years as a physical possession receiver like former Arizona teammate Anquan Boldin. As his usage moves closer to the line of scrimmage, though, his yards per route run and value on a per-target basis will diminish. His sure hands will guarantee him plenty of targets and receptions as long as he plays, but he just may not be able to break off long plays with regularity over the next few years.

New Power Generation

With our 2016 projections up and running for the lead-in to training camp, our algorithms have put Fitzgerald as the 27th-best fantasy option at wide receiver in standard scoring leagues (19th in PPR). We have him pegged for a 91-catch, 1,156-yard, and 6-touchdown season in his 13th year in the league, which would be impeccable for the 33-year-old City of Lakes native.

To put this in context, there have only been 13 wide receiver seasons since 1920 where a receiver Fitzgerald’s age or older has caught at least 90 receptions. Seven of those were by Hall of Famers Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and Jerry Rice. Company like that is on the verge of being obscene.

The Cardinals' offense is one to trust for wide receiver value, and the second-most famous Fitzgerald from Minnesota doesn’t appear to be slowing down yet after a brief career speed bump. Take a chance on him in your 2016 fantasy leagues; it could only make you (and your team) stronger.