Why Larry Fitzgerald Is Not A Top Tier Wide Receiver

One of football's constants has changed. Larry Fitzgerald is no longer a top tier wide receiver.

It’s weird to see Larry Fitzgerald anywhere other than in the top tier of fantasy wide receivers. It’s like going to Mt. Rushmore and noticed that someone lopped off George Washington. Yet here we are. In our tier rankings, we’ve dropped Fitz down to the second tier, and he is our 16th-ranked wide receiver. The heck? Why is Larry Fitzgerald not a top tier wideout?

According to mock drafts, Fitzgerald’s current average draft position is just over 25. That’s like the first pick of the third round. Please, please don’t do this to yourself. As a 2012 Fitzgerald fantasy owner, it’s hard to overstate just how bad and soul-crushing his season was. But let me give it a shot anyway.

2012: Larry’s Apocalypse

Fitzgerald’s base 2012 stats: 71 catches for 798 yards and 4 TDs. The 798 yards puts him at 41st in the league, and only 20 yards ahead of the immortal Davone Bess. Fitz was getting picked in the second or third round. Bess might’ve gone undrafted in your league. Fitzgerald averaged 11.2 yards per catch, good for 188th in the league. This also tied him with Danny Woodhead, who y’know, plays running back. And people are still taking number 11 in the late second round.

But those were just the base stats. Maybe the advanced stats will prove more favorable for our hero?

Don’t hold your breath. Fitzgerald averaged .43 net expected points (NEP) per target last season. Randall Cobb, Eric Decker and Cecil Shorts all doubled him in that category. Guys like Danny Amendola, James Jones, Josh Gordon, Michael Jenkins, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jeremy Kerley and Wes Welker (who had a ton of targets, which should lower his rate) all had higher receiving NEP/target than Fitzgerald. None of them were particularly close.

Fitzgerald posted a staggeringly bad 45.5 percent catch rate, worse than old stone hands himself, Vincent Jackson. This stat isn’t entirely Fitz’s fault though. Where Jackson was just dropping balls that hit him in the hands, Fitzgerald was watching helplessly as balls thrown by the three-headed Kolb/Skelton/Lindley monster sailed over his head and bounced at his feet. So if that stat is a little misleading, why include it?

In fantasy football, you can’t divorce a wide receiver from his quarterback, no matter how hard you try. (And no matter how hard you try, trust that Fitzgerald has tried even harder.) So yeah, it’s not totally fair that Fitzgerald has had crappy quarterbacks since Kurt Warner retired, but that’s life. It’s part of his projection, just like Vincent Jackson’s stone hands.

However, there is good news for Cardinals fans and potential Fitzgerald fantasy owners: barring like two injuries, none of the guys who threw passes to Fitzgerald last year will throw him passes this year. The not-as-good news is that the new guy throwing him passes will be Carson Palmer, who helmed the immortal 2012 Oakland Raiders offense.

Palmer and the Illusion of Hope

Make no bones about it, Palmer is leaps and bounds ahead of the three-headed monster. By comparison, he’s going to seem like a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But what the Cardinals are really getting is an average to below-average fantasy QB with a penchant for throwing interceptions. Palmer put up .05 NEP/pass last season, which is better than Andy Dalton, the same as Joe Flacco, worse than Josh Freeman, and significantly worse than Alex Smith. (Smith, while not exactly a fantasy stud, was an extremely efficient quarterback last year before he went down with an injury and released the legend of Kaepernick on the world.)

But the interceptions won’t even be Palmer’s biggest concern next year. That would be Arizona’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad offensive line. The Cardinals gave up 58 sacks last year, which was dead last in the league. Their adjusted sack rate was 8.1 percent, 26th in the league. And lest you think this was a line that just happened not to specialize in pass protection, the Cardinals were also dead stinkin’ last in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric.

So far in the offseason, the Cardinals drafted Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick (promising) and signed backup Chilo Rachal (less promising). Former first round pick Levi Brown will be back at left tackle after missing most of 2012 with a triceps injury. The line should be a little better. But even a little better is still going to be bad, and it’s tough to project a 33-year-old Carson Palmer having a renaissance year playing behind his worst offensive line ever. (The most he’s ever been sacked in a season was 36 times.)

All this ragging on Larry Fitzgerald obscures the fact that he is a tremendously talented player, one of the best in the league at his position. But this year he simply isn’t a top tier wide receiver. If you can nab him as your second wideout in the middle rounds, great. If you’re taking him late in the second round, you need to brace yourself for disappointment.