With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at if one of the league’s best receivers ever can continue to produce at a high level in his 15th season.
2017 looked like the end of an era for the Arizona Cardinals. Head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer both retired after the season, closing the book on one of the team’s most productive five-year stretches in franchise history. The Cardinals won’t exactly field a roster oozing with blue chip talents after compiling a mediocre 15-16-1 record over the past two seasons, but that didn’t stop their most valuable player ever from returning for one more go round.
Larry Fitzgerald Has Thrived No Matter His Quarterback
Since being drafted by the Cardinals in the 2004, Fitzgerald has mostly been forced to play with a revolving door of quarterbacks: 14 different starters in total, eight of which started for at least half a season.
Fitzgerald has undoubtedly benefited from decorated play callers such as Arians, Ken Whisenhunt, and Todd Haley, as well as from catching passes from Palmer and Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. That said, Fitzgerald played without Palmer and Warner for more than half of his career, and his ability to thrive with not just them, but also the Arizona’s plethora of other quarterbacks — many of whom were borderline-incompetent (Ryan Lindley, anyone?) — might be his greatest career achievement:
Larry Fitzgerald PPR finish by season:
Current ADP: WR15
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) July 2, 2018
Overall, Fitzgerald has finished top-12 or better in nine of his 14 seasons with the Cardinals. His career has been prolonged in part thanks to his willingness to embrace a role in the slot, where he can best use his route-running savvy to offset any age-related physical decline. He was featured in the slot on 62% of his snaps last season, and as noted by Evan Silva in his excellent Cardinals Fantasy Preview, presumptive 2018 starting quarterback Sam Bradford has heavily featured slot receivers throughout his career, such as Danny Amendola, Jordan Matthews, and Stefon Diggs.
Question Marks Surround the Offense
While it’d be shocking if anyone other than Fitzgerald leads the team in targets next season, it’s hard to ignore the team’s bleak overall outlook. Arians is the winningest coach in franchise history, and he only coached there for five years. The Cardinals’ extensive track record of losing produced an astounding 32-year stretch from 1977 to 2008 in which they failed to produce a single season with double-digit wins. Newfound expectations under Arians helped produce preseason Vegas win totals of at least 7.5 for the Cardinals in each of the past four seasons, but BetOnline currently has them at 5.5 (with a slight, -150 lean on the over) as the team ushers in a new era. However, even if the Cardinals don’t win many games, his career numbers suggest he should be able to still produce at a similar rate in terms of receptions and yardage, though we should temper touchdown expectations a bit:
- Career in wins: 5.8 receptions, 72.1 yards, 0.61 touchdowns per game (109 games)
- Career in losses: 5.5 receptions, 70.2 yards, 0.40 touchdowns per game (108 games)
One issue likely driving pessimism about the Cardinals in 2018 is Bradford’s health. Bradford’s ex-head coach, Mike Zimmer, described Bradford’s knee issue as “degenerative,” and he’s failed to start even eight games in three of the past five seasons. First-round selection Josh Rosen has been lauded by many analysts as the most pro-ready quarterback of the 2018 NFL Draft, but he too faces question marks after slipping to the 10th overall pick.
Again, though, it doesn’t really matter who’s throwing Fitzgerald the football:
Larry Fitzgerald PPR per game by QB:
Kurt Warner: 18.9
Matt Leinart: 17.3
Blaine Gabbert: 16.7
Kevin Kolb: 16.5
Carson Palmer: 15.9
Josh McCown: 15.1
John Skelton: 15.1
Drew Stanton: 14.5
Derek Anderson: 14.3
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) July 2, 2018
Considering Fitzgerald’s track record of success with quarterbacks regardless of skill level, the more meaningful change for him in 2018 might be at play caller. New head coach Steven Wilks is a defensive mind, but he’s brought in former Broncos offensive coordinator and Chargers head coach Mike McCoy to run the offense. McCoy has consistently led an effective — albeit far from groundbreaking — pass-first offense that ranked in the top half of the league in passing attempts and yards in 7-of-9 seasons.
How the Supporting Cast Factors In
While it’s tough to not view Fitzgerald’s new coach and quarterback as a downgrade until proven otherwise, it’s also tough to see his elite target share (27% in 2017, tied for sixth in the NFL) going anywhere.
In 2018, free-agent departures John Bown and Jaron Brown have been replaced on the wide receiver depth chart by former Cowboy deep threat Brice Butler and versatile rookie Christian Kirk, and other than the aforementioned changes at quarterback, the biggest hurdle in Fitzgerald’s path to another strong fantasy season is the return of do-it-all running back David Johnson from a wrist injury, considering Johnson’s receiving production was nearly unprecedented among running backs in 2016. Still, Fitzgerald has posted agnostic splits with Johnson in or out of the lineup over the past three seasons — because of course he has:
- With Johnson: 9.4 targets, 6.8 receptions, 70.2 yards, 0.45 touchdowns, 16.5 PPR points per game (33 games)
- Without Johnson: 9.9 targets, 6.9 receptions, 72.1 yards, 0.40 touchdowns, 16.5 PPR points per game (15 games)
Fitzgerald will be 35 years young by the end of the season, and he no longer possesses the burst to repeatedly take the top off a defense, but this has been the case for years, and he’s remained an elite fantasy asset thanks to his stranglehold on not only his team’s overall target share, but also their red-zone target share. He joins the best fantasy receiver since Jerry Rice, the league’s leader in receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons, and 2017 First-Team All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins in a tie for first place with 59 red-zone targets since 2015, and he also joins Jarvis Landry as the only two players with 30+ targets inside the 10-yard line over that span.
For years now, it would’ve been fair to anticipate a decline from Fitzgerald, but he simply keeps making plays. While the 2018 Cardinals offense might not look like the one we’ve grown accustomed to under Arians, it would be surprising if Fitzgerald doesn’t continue to be a monster in the slot and make a big fantasy impact.
Pictured above: Larry Fitzgerald
Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports