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Unjustly Underrated: Larry Fitzgerald

Larry_Fitzgerald2

Editor’s Note: Throughout the off-season, we’re sharing some of the articles we’d typically post in our Premium Content section.  Today’s article is just that with an in-depth look at Larry Fitzgerald.

Talk to any fantasy owner or football fan about the top candidates for the biggest disappointment in 2012 and Larry Fitzgerald’s name inevitably surfaces. Given his current situation in Arizona and his age (he’ll be 30 years old in August), many dynasty owners are skeptical about his long-term value. For a receiver that was ranked as a top five receiver only a year ago, it appears that many are snake bitten with his 2012 performance.  Not everyone agrees that he’s undervalued, as more and more people seem to believe that his 2012 season may be the signs of quick Fitzgerald decline.

Background

Unlike some other players who’ve been the focus of Unjustly Underrated series, Fitzgerald doesn’t appear to be grossly underrated (top five according to some versus top ten to fifteen by others). However, given the long-term potential he has to play at a high level for several years, many may actually be too quick to write him off.

To provide background on the genesis of this article, there were a number of discussions in the DLF Forum throughout the week leading up to the Super Bowl concerning Fitzgerald’s dynasty value. I jumped into the discussion mid-stream when I noted that Fitzgerald is currently ranked in my top five receivers. Throughout the discussion, I also shared some of the analysis I’d done previously that led me to rank Fitzgerald in my top five receivers. Now, we can debate whether he should be a few spots lower on the rankings similar to what many experts, other sites, and current average draft position suggest at around #11, but I don’t think that’s the critical point.

Instead, the thing that really struck me throughout the discussion was there are currently polarizing opinions on his dynasty prospects given his horrendous 2012 season. It seems some are skeptical that Fitzgerald will ever reach 1,000 yards in a season again, while others (like myself) believe he’s currently undervalued and he’ll return to his days of finishing in and around the top five.

To provide some further insight into my ranking of Fitzgerald in my top five receivers and set a baseline, it is primarily due to the following:

  • Belief that 2012 was an anomaly due to poor quarterback play and the lack of other offensive weapons;
  • He’s performed at an extremely high level and ranked in and around the top five receivers in multiple seasons;
  • Young players like Michael Floyd and Robert Housler will continue to develop and take some defensive focus and pressure off Fitzgerald;
  • The addition of Bruce Arians, an offensive minded head coach with recent success elsewhere;
  • Fitzgerald’s injury history is impeccable; he is one of the hardest working receivers to ever play the game; and
  • He’s 30 years old and could conceivably play for five plus more seasons at this level given his work ethic and injury history; many receivers currently ranked in the top 10-20 are likely to be non-factors within that same period.

With 2012 being a pivotal season that’s driving long-term dynasty views, there are two main questions that need to be analyzed to get a clearer picture on Fitzgerald’s long-term outlook:

1.)Why did Fitzgerald struggle in 2012?

2.)Was 2012 an anomaly or a sign of things to come?

Analysis

First, here is how Fitzgerald finished in PPR leagues over the last five years (considering full 17 week / 16 game season):

Year

PPR Rank

2012

32

2011

6

2010

11

2009

5

2008

2

The analysis focused on Fitzgerald’s numbers over the past five years since there are very different circumstances within that period. Specifically, Kurt Warner was the quarterback in 2008 and 2009, while from 2010 through 2012, players like Derek Anderson and Kevin Kolb ran the offense. In addition, Anquan Boldin lined up opposite Fitzgerald in 2008 and 2009, while receivers like Andre Roberts, Early Doucet and Steve Breaston started across from Fitzgerald during the period from 2010 through 2012. In essence, the Cardinals 2008 and 2009 team is a juggernaut compared to the marginal offense from 2010 through 2012.

With that background, let’s start with the first question above and discuss some of the potential reasons why Fitzgerald struggled in 2012. To do that, we’ll take common reasons suggested as the cause for his 2012 decline:

1.) The Cardinals offensive line was horrible in 2012, so the quarterback(s) weren’t able to get the ball or get in sync with Fitzgerald.

Here is how the Cardinals’ offensive line ranked in pass protection over the last five years according to Pro Football Focus:

Year

O-Line

Pass Block Rank

PPR Rank
(17 weeks)

2012

32

32

2011

29

6

2010

25

11

2009

31

5

2008

26

2

As you can see from the above, Arizona’s offensive line has been horrible in pass protection over that entire period. That hasn’t stopped Fitzgerald from putting up solid numbers and multiple top ten seasons. While many tag offensive line play as the main issue in Arizona last season, it hasn’t historically impacted his production. He’s posted dominant numbers under similar conditions before – this doesn’t appear to be the main issue in 2012.

2.) Fitzgerald didn’t get enough targets in 2012, which prevented a top ten finish.

Here is the breakdown of Fitzgerald’s targets by year over the last five years:

Year

Targets

PPR Rank
(17 weeks)

2012

148

32

2011

151

6

2010

168

11

2009

147

5

2008

146

2

The above chart suggests otherwise. In fact, Fitzgerald’s targets in 2012 were very comparable to some of his best seasons under Warner in 2009 and 2008 when he finished ranked fifth and second, respectively. They’re also within three target of his 2011 number where he finished sixth among receivers. Targets do not appear to be the issue.

3.) The Cardinals lacked a running game, which really prevented Arizona from getting the ball to their best receiver.

Here is how the Cardinals’ running game ranked (by yardage) over the last five years:

Year

Team

Rushing Rank

PPR Rank
(17 weeks)

2012

32

32

2011

24

6

2010

32

11

2009

28

5

2008

32

2

Similar to the Cardinals’ offensive line play, their running game was just as bad over the last five years. That hasn’t stopped Fitzgerald from producing at high levels. The running game production this past season appears to be no different than the other seasons.

4.) The quarterback play was atrocious in 2012.

The following is a summary of the quarterbacks for each season, their accuracy, as well as Fitzgerald’s catch percentage in the same year.

Year

PPR

Rank

QB

Catch

%

QB

Accuracy

Pass

Att

2012

32

Kolb / Skelton / Lindley

48

55

608

2011

6

Kolb / Skelton

53

56

550

2010

11

Anderson / Skelton

54

51

559

2009

5

Warner

67

67

660

2008

2

Warner

68

67

762

These numbers appear to tell part of the 2012 struggle story. This past season clearly was Fitzgerald’s worst year in terms of catch percentage. That may be partially due to him playing most of the 2012 season with the second and third string quarterbacks (John Skelton and Ryan Lindley) who completed 52% and 54% of their passes, respectively. This compares to Kolb who completed 60% of his passes early on (see a more detailed Kolb discussion below). Quite simply, the second and third string guys struggled getting Fitzgerald the ball evidenced by a 12 target, three catch game and a 11 target, one catch game towards the end of the year. Atrocious.

Focusing again on the above analysis and specifically the overall 2012 numbers, surprisingly while Fitzgerald’s catch percentage was down, the quarterbacks overall accuracy for the season was as on par with 2011 and better than 2010. Despite the inaccuracies at quarterback in those two earlier seasons, Fitzgerald still performed extremely well. So, Lindley and Skelton appear to be part of the problem due to the inaccuracy, but not the entire issue as the quarterback play doesn’t appear to be as horrible as suspected as compared to previous seasons.

5.) Defenses focused in on Fitzgerald in 2012 and took him out of the game.

You can see in the dark boxes above some interesting trends. In 2012, Fitzgerald posted his lowest catch percentage of any of the last five years. You’ll also notice that his quarterbacks’ overall accuracy was better or on par with 2011 and 2010. So it doesn’t appear that quarterback inaccuracy was the issue as discussed above.

Instead, 2012 is the only season with a large negative differential between catch percentage and quarterback accuracy. My interpretation of that is that teams were defending Fitzgerald much more than they were in 2011 and 2010 (and clearly 2009 and 2008) allowing others to get involved in the passing game, which led to a lower percentage of passes caught by Fitzgerald. The 2009 and 2008 seasons are clearly on a whole other level as Kurt Warner was much more accurate than any of the Cardinals’ recent quarterbacks. Additionally, teams weren’t able to zero in on Fitzgerald with Boldin on the other side along with capable third receivers like Steve Breaston in the mix.

So what’s the cause of this trend? I’d blame this on the fact that, in 2012, guys like Michael Floyd and Robert Housler were still developing and still playing a decent number of snaps as compared to previous seasons when Doucet (2011) and Breaston (2010) contributed meaningfully taking defensive pressure away from Fitzgerald. With inexperienced players seeing significant time in 2012, teams were able to force the Cardinals lesser talented quarterbacks like Lindley and Skelton to beat them with Floyd and Housler.

Now that we’ve identified the causes for Fitzgerald’s lackluster 2012 as quarterback play and defenses smothering Fitzgerald, it’s time to address the anomaly question. To do so, we’ll again use some common comments denoting why Fitzgerald may not be successful going forward:

1) Kevin Kolb and his talent, or lack there of, will keep Fitzgerald from performing at a high level.

This appears to be a misconception as Fitzgerald was productive with Kolb in 2011 and early 2012. The numbers support that:

Year

Week

Targets

Receptions

Yards

TD

2011

1

7

3

62

0

2011

2

8

7

133

1

2011

3

7

5

64

1

2011

4

11

8

102

0

2011

5

8

4

66

0

2011

7

10

4

78

0

2011

8

5

3

98

0

2011

13

6

4

55

0

2012

2

4

1

4

0

2012

3

9

9

114

1

2012

4

14

8

64

1

2012

5

14

8

92

0

2012

6

11

6

93

1

           
 

Games

Targets

Receptions

Yards

TD

 

13

114

70

1025

5

 

16

140

86

1261

6

These not only show that Fitzgerald can be productive with Kolb, but they further support that he really struggled due to Lindley and Skelton being under center for a majority of 2012. These numbers under Kolb prorated for a full season (16 games) result in the following for fantasy purposes:

Fantasy points

248.1

Points per game

15.5

2012 Rank

15

2012 Rank (PPG)

18

These still pale in comparison to his 2008 to 2011 seasons, but they’re a heck of a lot better than his 32nd finish in 2012. A 90-reception season for roughly 1,300 yards is still a very solid year.

2) Fitzgerald’s top five PPR production was manufactured by Warner.

Both Warner and Boldin significantly helped Fitzgerald’s production in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, there’s no question. However, Fitzgerald still has shown the ability to produce at a high level without both of these players in 2010 and 2011.

In addition, the hiring of Bruce Arians as the Cardinals’ Head Coach should help Fitzgerald’s long-term outlook given the success the Head Coach had over the last ten years. Several point to Arians’ struggles in Cleveland back in 2001, but that was many years ago after a significant amount of success as the offensive coordinator of Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Granted, Kolb doesn’t compare to Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, but he’s assumedly learned a lot since his time in Cleveland.

3) Defenses took Fitzgerald away in 2012 and will continue to do so going forward; defenses have figured out how to shut him down.

As noted above, the addition of Arians should help with this.

In addition, the maturation and improvement of Michael Floyd (a 2012 NFL draft top 15 pick) should greatly help Fitzgerald and take some pressure off the elder receiver. Floyd’s development, combined with Housler’s improvement at the tight end position will prevent defenses from smothering Fitzgerald. With the young offensive weapons on the roster and the addition of Arians, this offense is likely to return to a multi-faceted group. Not only that, but Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells will return from injury after missing almost all of the 2012 season which adds more weapons to the offense, thus preventing defenses from ignoring every other offensive player other than Fitzgerald.

Summary

Fitzgerald’s 2012 was awful; there’s no question. However, he’s being written off as a top five wide receiver too quickly. While many continue to point to the negative aspects of the Cardinals’ offense, Fitzgerald has performed under similar difficult positions in the past.

Many may also point to the Kolb extrapolated WR15 numbers I’ve detailed above as a reason to put Fitzgerald outside of the top five. I’d argue the facts detailed in the above paragraph (in addition to the fact that he’s likely to be playing for five-plus more seasons) provide significant dynasty upside – that sticking power deserves a premium alone.

Most importantly, though, with Kolb the unlikely future at quarterback for the Cardinals, those extrapolated numbers may only be relevant for another season, especially given how quickly things change in this league. Fitzgerald’s last five years prove that for better (Warner) or worse (2012 Cardinals offense), change is quick and jolting. With Arians running the offense and the young talent on the roster, 2012 looks to be the trough as opposed to the top of the downward spiral.

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13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Scott Peak

    February 16, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Great article Steve. The data presented in encouraging, as I own Fitzgerald in one dynasty league. I was happy to see Arians get the head coaching job with Arizona. Hopefully he can help Kolb improve his game, and I hope we never have to see John Skelton and Ryan Lindley on the field ever again. If that happens, I’m going to Costco and buying a year supply of TUMS.

  2. James

    February 16, 2013 at 11:32 am

    The whole premise of most of the article assumes that Kevin Kolb will be healthy for a whole season.

    He won’t be. Fitzgerald will suck again in 2013.

    • Steve Wyremski

      February 16, 2013 at 11:40 am

      Not necessarily true.

      Either Kolb is starter or another QB would both be relevant to this article. As you may know, many are now speculating that Kolb may be gone. However, even if Kolb isn’t released, it appears likely Arians will bring in another QB regardless.

      The bottom line is that Skelton/Lindley are highly unlikely to be under center in 2013 which caused a mess in 2012. That’s the most important thing and positive indication for 2013.

      If Fitz can maintain top 15 QB with Kolb running the offense, that’s pretty telling itself.

  3. Rob

    February 16, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I just hope this knocks his start up ADP way down, so I can cash in on an elite talent at a bargain price. I’m a believer in talent and Fitz is easily top 5-7 with some type of improved QB play.

    The NFL is an impatient league and the Cardinals will not run the same crap out there that they did a year ago.

    When everyone else keeps passing early on Fitz, I’ll gladly take him as he falls into the 3rd round and beyond.

    • Tim Stafford

      February 16, 2013 at 12:13 pm

      Well said.

    • Jimmy

      February 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm

      Again, you’re assuming too much. 1) That the O-line issues will be fixed. 2) That a better QB magically finds his way onto the roster and 3) Teams haven’t figured out how to shut Fitzgerald down as evidenced by THE ENTIRE 2012 SEASON.

      But if you’d like to pass on “guaranteed-to-produce” guys like Cruz, Harvin, Decker, Colston because you think Arizona’s finally figured it out? Well, I’ve got some beach-front property in Glendale to sell you.

      • Steve Wyremski

        February 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm

        All of these items are common items that are thrown in the face of Fitzgerald’s long-term value. They’re all addressed above.

        Fitz and the o-line issues don’t appear to correlate. The numbers above prove that.

        There is no doubt that the Cardinals, either through the draft or free agency, will add depth if Kolb is still around. If we see how awful Lindley and Skelton were, you better believe Arians does as well.

        Defenses didn’t magically figure out how to shut down Fitzgerald in 2012 – there weren’t any other options on that offense in 2012 that were dependable. There are several signs that’ll change in ’13.

      • Chad Scott

        February 16, 2013 at 6:55 pm

        Teams didn’t shut down Fitz.

        Of the 148 targets he got, only 76 of the were deemed catchable by pro football focus…that is pee wee football bad.

        Not only did they not throw catchable passes, his QBs threw 12 INTS when targeting him…most in the league.

        Arians will help fix this offense in one way or another…my guess is they roll with Kolb and he actually plays decently while adding another QB via draft/FA…

        • Jimmy

          February 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm

          With what QB!?

  4. Earl Sullivan

    February 16, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    What do you see Fitz’s value in an existing league? Low 1st? High 2nd + a young WR?

    • Steve Wyremski

      February 16, 2013 at 7:34 pm

      High first given this year’s crop and the fact there aren’t any big time players/studs. 1.2 – 1.4 at worst. In fact, I’d deal 1.2 and ~1.5 for him.

      • Earl Sullivan

        February 17, 2013 at 5:29 am

        What if I was on a competitive team that had the 1.1? What could expect in return…Fitz + what?

        • Steve Wyremski

          February 17, 2013 at 10:12 am

          I’d probably wait until after the combine when the rookie pick values will start to spike, but Fitz and an upside younger WR (Jeffery (maybe you need to kick in some more), V.Brown+, etc.) or a late first are reasonable. That’s what I’d personally accept, but the 1.1 pick ALWAYS ends up being overvalued and yields king’s ransom – I would push for it (i.e., Jeffery alone or a future first).

          I’d try to milk the 1.1 for all it’s worth and also push to attempt to drive Fitz’s value down based on common perception, the fact he’ll be 30 this season, and his perceived long-term situation.

          You’re in a position of power in these negotiations given where the 1.1 pick value is headed over the next few months and how it’s always viewed.

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