Larry Fitzgerald will "break out" in 2014.
After a surprising 10-6 season, the Arizona Cardinals are gearing up for an offseason of improvement in an attempt to catch their NFC West rivals ahead of them. That not only means adding players through free agency and the draft, it also means helping current players get better.
Among Arizona’s breakout players in 2013 were rookies, safety Tyrann Mathieu and running back Andre Ellington, as well as wideout Michael Floyd.
Mathieu finished sixth among rookies with 65 tackles despite missing the final three-plus games with a torn ACL. Ellington finished fifth among rookies in yards from scrimmage (1,023) and became just the fourth Cardinals back to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie.
And Floyd was fifth among second-year receivers with his 1,041 receiving yards—last year’s class will be great for a long time (Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton and Kendall Wright, among others).
Which Cardinals are bound to break out in 2014? Let’s take a look, shall we?
OK, so Larry Fitzgerald already broke out—years ago, when he was just a young pup. He led the NFL with 103 receptions in his second season (2005) and has twice led the league in touchdowns (2008, 12; 2009, 13).
2014 will be a year of breaking out of a funk for Fitzgerald.
In 2013, Larry finished with 954 yards on 82 receptions (11.6 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns—the fifth time in 10 seasons he recorded double-digit touchdowns. Last season was the first time since 2006 he did not lead the team in receiving yards.
This came a year after 71 receptions for only 798 yards (11.2 YPC) and four touchdowns.
But he was hamstrung last year—literally. From Week 2 on, Fitzgerald dealt with strains to both hamstrings and was never fully healthy the entire season.
Every player gets dinged up throughout the year. But hamstrings are vitally important to everything a receiver does—from getting off the line with enough burst to get past a cornerback to breaking down at the top of the route to change direction to running after the catch. Everything.
An easy play to show he was not healthy in 2013 is his 75-yard touchdown catch against the 49ers. Yes, he outran the defense, but you could see him wincing toward the end of the play and even hobbling a bit.
Fitzgerald will get back to his usual, dominant self next season. He does not have many more opportunities at a Lombardi Trophy, so he has some extra motivation on top of being healthy.
From the sound of it, 2013 seventh overall pick Jonathan Cooper will be ready to go for minicamp this season. As you remember, he broke his leg last preseason and missed his entire rookie season recovering and rehabbing.
The rehab process has been long and tedious, but Cooper told Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com that things are getting better—and that he’s close.
It’s going very well. I feel like I’m turning the corner. They’re starting to cut me loose on the lower-body stuff, a little bit of agility. The straight-line stuff, that’s pretty good to go for the most part. I’m in a good spot and we still have plenty of time left.
He’s the type of athlete head coach Bruce Arians needs at left guard to pull ahead of Ellington on sweeps and off-tackle runs. Imagine Ellington’s yardage in 2013 had Cooper been his lead blocker and not Daryn Colledge, who played well at times but is not the agile type.
Cooper is one part of an offensive line that everyone hopes is vastly improved in 2014. He certainly will help matters with how good he can be.
He is a candidate for comeback player of the year despite not playing a down in the league, and though he won’t win it—no offensive lineman has won it since its inception in 1972—he could be high in the running.
It’s also worth noting that no player has won the award in his second season after missing his entire rookie year.
After becoming an undrafted rookie signee of the Cardinals last season, wideout Jaron Brown pulled a minor upset by making the 53-man roster out of camp. What made the upset a bit bigger is that Arians kept only four receivers on the initial big roster for Week 1.
It was Brown, Fitzgerald, Floyd and Andre Roberts. That’s it.
He flashed ability at times, hauling in 11 receptions for 140 yards (12.7 YPC) and a touchdown as a rookie. In 2014, however, Brown has a chance to make a name for himself. Arizona surely will bring in a free agent and/or draft a rookie to compete, but Brown could realistically win the job as the No. 3 receiver with work and improvement.
They say a receiver’s second NFL season is where he sees a big jump in production. We saw that with Floyd last year, and we could see that with Brown this year.
He is big (6’2”, 205 lbs) and speedy enough to make the occasional play downfield—though he is not a pure deep threat, he clocked a 4.40 40-yard dash at his Pro Day last spring—and he will have every opportunity to show Arians he’s worthy of an increased role in 2014.
The evolution of a late-round pick who plays special teams suggests it’s about time Justin Bethel make something happen at his position. He can’t be a gunner forever.
He’s beefier than when he was drafted and can play either corner or safety, and given the state of the current roster, free safety could be his first position. Mathieu is listed as the starting free safety, but his real role is as the team’s nickel corner (slot corner).
The two would be interchangeable in a perfect world. Depending on what coordinator Todd Bowles wants to do on a particular play, he can have Mathieu in the slot to cover a receiver or blitz off the edge with Bethel covering deep; then, on the next play, he can have Bethel in the slot covering, say, a tight end, while Mathieu plays the deep half.
Versatility adds value to a player, and Bethel can do a bit of everything. Should he be given a chance on defense, he will make plays.
Also a free safety, Tony Jefferson played a small but important role as a rookie on one of the NFL’s best defenses. He was in on 198 snaps for Bowles according to Football Outsiders, recording 23 total tackles and providing solid run defense with the occasional big hit on a ball-carrier.
Breaking out in the NFL doesn’t always mean a player becomes a stat-sheet stuffer. It can mean he plays much more and impacts the game in other ways that help his teammates stuff the stat sheet.
That could be the case for Jefferson, as Mathieu and Rashad Johnson are the playmakers on the back end of the defense. It’s possible Jefferson improves by leaps and bounds, however. In that case, Bethel may take a back seat at safety.
And if that happens, Bowles should use him more at nickel and dime corner—getting the best athletes on the field is what’s important, and Bethel is absolutely one of the best athletes on the team.