Is Larry Fitzgerald Still an Elite NFL Wide Receiver?

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterJune 21, 2014

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When the Arizona Cardinals drafted Larry Fitzgerald with the third overall pick in 2004, then-head coach Dennis Green was looking to add a sure-handed playmaker who could help him recreate the Minnesota Vikings offense from 1998.

Unfortunately for Green, the Cardinals were never able to replicate his dream offense, and he was subsequently fired at the end of the 2006 season with a 16-32 record.

The good news is Fitzgerald didn’t suffer the same demise as his first NFL coach. In fact, the All-Pro wide receiver is embarking on his 11th season in the desert and is hoping to retire as a member of the Cardinals.

Apparently, the feeling is mutual. Here’s what general manager Steve Keim told the media when he was asked about Arizona’s intentions of possibly trading Fitzgerald, via Matt Swartz of Fox Sports:

I have not had one conversation with another NFL team regarding a trade with Larry Fitzgerald. Number two, starting with (team president) Michael Bidwill down, it is our intent for Larry Fitzgerald to retire a Cardinal, period. So if there was any gray area there, guys, let me know and well get that out.

If Keim is telling the truth, it’s clear that the Cardinals still view Fitzgerald as an elite wide receiver.

Yet, that doesn’t mean Arizona’s views directly reflect the truth. Why? Because the Cardinals front office could be biased toward Fitzgerald based on his past achievements.

Nonetheless, let’s tackle the topic ourselves and break down whether or not Fitzgerald is still an elite NFL wide receiver.

On the surface, most would be quick to answer this question with a resounding no. They would point to Fitzgerald’s age (30), his diminishing stat line and the emergence of third-year pass-catcher Michael Floyd.

All of those arguments are fair considering Floyd had a fantastic season in 2013 (65 receptions, 1,041 yards and five touchdowns) and wide receivers rarely put up astronomical numbers well into their 30s.

However, Fitzgerald isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill 30-year-old receiver. He is a technician who uses his athleticism to exploit defensive backs on a weekly basis.

Moreover, he possesses the best hands in the NFL.

Here’s what Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had to say about Fitzgerald’s hands when he evaluated him at the end of the 2013 season:

“How many passes did Larry Fitzgerald (6’3”, 218 lbs, 10 seasons) drop of the 129 thrown to him in 2013? One. That’s why he comes in with a perfect score on hands.”

As impressive as Fitzgerald’s one drop from the 2013 season is, his numbers since Pro Football Focus started grading games in 2007 are even more impressive.

Per PFF (subscription required), Fitzgerald has been targeted 1,098 times (playoffs included) since the start of the 2007 season. Of his 1,098 targets, he has only registered 23 drops.

This, in turn, means Fitzgerald averages a dropped pass once every 47 targets. That’s astonishing and is by far the best drop rate of any wide receiver PFF has had the opportunity to grade.

Yes, you could say that other receivers have had better hands than Fitzgerald in the past (depending on the year), but when it comes right down to it, the only thing that matters is consistency and what Fitzgerald is doing right now.

And in addition to dropping one measly pass in 2013, he also set the record for the lowest drop rate of any wide receiver who was targeted more than 100 times in a season.

Fitzgerald’s drop rate of 1.20 in 2013 topped Dez Bryant’s 2011 drop rate of 1.56.

Fitzgerald ended with a 68.1 catch rate in the slot last year.
Fitzgerald ended with a 68.1 catch rate in the slot last year.Credit: PFF

As remarkable as Fitzgerald’s drop rate was, that’s not the only thing he excelled at last year. According to the analysts at PFF, Fitzgerald was the eighth-best slot wide receiver in the league.

On 289 slot routes, Fitzgerald tallied 32 receptions, 386 yards receiving, four touchdowns and a catch rate of 68.1. For the sake of comparison, he had a higher catch rate in the slot than Anquan Boldin, Wes Welker and Doug Baldwin.

All three of the players mentioned above are known as masters of the slot, which is why pundits shouldn’t take Fitzgerald’s numbers with a grain of salt.

Shoot, one should expect Fitzgerald’s slot numbers to improve in 2014. Odds are head coach Bruce Arians was pleased with the veterans production, so the percentage of his snaps in the slot could easily jumpup from 48.2 percent to around 60 percent.

When I spoke to Fitzgerald after Week 1 of the 2013 season, here’s what he told me about his usage out of the slot and the matchup problems it creates:

“Yeah, you know, (Arians) definitely likes to utilize me inside a lot, but I will be outside the numbers as well. It all depends on the call. I will be moving around a lot. It just gives defenses more to think about, and it gives other guys opportunities to make plays as well.”

Fitzgerald is right: Lining up in the slot gives other guys opportunities to make plays since it allows for more one-on-one matchups on the outside, which means Floyd and Ted Ginn Jr. should be licking their chops because a majority of their snaps come outside the numbers.

As you can see, Fitzgerald still has the talent to be extremely effective and contribute at a high level. His days of putting up gaudy statistics and beating corners deep down the field may be gone, but that doesn’t mean he is any less of a player than he was in years past.

It’s a natural occurrence for players to alter their games and adapt as they age. For a case in point, take a look at Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison. Toward the end of their respective careers, both receivers relied less on their speed and more on their route-running ability.

That appears to be the case for Fitzgerald as well. Miller alluded to this when he studied him for our B/R 1000 series:

Timing is such a key to good route running, and Fitzgerald excels in that area. He’s precise and consistent with his steps, two big keys to establish a connection with a quarterback. The only knock on his routes would be a subtle stiffness when breaking to his right. Other than that? He’s nearly flawless.

Cian Fahey of B/R agreed, in a piece last year, that Fitzgerald is nearly flawless and said, “Fitzgerald can run any route, make receptions in different body positions and absorb big hits over the middle of the field.”

Not to mention, Fitzgerald’s ability to make receptions in different body positions has helped him amass 14 receiving touchdowns over the course of the last two years.

By no means is that the highest total since 2012, but it is notable seeing that John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Richard Bartel and Carson Palmer were the ones throwing Fitzgerald passes.

In all, it’s worth noting that Fitzgerald has his faults like any other player, but the good outweighs the bad by a wide margin.

Sure, you could nitpick and say he needs to garner more receiving yards, average more yards per route run and tally a higher yards-per-reception average.

But there’s a reason why Miller believes he was the second-best wideout in the NFL last year. Plus, let’s not forget that the folks at PFF awarded him a plus-16.5 overall grade in 2013.

Despite turning 31 in August, it’s evident that Fitzgerald is still an elite wide receiver.

Fitzgerald finished with the 12th-best overall wide receiver grade.
Fitzgerald finished with the 12th-best overall wide receiver grade.Credit: PFF

Furthermore, he’s a true pro’s pro, he has all the tools and he’s incredibly intelligent, which tells me he could continue to play at an elite level for two to three more years.

Obviously, Fitzgerald’s future success depends on the Cardinals offense as a whole and the quarterback position, but it sounds like things are on the up and up heading into Year 2 of Arians’ scheme.

Were working so much more efficiently,Fitzgerald said, via Marc Sessler of NFL.com. Were finishing (practice) periods with two, three minutes left. Were not having to restart, regroup and do over. Its very encouraging.”

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).


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