No. 9: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals

| May 3, 2012

It’s easy at times to forget just how good Larry Fitzgerald is. With all the quarterback woes in Arizona and the team falling from the contender status it maintained when Kurt Warner was under center, Fitzgerald seems to have slipped under the radar in the way great players playing on average teams often do.

The truth, however, is that Fitzgerald was the Arizona offense for much of last season, and he was also the obvious go-to guy when they needed a big play. Targeted a third-ranked 151 times in the regular season, he caught 80 passes for 1,411 yards; a massive 17.6 per reception. Those are big-play numbers despite being fed the ball on such a huge percentage of plays. The bottom line is that when Fitzgerald got the ball in his hands, he did special things, but the people tasked with getting the ball in his hands didn’t always do a particularly good job of it.

Despite being targeted those 151 times, Fitzgerald only caught 53% of them, which is toward the bottom end of the league. However, only three of those incompletions were drops (in comparison, Roddy White led the league with 15) as the Cardinals just didn’t have anyone that could make accurate throws consistently. This is backed up by the QB rating on passes thrown his way.

The top five receivers in this category were being thrown passes by the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Eli Manning, and all of those QBs had a rating well over 120 when throwing to their favorite targets, but when the Arizona QBs targeted Larry Fitzgerald, they had a rating of just 78.0 because they managed to throw more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight). But, when the ball got even remotely close to Fitzgerald, he made positive things happen, and was often the only person doing so on an underachieving offense. In essence, you can’t blame the Cardinals for trying to get the ball to him as much as they possibly could, but their passers simply weren’t capable of doing the job effectively.

Fitzgerald had an All-Pro caliber season despite some extremely poor quarterback play and there really is no limit to what he could have achieved had he had anything approaching a Top 5 quarterback throwing him the ball.

 

Best Performance: Week 17 vs. Seattle (+5.4)

In previous seasons a .500 record might have been enough to get it done in the NFC West, but in 2011 the 49ers had taken a stranglehold on the division and the Cardinals and Seahawks were fighting for respect alone in their final game. Larry Fitzgerald, it turns out, had more than enough self-esteem as he racked up nine catches, 149 yards, and forced three missed tackles by Seahawks defenders as the Cardinals squeaked out an overtime victory.

Seahawks CB Richard Sherman had been excellent since coming into the lineup, allowing just 46.4% of targets to be completed all season, but he had his hands full dealing with the Cardinals’ stud, surrendering 64 yards on four catches.

Part of what makes Fitzgerald so good is that he is a complete receiver–can work outside the numbers against corners, or inside and over the middle, where some wide-outs fear to tread, and this game was a perfect example of that. The other Seahawk corner, Brandon Browner actually played him pretty well, blanking him on four targets (limiting him to just those 64 yards against Sherman when matched against Seattle corners), but Fitzgerald was still able to pick up 85 yards against the rest of the Seattle coverage.

 

Key Stat: Only two WRs were targeted more than the 151 times Fitzgerald was thrown at.

There weren’t many players in the NFL who were leaned on by their teams as much as Fitzgerald was by the Cardinals. No other offensive weapon really stood up to be counted, so when Arizona needed a play, they went to Fitzgerald. Only Roddy White and Wes Welker were targeted more than Fitzgerald over the season, and neither player was anything like the complete receiver and deep threat that Fitzgerald was last season.

Seven times in 2011 Fitzgerald was thrown at 10 or more times, and the fewest targets he had in a game was five–against the Ravens in Week 8, a game in which he had 98 receiving yards. He may have struggled to find consistently impressive quarterback play, but the one constant the Arizona passers did have last season is that they were all prepared to feed the ball to Fitzgerald early and often, because they knew that he was the most likely route to success.

With the rest of the team struggling more often than not, Fitzgerald put up numbers and performances that shouldn’t have been possible and he more than earned his spot in the Top 10 of our list.

 

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