Is Larry Fitzgerald Really Boom or Bust?
Perhaps it has been so long since Larry Fitzgerald was a dominant factor that we have forgotten just how sublimely talented he is. More realistically, we are just tired of watching the clown car of quarterbacks to which the poor guy has been subjected. Whatever the reason, we appear to have reached a tipping point. Last year, Fitzgerald’s average draft position was second among fellow wideouts. This year, in early drafting, he is being chosen as the 14th receiver on average, and even further down in dynasty leagues (ADP data courtesy of My Fantasy League drafts).
By now you are probably familiar with the sad story of why it all went wrong. Apparently even a transcendent wideout – without the help of credible quarterbacking, a complementary rushing attack, and competent line play – is pretty much a useless appendage. However there are some strong indications that this sorry state of affairs will begin to turn around in 2013. It pretty much has to, right?
New head coach Bruce Arians will play a predictably large role in helping to revive the Cardinals offense and reintroduce Fitzgerald to the football. In fact, he has already spoken on the importance of getting the ball to his best playmaker more often – just as he did with Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts last season.
While it is true that getting Fitzgerald more opportunities will not be as simple as moving him from one side of the formation to the other, as Arians said he did with Wayne when they first met, presnap alignment will at least be part of the solution. In 2011, the year before Arians wound up with the Colts, Wayne lined up in the slot just 12.6 percent of the time. During his resurgent 2012 Wayne saw 61.2 percent of his snaps originate from the slot, and he was targeted by quarterback Andrew Luck 21.4 percent of those plays.
Fitzgerald only lined up in the slot on 18.8 percent of Arizona’s snaps last season. It is not too much of a stretch to think that number will rise noticeably in 2013. Considering that he had a 1.58 Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) from the slot, and just a 1.18 YPRR overall – it is also a good bet that his production will increase accordingly.
Another obstacle in Fitzgerald’s way has been erratic (to be kind) play from Arizona’s quarterbacks. From the Bartels, to the Hoyers, and every Lindley and Skelton along the way – Fitzgerald would have been no worse off if Gary Hogeboom or Tom Tupa limped out of the abyss. One passer did stand out from the flotsam, however – even if he has been unfairly lumped in with the rest. Kevin Kolb has been much maligned, and not only by fans and media, but by his NFL peers. He also has not been given much of a chance to show the entirety of what he can offer, aside from how well he takes a beating behind a wet paper bag of an offensive line (more on them later).
On the rare occasion that Kolb has taken snaps for the Cardinals and has remained upright, he has shown an ability to both get the ball to Fitzgerald and to help guide Arizona into the win column more frequently than his understudies have (with significant help from their defense, of course). In limited 2012 snaps he completed just shy of 60 percent of his passes and had a nearly three-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio (8 TDs, 3 INTs). He was the 17th-ranked passer by PFF QB Rating and even wound up a surprising 11th in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks during the five weeks in which he started and played full games.
With Kolb throwing him passes, Fitzgerald was a far more productive receiver. In the five games that Kolb started, Fitzgerald registered 54.7 fantasy points versus 49.1 scored during the other 11 games. He was the 14th-highest scoring fantasy wideout in those games and the 59th when targeted by the Clown Car (CC) full of Skeltons and Lindleys. With Kolb he had a 62 percent Percentage Caught (%Ct), which is the percentage of his targets that became receptions, and a 41 %Ct with the CC throwing him the ball. He was the sixth most targeted wideout when Kolb started, and 14th when he did not. Fitzgerald came in 32nd in Fantasy Points Per Snap (PPSnap) with Kolb (0.17) and 91st when the circus was in town (0.07). Even back in 2011, when Kolb started Fitzgerald had a 17.3 yards per catch average (11.2 in ’12) and a nearly 60 %Ct (53.0 overall). You get the picture.
There have been conflicting reports on whether Arians is sold on Kolb as the quarterback he wants to move forward with to run his vertical offense. If he will renegotiate and stay with the Cardinals, or be cut before his $2 million roster bonus comes due on March 17, is still a legitimate question. One would think that he would rather remain in a place where he has plenty of pass catching weapons and a coach that should be able to maximize his talents – especially since former advocate Andy Reid now has his quarterback in Kansas City. As for Fitzgerald, he has demonstrated an ability to thrive without the aid of an All-Pro throwing him the ball, and if in Arians’ eyes Kolb can be upgraded upon then all the better.
But what good is it for Fitzgerald to have a relatively adequate passer if there is barely enough time to get a pass off, let alone long enough to allow for downfield routes to develop? Out of all quarterbacks who took at least 25 percent of their teams’ snaps, Kolb came in dead last out of 38 in Avg. Time to Sack – at just 2.28 seconds. The Cardinals offensive line placed last in PFF grading in both pass (cumulative -55.8) and run blocking (-63.3; almost double the 31st team’s negative grade; Pittsburgh’s -34.9). To say that their blocking was an epic disaster would be a compliment.
However, from under the smoking rubble that was the 2012 Arizona Cardinals offensive line, there are rays of hope. As PFF’s Sam Monson wrote in late November, rookie right tackle Bobby Massie apparently had a light go on and at that time was in the process of turning his awful start around. Well, Massie continued that impressive turnaround after that – posting a cumulative +7.6 over the season’s final five games, with only one of those efforts grading in the red. In fact, from the time that the “light went on” before a Week 8 game against San Francisco’s vaunted front seven, Massie posted an overall PFF grade of +12.3 (+11 pass blocking). To that point he was saddled with a -25.3 (-27.8 pass). That second half surge included positive grades against the 49ers twice, as well as a game in Seattle.
The Cardinals are also going to benefit from the return of former first round tackle Levi Brown, who missed the 2012 season with a torn triceps. He had really come on over the second half of 2011, following up a dismal first half PFF grade of -21.7 (-18.2 pass) with a +14.1 (+6.8 pass) on the backside of the season. Guard/center Adam Snyder’s play improved over the second half of 2012 (-20.4 in his first seven games, +0.3 in his last seven), and guard Daryn Colledge is serviceable (-0.7 overall; +7.5 pass blocking). The existing offensive line cupboard is not completely bare in Arizona.
The new regime in charge of the Cardinals is well aware that they need an infusion of talent along the line, which despite second half improvement was one of the worst units in the entire league last year. Fortunately for them, the upcoming draft is chock full of offensive line talent – especially at the top, where Arizona is currently slotted to pick seventh. For good reason, many early mock drafts project them to go in just that direction. The free agent market also has much to offer teams searching for upgrades up front, and despite their tenuous salary cap situation the Cardinals should be able to find help here as well. They have already begun the process of clearing cap room.
With an almost unavoidable improvement in store for their offensive line, a new coaching staff that has a proven record of being able to effectively feature the team’s best receiving weapon, and an expectation of minimally sufficient quarterback play – Larry Fitzgerald stands an excellent chance of re-emerging as a top 10 fantasy wideout. Recency bias has robbed us of the opinion that these realistic ingredients are all he needs to edge back ahead of his peers, in addition to the fact that he is likely to get that much help in 2013. At his current price as the 14th wideout selected – an ADP that may continue to fall as sexier options creep up draft boards – he represents a safe bet to at least earn back fantasy owners’ costs of acquiring him. He is an even bigger bargain in dynasty leagues, in which drafters are hastily passing him up in favor of unproven rookies. Commonly referred to as a “Boom-or-Bust” fantasy option for 2013, it would be more accurate to describe him as “Push-or-Boom.”