Fantasy football: Can Larry Fitzgerald be an elite WR1 again?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Larry Fitzgerald experienced hell on earth in 2012. The Arizona Cardinals endured a musical chairs situation at quarterback that resulted in their offense being simply pathetic, while Fitz grinded the season out to his worst numbers since his rookie season back in 2004.

This post comes from Justin Becker of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Fantasy Football Projections visit Fantasy Football Overdose, a fantasy football blog.

Larry Fitzgerald experienced hell on earth in 2012. The Arizona Cardinals endured a musical chairs situation at quarterback that resulted in their offense being simply pathetic, while Fitz grinded the season out to his worst numbers since his rookie season back in 2004.

Ultimately, his final stat line of 71 receptions, 798 receiving yards and four scores in 16 games left a lot to be desired and had many fantasy owners thinking he was finished. If nothing had changed, he probably would have been.

Trade rumors involving Fitz wanting out started up, and it looked like the beginning of the end.

The Fitzgerald was rescued. The Cardinals made a coaching change and brought in former Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, while also swinging a trade to land Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raiders.

On paper, these were two massive moves for Fitzgerald’s fantasy value heading into 2013. Fantasy owners reacted, bumping Fitzgerald up their rankings ever so slightly, and drafting him as a rock solid WR2 with potential to return to his former WR1 level of play.

He burst out of the gates with rewards for those that kept the faith, catching eight passes for 80 receiving yards and two touchdowns in week one. And then he got hurt.

Fitz battled through a hamstring injury for weeks, and was constantly in doubt to play in each passing game. Still, he didn’t miss a single game (hasn’t since 2007, in fact), and played through the pain at less than 100%, even still posting some very solid lines in the process.

Despite not being quite himself for much of the 2013 season, Fitzgerald still finished with a very solid stat line of 82 catches, 954 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. The injury kept him from fully getting back to WR1 value, but he wasn’t all that far off and considering he was mostly drafted to be a strong WR2, he at least met value (if not exceeded it slightly).

The weekly injury issue was a drain on some fantasy owners, but the 30-year old Fitzgerald still offered weekly upside, as well. Despite playing in the brutal NFC West with six tough contests in his 16 games, Fitzgerald actually turned in some of his best games against his division foes.

In fact, he torched the Rams in two games for 20 total receptions, two scores and over 200 receiving yards, while even dominating the 49ers to the tune of 12 total catches, 230 total receiving yards and another score. Seattle was another story, though, as Fitz caught just five balls against them all season.

After a solid season despite playing in a new system, with a new quarterback and while constantly nicked up, fantasy owners want to know if he still has a chance to achieve WR1 status in 2014.

Why not?

Yes, Fitzgerald will be 31 when the season starts and will continue to slow down to a certain degree. However, he still looked plenty explosive when healthy in 2013 and considering his game has never truly relied on his speed in the first place, fantasy owners shouldn’t be all that concerned that he might lose a little of his long game.

The reality is, in Arians’ vertical system and with Palmer’s still lively arm, Fitzgerald is still going to be a threat to make plays down the field. And thanks to his elite size and almost incomparable ball skills, he can make plays on pretty much any ball thrown his way. That also keeps him as an elite red-zone target. After all, the guy scored 10 touchdowns on just 82 receptions a year ago.

Had he been at full health, Fitzgerald almost surely would have cracked 90+ receptions for the first time since 2010 and would have scored even more touchdowns.

So, heading into the 2014 fantasy football season, what can we expect Larry Fitzgerald?

Pros

Fitzgerald is still the same player he always was, except maybe slightly less explosive. Head coach Bruce Arians has admitted as much, saying it’s only natural for a 30-year old receiver to start slowing down to a certain degree. That’s why Arians plans to use Fitzgerald inside more frequently, which should ease the task of trying to separate and will allow Fitzgerald to rely more on his quickness and play-making ability, and less on his long speed.

Even with his speed seeing a minor dip, Fitzgerald is still a massive target for Palmer, just about everywhere on the field. And speaking of targets, Palmer basically sees tunnel vision when there is a healthy Fitzgerald on the field.

As long as he can stay reasonably healthy, Fitzgerald is going to see a ton of passes come his way, which will inevitably lead to solid fantasy numbers across the board.

Cons

While we’re brushing off Fitzgerald’s aging and potential loss of explosiveness, we can’t rule out the idea of true regression. Add in a slight role change and Carson Palmer’s own regression and it’s not exactly a lock that Fitzgerald keeps putting up the numbers he’s even putting up now.

That concern might not be as warranted as some may suggest, but the task of beating six very solid NFC West defenses out of 16 games certainly is. Fantasy owners surely won’t want to deploy Fitzgerald for the weeks he faces Richard Sherman and the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, while even the Rams and 49ers are tough defenses that could suddenly shut him down.

Lastly, Fitzgerald has gotten more and more nicked up the past few years. He still seems to make it to the field every week, but last year he often was simply not himself. His ability to stay healthy will be key in his rise or fall in fantasy circles.

Where and Where to Draft Him

Per FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Fitzgerald is being taken in roughly the fourth round in fantasy mock drafts at the moment, and is the 19th wide receiver off the board.

That’s insane.

I’m okay with the fourth round average. In fact, if he can get to five, that’s probably ideal. But the clear high rate of receivers being plucked off the board should push him up a bit (probably his current ADP).

The real problem, though, is who people are taking before him. Michael Crabtree, Wes Welker, Percy Harvin and Pierre Garcon are the ones that stand out.

In the end, perhaps Garcon still rates out better than Fitz. After all, Garcon had a mammoth 2013 season. However, even he is clearly being overrated, as the Redskins look to be much more balanced than they were a year ago (you know, when they were terrible), while DeSean Jackson figures to cut into his targets just a bit.

The other guys make no sense over Fitzgerald, either. Crabtree missed most of 2013, plays in the same brutal division, has a less pass-happy attack and isn’t an explosive play-maker. Welker also isn’t explosive, and while his system is amazing, he’s headed for 33, had concussion issues last year and has to compete with way too many mouths in Denver. Lastly, Harvin is almost never healthy and operates in a run-heavy Seattle offense.

The point? If other fantasy owners want to grab higher risk players before a steady, reliable Fitzgerald, let them. He’s being had at tremendous value right now. He absolutely has top-10 potential and is currently almost dropping out of the top-20. That shouldn’t be happening.

Can He be an Elite WR1?

Absolutely he can. Fitzgerald has all the tools and role needed to be a top-10 (of not higher) fantasy wide receiver. Remember, he’s going to be 31, not 35. The guy still has plenty of good years left in the tank, and he’s also insanely intelligent. Even if he suddenly was the slowest receiver in the league, he’d be able to crush it on size and fundamentals, alone. Whether or not he can actually make the jump back to top level WR1 status will hinge on health and how well Carson Palmer plays. But if the value is there as the current ADP clearly suggests, you’re not going to be disappointed, either way.

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