Playing the Slots: Larry Fitzgerald Edition
January 28, 2013 | C.D. Carter
Reggie Wayne is the model.
Wayne, a year after his Indianapolis career was considered very much over, was moved from his almost permanent spot as left outside wide receiver to (primarily) a slot receiver. Bruce Arians, the Colts’ offensive coordinator and head coach for most of the 2012 season, did a magician’s job of moving Wayne across the lineup, using varied formations and motion to prevent defenses from pressing the old man.
Stevie Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald look like they could get varying degrees of the Wayne treatment in 2013, and if so, it’s difficult to overstate the potential fantasy impact. We’ll look at Fitzy today. Ramblings about Stevie’s slot-playing potential will come next week.
Back to Wayne, briefly: Only Wes Welker – the everlasting slot machine – ran more routes out of the slot in 2012, with Wayne drawing a whopping 90 targets on 421 slot routes (61 percent of his total routes). He caught 48 of those 90 targets for 679 yards and two touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Wayne saw the third most targets of any wide receiver (179), trailing only Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson.
Back to the dark days: Wayne ran a grand total of 73 routes from the slot in 2011. He finished that year with 75 receptions for 960 yards. He looked, for lack of a more polite word, done. Arians’ insertion of Wayne into the slot produced a 102-catch 1,315-yard 2012 season – among the best seasons of Wayne’s career. Andrew Luck, of course, was a slight upgrade from Curtis Painter behind center. Wayne’s usage change shouldn’t be written off though.
The Cardinals’ quarterbacks are a collective abomination. Let’s build that into this equation.
Fitzgerald, in a season that submarined the chances of anyone who drafted the former stud at his 2012 average draft position, ran 127 routes from the slot. Forty-four wide receivers ran more routes from the slot. Fitz’s 25 receptions from the slot ranked 43rd among wide receivers, behind guys like Austin Pettis, Harry Douglas, Nate Washington, and Nate Burleson, who missed the last 10 weeks of 2012 with a broken leg.
Arians, the guy who breathed life into Wayne’s fledgling career, is now Fitzgerald’s head coach. It didn’t take long for Arians to remind Cardinals’ fans – and fantasy owners – of what he did with Wayne in Indianapolis, and how that experimentation can translate to the desert.
“When I first met with Reggie, Reggie had been on the left side for 10 years,” Arians told the team’s website. “The first day of spring I put him over there on the right, and he looked like he had palsy. I said, ‘It’ll come. You have to retrain your body here. Wait until I put you in the slot.’ There was buy-in.”
NFL analyst savant Greg Cosell lauded Arians’ inventive usage of Wayne throughout the 2012 season, crediting the coach for keeping secondaries off guard, and for finding ways to move Wayne away from teams’ top cornerbacks.
“The thing for people who remember Reggie Wayne with Peyton Manning, when he pretty much lined up on the left side every single snap — he’s all over the formation in terms of where he starts and finishes his routes,” Cosell said during the Nov. 2 Shutdown Corner podcast. “This is what coaches look at when they game plan, and this is the concept we’ve talked about before — receiver distribution and location. Where do receivers line up? What routes do they run? They know that if Reggie Wayne runs his inside route off the hip of the tight end, he’s going to run certain routes. And he’s running such a variety of routes right now — far more than he ran with Peyton Manning.”
Fitzgerald had an ADP in the middle of the second round in 2012 fantasy drafts – at least a full round too early for anyone who had seen the atrocious play of Arizona signal callers and the team’s near total lack of a running game. Fitzgerald’s skills haven’t eroded – proven by his eight-catch, 111-yard performance against Chicago’s Charles Tillman in their Week 16 match-up – but no one can overcome the quarterback incompetency and constant bracket coverage Fitzgerald faced in 2012.
Risk-avoiding owners with short memories will flee from Fitzgerald in 2013, no matter what they hear about Arians’ plans for the 29-year-old receiver who has eclipsed 1,000 yards in six of his nine years in the NFL.
Fitzy could be attainable as late as the mid-to-late fourth round in 2013. On a related note: Yes, please.