Fantasy Equity Score Deep Dive: Larry Fitzgerald
June 26, 2015 | Chet
This makes three consecutive off-seasons in which I’ve dedicated digital ink to Larry FItzgerald, which might make some sort of weird Fitzy truther. I don’t think I fall in that camp, as I’ve acknowledged that Fitzgerald has only thrived with good or great quarterback play.
Truly elite receivers get it done with pretty much anyone behind center.
The part that piques my interest in Fitzgerald at his low cost that isn’t likely to rise much in the next 60 days: he posted nice numbers with good quarterback play in 2014. Nothing that made him a league winner, but nice production nonetheless. The difference in 2015 is that he’s going off the board at WR40, about five rounds later than he was taken in 2014. Fitz’s price is my muse here.
The elderly receiver’s equity scores caught me by surprise this week, as his median projection would make him WR29 and his best-case scenario would put him at WR25. That makes him a solidly safe investment if Carson Palmer plays 16 games for Arizona and Fitzy manages to stay upright. Probably that’s a Giant If.
I messed with Fitzgerald’s Rotoviz similarity scores, stripping away games started by Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley, who were beyond wretched in Palmer’s stead. The receiver’s sim scores changed a little bit, with the most positive comps staying the same. Mushin Muhammed’s 2004 campaign remains Fitzgerald’s best-case scenario. Muhammed, when he snagged 93 balls for 1,405 yards and found pay dirt 16 times.
We can confidently say Fitzy would do incredibly well to sniff double-digit touchdowns in 2015. The aged one has even said his role in Arians’ offense is one that keeps him in a more conservative role, essentially removing any vertical game benefits he might reap in that scheme. That’s assuming Fitzgerald can get vertical at his advanced age. Muhammed’s role in the 2004 Carolina offense was the direct opposite of Fitzgerald’s in the 2015 Cardinals’ attack.
Roddy White in 2014 might be the most intriguing sim score here. White notched 15.2 fantasy points per game in 14 contests last season, which would’ve made him WR12 if he had continued that pace and played a full 16 games. White, like Muhammad in 2004, is an age appropriate comp: he was 33 in 2014, about a year older than Fitzgerald is going to be during the 2015 NFL season.
And then there’s Hines Ward in 2005, smack in the middle of Fitz’s sim score comps. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians just so happened to be the Steelers’ wide receiver coach in 2005, for whatever that’s worth. Ward, who scored 10 times that year, finished that season as a top-10 fantasy option despite missing a game. He was used similarly to how Fitzgerald is and has been used in Arians’ offense too.
I should emphasize that Fitz’s prospects almost certainly do not include double-digit touchdowns. But I think Ward’s presence in these sim scores is encouraging. Ward wasn’t exactly peppered with targets either — he saw 7.5 targets a game.
Cardinals coaches, including head coach Arians, said Fitzgerald had a tough time running option routes in 2014, playing at a far slower pace when he had two or three choices in a given pass route. Arians added that the veteran has improved in his running of option routes, and that it’s never easy for an old vet to adapt to fundamental changes in how they go about their business.
Arians said something similar about Reggie Wayne in 2012, when Wayne was taken out of his longtime role as strictly-outside receiver in Indy’s offense. Wayne finished that year as a top-12 fantasy pass catcher, eclipsing 1,300 receiving yards thanks to a massive share of the team’s targets.
But back to the Palmer factor: Fitzgerald was seeing 6.7 targets a game with Palmer behind center, catching 44 mostly-short and medium-range balls for 644 yards. Fitz was on pace for WR24 finish in a world where Palmer’s knee survived the year. That was well below his 2014 ADP — hardly shocking — but it’s 20 spots higher than his 2015 ADP. It’s exactly what the equity scores say.
And fellow Fake Football scribe Rich Hribar isn’t exactly bearish on Fitzgerald at such a perfectly reasonable cost.
Fitzgerald’s quarterbacks have never posted sparkling adjusted yards per attempt when throwing him the ball. Kurt Warner couldn’t manage better than 8.7 AYA when throwing to Fitz. Palmer’s 7.8 AYA is second among signal callers tossing it to Fitzgerald, feeding the (well founded) thought that Palmer is the second-best quarterback to throw passes to Fitz. Sixteen games of Palmer means everything here.
There’s also the matter of Fitzgerald’s slot performance during Palmer’s time as Arizona’s starter in 2014. Fitz ran more than half his routes from the slot in Palmer starts, catching 20 of 27 targets for 15 yards a pop. That’s among the most efficient slot performances of 2014’s first 10 weeks. He’s expected to get more run from the slot in 2015 — as most aging pass catchers do — and that might not be a terrible thing for those hoping to get him on the cheap.
If Fitzgerald remains outside the first 30 wide receivers off the draft board, count me as interested in the senior citizen catching passes from a senior citizen.