*Note: This article operates under the assumption that Larry Fitzgerald will be playing on team other than the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, or at least that there is a strong chance of that outcome. Up until this week, it had widely been reported that Fitzgerald and the Cardinals were likely to part ways based on his albatross of a contract, which carries a $23.5 million cap hit next season, and Fitzgerald’s unhappiness with his role in Arizona. According to that last report, Fitzgerald himself expects to be elsewhere in 2015. However, it was reported on Friday that both sides have begun preliminary talks to bring him back to the Cardinals. While they have yet to discuss money (ahem, a minor detail), it appears that Fitz’ profile as a lifetime Cardinal and city icon is motivating both sides to find a way to make a return work. As a result, you may not find this post particularly helpful. Or, on the other hand, you may see this latest development as a greater opportunity to exploit his bottomed-out stock. You decide. And let me know in the comments.
This may seem like an odd article to see on RotoViz. Most often, the excellent work on this site is meant to help you sort through lesser-known prospects and identify hidden gems, to be, in other words, “Your Secret Weapon,” as the home page of the site suggests. And I wouldn’t say Larry Fitzgerald is the most hidden of gems…But at its core, the real goal of RotoViz is to help you identify inefficiencies in the market and exploit the corresponding opportunities those inefficiencies create, and it seems that at this very moment, Larry Fitzgerald offers you an intriguing opportunity.
I mentioned that Fitzgerald may return to the Cardinals next season. I also laid out the reasons it seems quite possible that he won’t. For the sake of argument, let’s set that question aside for now and assume that he’ll play for a different team in 2014.
If we do that, then the title of this article, “Is Larry Fitzgerald A Dynasty Buy?” is a boring question, because the answer, in the most technical sense, is an objective yes. Here’s why:
1. He’d be leaving one of the very worst, perhaps the worst quarterback situation in the league. In the last four seasons, nine different quarterbacks (nine!) have attempted passes for the Cardinals, and those QBs combined for just over 2,000 pass attempts. Turning to the fantastic Fantasy Efficiency App,1 we can see that the per-passing attempt efficiency, or FPOEPA, on those 2,002 pass attempts was 0.035. How bad is that? Well, in 2014, among QBs who attempted at least 100 passes, that per target efficiency would have ranked 33rd, just above E.J. Manuel’s. By the way, Drew Stanton (the Cardinals passing attempts leader this season) was ranked 32nd, with an reFPOEPA of 0.04. And with Carson Palmer coming off his second torn ACL and a draft pick in the 20s, the Cardinals aren’t in a position to upgrade their QB play next season.
2. Larry Fitzgerald’s role has been drastically reduced in the last few seasons, bottoming out in 2014. After a career built on winning on the outside, Fitz now plays almost exclusively in the slot where he recorded 99 targets this past season, ranking him 44th (tied with Le’Veon Bell). Believe it or not, that total actually made him the Cardinals’ target leader, but it was the fewest targets he’s recorded in a single season in his career, and only the third time he’s had fewer than 130 targets.
No other team, a.k.a. no potential landing spot for Fitz, would present that combination of horrendous quarterback play and limited role, especially when you consider that his role is reportedly part of the reason he wants to leave Arizona, and the likelihood that he would use his first opportunity on the open market to sign with a contender.
Which means that Larry Fitzgerald’s stock is guaranteed to improve if he decides to leave the Cardinals. Therefore (again, assuming for the moment that Fitz will leave the Cardinals), the real question isn’t “Is Larry Fitzgerald a Dynasty Buy?” but rather “What is Larry Fitzgerald Worth?” and perhaps “Is it Worth Trying to Acquire Him?”
To answer those questions we need to answer another, namely the major question that is the undercurrent of his depressed fantasy stock: “Is He Done?”
After all, Fitz turns 32 in August and is coming off three straight seasons of less than 1,000 yards. What’s more, things like targets can work both ways; there may be a very good, and very simple, reason that he’s been relegated to the slot and to less than 100 targets this season. And if he’s just not a good player anymore, and would therefore only likely be likely to improve his stock from WR53 (his 0.5PPR finish this season) to, say, WR42, by switching teams then there’s nothing really here to talk about (although it should be noted that even if he is done, his perceived value would still increase if he moves to a new team, especially if it’s a team like the Patriots).
What we need to figure out is how much of Fitz’ recent uninspiring production is attributable to him, and how much is attributable to his ineffective stable of QBs. Let’s start by examining his own efficiency numbers using the Fantasy Efficiency App.
In 2014, he recorded a per-target efficiency number, or reFPOEPT, of 0.09. That’s not untenable. For example it’s better than what Julian Edleman (WR17) produced in 2014. But it’s certainly not great. Among WRs who had 90 or more targets it was good for 46th. In terms of a multi-season trend there isn’t much to see however; his previous three reFPOEPT numbers were an impressive 0.36 (2011, his first post-Warner season), a disastrous -0.26 (2012), and a solid 0.26 (2013). So he produced a notably efficient season as recently as a year ago. Circling back to 2014,the next question becomes: should we take the decline from 0.26 to 0.09 to be ominously significant?
There’s a very encouraging reason to think we shouldn’t.
In 2014, Carson Palmer played in five games. In those games, Fitz recorded an reFPOEPT of 0.845. That isn’t just good, it’s absolutely fantastic. Terrance Williams, the season leader in reFPOEPT among WRs with at least 50 targets, recorded a 0.81. Sure, it’s a small sample size (31 targets), but it seems to indicate that Fitz is still capable of playing at a high level given sufficient QB play. In that regard, his 2014 reFPOEPT with Palmer is part of a larger trend. Check out his numbers with and without Palmer since the beginning of 2013, courtesy of the Game Splits App:
Those splits are pretty dramatic. Since Palmer arrived in Arizona, Fitz has averaged 12.4 PPG with him. Over a full season that would have been good for 14th among WRs in 2014, ahead of Calvin Johnson. Without Palmer, Fitz has been dreadful, as that 5.7 PPG would have placed him between Miles Austin and Jericho Cotchery at PPG WR68 this year.
Fitz’s receptions dropped without Palmer, and his yardage numbers were almost cut in half. Even more importantly, Palmer has accounted for ALL of Fitz’s touchdowns since 2012. You might be thinking some of this is damning for Fitz, especially that last part, but notice that regardless of QB, Fitz’s target volume has remained almost identical. Meaning on almost the same amount of volume, Fitz was close to doubling his yardage and scoring with Palmer, which in turn meant he more than doubled his fantasy points per outing. To me, this further implies that his QB situation, not a declining skill set, has been the biggest factor in his disappointing production.
Perhaps the best news for Fitz is that Palmer has not been a world-class QB in Arizona. Far from it, in fact. Turning back to the Fantasy Efficiency App, we can see that over that same timespan, 2013-2014, Palmer has an reFPOEPA of 0.08, which puts him in a four-way tie with Mike Glennon, Mark Sanchez, and Teddy Bridgewater as the 20th most efficient quarterback.
In other words, the splits above weren’t “Fitz With a Good QB vs. Fitz With a Bad QB,” but “Fitz With a Mildly Competent QB vs. Fitz With a Dreadfully Incompetent QB.” That’s very encouraging, because it widens the pool of prospective teams Fitz could sign with and be productive.
Whether or not you’re willing to risk Fitz restructuring with the Cardinals, thereby torpedoing any future relevant value, is an important question you’ll have to answer for yourself. But his stock is at an all time low, and based on Friday’s report his owner may be resigned to a Cardinals return and therefore be more than happy to include him as a throw-in as part of a larger trade. And if you can acquire him at a price that assumes he’ll return to Arizona you SHOULD, because there’s still a significant chance he won’t.
And Based on the above evidence, I have no issue saying that he is likely to be a top 30 WR next year if he leaves Arizona and stays healthy.