Larry Fitzgerald is becoming an afterthought. I never thought this was possible considering the level dominance the All-Pro receiver has played to through out his career.
It seems like so long ago when we witnessed one of the greatest postseason performances from one of the greatest players in Arizona Cardinals franchise history. 2012 was admittedly the most frustrating season for Fitzgerald, as he reached a career-low four touchdown catches including 71 receptions for 798 yards with an average of 11.2 yards per catch. In 2013 Fitzgerald is out to prove that he is still one of the elite receivers in the NFL and that the 2012 was a fluke; I for one wouldn’t bet against him.
Most football fans and analyst seem to acknowledge Fitzgerald’s poor season but are content in blaming the dreadful quarterback play or the leaky offensive line play. So the question remains: Have the Cardinals done enough to upgraded these positions of need?
Trading for Carson Palmer was one of the best moves the Cardinals made in the off-season. Palmer brings instant credibility to the quarterback position, something the Cardinals have been lacking since the retirement of Kurt Warner. Palmer experience and leadership have merged well with the veterans in the the Cardinals locker room including Fitzgerald who has praised Palmer’s work ethic. It appears that the Cardinals have found a short term solution to their quarterback woes.
In 2012 the Cardinals offensive line was heavily criticized, and deservedly so. Whether it was injuries or poor play from the interior of the offensive line, the Cardinals failed to pass protect most notably in the first half of the 2012 season.
There is reason for optimism the Cardinals will have Levi Brown returning from injury who will be under the guidance of Bruce Arians and his coaching staff. The drafting of Jonathan Cooper will also be vital to the the success of the offensive line along with the development of Bobby Massie who played exceptionally well in the final eight games of the 2012 NFL season.
At center the Cardinals have Lyle Sendlein who needs to play well this season to keep his roster spot. That leaves Daryn Colledge and fourth-round rookie Earl Watford at the right guard spot come training camp. On paper the Cardinals line looks much improved, we will se if they live up to expectations.
Head coach Bruce Arians plays a large role in the resurgence of Fitzgerald. Arians was the offensive coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 and he made sure to feed the ball to Reggie Wayne early and often. Wayne had a bounce-back season in 2012 under coach Arians after having a poor season in 2011 under difficult circumstances. Wayne’s revival under Arians could be a prime example of how Fitzgerald can bounce back and have a great season in 2013.
After lining up primarily on the left side for most of his career Reggie Wayne was allowed to move all over the formation in coach Arians’ offense. According to Pro Football Focus Wayne ran 688 routes in 2012, 421 of those routes where ran in the slot which comes out to 61.2 percent of snaps from the slot.
Wayne was also targeted 90 times while lining up in the slot which allowed him to receive 48 of his receptions with a catch rate of 53.3. In comparison Fitzgerald only lined up in the slot 18.8 percent of the time, which allowed him to have 23 receptions of 25 targets that equals to a catch rate of 92.0, which is significantly higher than Wayne’s catch rate (stats acquired from Pro Football Focus).
Fitzgerald’s efficiency in the slot is somewhat surprising considering the erratic quarterback play that the Cardinals received in 2012. Fitzgerald has also shown the versatile to play all of the wide receiver positions, and it is probable that Fitzgerald will play more snaps from the slot, an possibly benefit greatly from it.
Although the improvements on offense will benefit Fitzgerald, opposing defenses will still game plan to try to keep the wide receiver from making impact plays. That’s why it is important more than ever that the Cardinals threaten defenses with a viable number two receiving option.
Whether that is Michael Floyd taking the next step in his development or Rob Housler having a break out season, the Cardinals need someone to take some attention away from Fitzgerald. Andre Roberts has developed into a solid wide receiver, but he is more effective in the slot which could allow him and Housler to make plays in the middle of the field and free up Fitzgerald one-on-one on the outside.
If the Cardinals can prevent defenses from rolling coverages to Fitzgerald, he could once again become a dominant threat outside the numbers.
It appears that I have spent my time writing about the improvements the Cardinals have made more than about Fitzgerald, but in reality the success or failure a wide receiver has should also be credited to the talent around him. In this case the Cardinals have done a great job of improving the talent on offense and this should allow not only Fitzgerald but all of the skill position players to showcase their talents.
The 2013 NFL season will a big year for Fitzgerald as he looks to bounce back stronger than ever. The Cardinals know they have to feed the ball to their best offensive player. This along with the improvements made on offense will propel Fitzgerald to one of his best seasons of his career.