When it comes to ranking fantasy players, there is always going to be some disagreement about where certain guys belong on the draft board. But every year, there seems to be a player or two who causes massive divide in the room — some think he's going to have a huge season while others see him as a likely bust. In 2010, one of those guys is Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald.
Spending significant time working on the PFW/Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football Guide 2010 over the past month, it's become obvious to me that Fitzgerald is someone people have very different opinions of as it relates to his fantasy value for the upcoming season. After he was the No. 1-ranked player at his position entering the '09 campaign, a fair number of fantasy pundits have their doubts about what kind of numbers Fitz will post this year — and virtually none of these worries is related to the wideout's abilities.
Nobody doubts that from a talent perspective, Fitzgerald is one of the most special players in the league at any position. At 6-3, 217 pounds, the 26-year-old can do just about everything one would expect from an elite receiver. He has the speed to beat his defender deep, the hands to make tough grabs in traffic, the body control to adjust to balls in the air and the elusiveness to pick up yards after the catch, just to name a few of his qualities. A good guy off the field as well, any NFL club would take him in an instant.
So why does Fitzgerald have numerous doubters this season? Easy: His quarterback is named Matt Leinart, not Kurt Warner. While the likely Hall of Famer Warner, who retired this offseason, was extremely accurate — his 65.5 completion percentage ranks as the second-best in league history — and had a clear rapport with Fitzgerald, the connection between Fitz and Leinart isn't quite as well established. And having posted very mediocre stats during his four-year career, Leinart hasn't exactly endeared himself to the fantasy community.
Playing in 12 games and starting 11 during his '06 rookie season — one in which expectations were very high for the first-rounder following a decorated career at USC — Leinart was very average, throwing for 212.3 yards per game with 11 TD passes, 12 interceptions and a horrifying 56.8 completion percentage. His production was even worse in Year Two, but his '07 season ended after just five games due to a fractured collarbone. Since that injury, he's started exactly one game, replacing an injured Warner at Tennessee last season.
Meanwhile, as Leinart sat on the bench, Fitzgerald and Warner went on to form of one the league's most dangerous tandems. From 2007-09, Fitz averaged 97.7 receptions, 1,310.7 yards and 11.7 TDs, placing him squarely atop the fantasy wideout heap. If Warner were returning in 2010, Fitzgerald almost definitely would be ranked in the top two at his position — only Andre Johnson would have a strong argument to be ahead of him. With Leinart as his QB, though, some experts are ready to knock Fitz out of their top 10. But is that fair?
Based on Leinart's track record, it's certainly understandable. The 27-year-old has a 57.1 career completion percentage, a 14-20 TD-INT ratio, has only one 300-yard outing and has never thrown more than two TDs in a game. He's been far from a superstar, and given the QB's history of struggles, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has already said that he expects to run the ball this season more than he has in the past, a clear sign that he doesn't trust Leinart to air it out the way Warner did.
But while there are some obvious reasons not to like Fitzgerald as much in '10, not every aspect of the receiver's outlook is pointing down. The trade to Baltimore of WR Anquan Boldin, Fitz's running mate during his entire tenure in Arizona, means that No. 11 will be the definite focal point of the offense. With 24 TDs over the past three seasons, Boldin was notorious for taking away targets in the red zone. Although his departure means that Fitzgerald likely will see added defensive attention, it also means that he will get a ton of looks around the goal line, so his scoring numbers could actually go up. And if the Arizona ground game works as well as the team expects, it could free up Fitz and Co. from having to deal with extra DBs, as opponents will have to respect the run.
There are positives and negatives galore here, which is one of the main reasons opinions are so split on Fitzgerald. To me, however, it's a bit early to start predicting a downfall for a player of Fitz's caliber. He is so good at catching off-target passes that Leinart won't necessarily have to be right on the money with every throw to his No. 1 receiver. Even with defenses keying on him more than ever, Fitzgerald should see so many looks now that Boldin is gone that he should still be able to produce at a high rate. And it's not like this QB-WR duo hasn't played together before — of Leinart's 14 career TD passes, no one has caught more than Fitzgerald (five), and none of the guys who snagged the other nine is currently on the Cards' roster.
Go ahead and call Fitzgerald a second-tier fantasy receiver if you want, but if anyone can overcome a less-than-ideal situation, it's Fitzgerald. Something tells me he'll find a way to get it done, if not quite at his previous level, then pretty darn close. A more mature, committed Leinart will also be better than expected, and he won't be a major hindrance to the wideout's value. The upside with Fitzgerald might not be quite what it once was, but letting him slip too far in fantasy drafts would be a major mistake.
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