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NFL Draft

Path Forward For Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald As Cloudy As Ever

  • The Draft Network
  • February 22, 2021
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The Arizona Cardinals could be moving closer to a future without veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who finished his 17th season with the franchise, has been inching toward retirement the last few years; now, at 37 years old—Fitzgerald will be 38 before the start of the 2021 season—he is faced with another difficult decision.

Fitzgerald is set to become a free agent in March. While he has “no timeline” for his choice to return to the gridiron, when looking at previous seasons he was going to hit the market after a one-year deal—which has been the four offseasons—a decision has never been made this late. In 2019, Fitzgerald and Arizona agreed to an extension at the tail end of January. During last year’s offseason, the same agreement was made mid-January. The delay doesn’t necessarily mean Fitzgerald is going to retire. But there are a number of factors that could be giving both Fitzgerald and the Cardinals pause. 

The first, and biggest, is Fitzgerald’s production. He can still make jaw-dropping catches, evade defenders like he did in his prime, and be a reliable target for quarterback Kyler Murray at times. However, this is far more seldom than it has ever been. Fitzgerald finished with a career-low 54 catches for (another career-low) 409 yards, and (yet another career-low) one touchdown. In 13 games, his 31.5 yards per game were also the lowest of his career. Arizona should know that it won’t get the receiver that once totaled five consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards, or who led the NFL in touchdowns during the 2008-09 seasons. 

The Cardinals relied heavily on their biggest acquisition last season, DeAndre Hopkins, and rightfully so—but it was at the cost of offensive productivity and developing receivers down the depth chart. It’s expected Arizona will look to either the 2021 NFL Draft or free agency to bring in a reliable WR2 behind Hopkins. This would undoubtedly push Fitzgerald further down the depth chart with Hopkins and fourth-year pass-catcher Christian Kirk being more productive than the aging Fitzgerald. 

In 2020, Arizona finished the season with a middling passing offense; the team averaged nearly 245 yards per game. It was an uptick from the Cardinals’ 2019 numbers when Fitzgerald was the leading receiver with 804 yards at the end of the season. The addition of Hopkins helped elevate Arizona’s passing game, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Arizona hired Shawn Jefferson, formerly the New York Jets’ wide receivers coach and assistant head coach, to help transform the receiving corps. It leads to another factor in both parties’ decision: How much is Fitzgerald’s veteran leadership worth with a COVID-19-reduced salary cap?

The Cardinals currently have $11,833,440 available cap space, according to Over the Cap. Fitzgerald’s last four one-year contracts have been worth right around that number. Kirk, while inconsistent, is entering a contract year and there are a number of players set to become free agents in just a few weeks that Arizona will need to make decisions on, including cornerback Patrick Peterson, running back Kenyan Drake, and a number of players across the offensive line. Fitzgerald will need to take a number significantly lower than the previous $11 million; it seems unwise to offer Fitzgerald all (or even most) of its available salary cap to be the fourth or fifth pass-catcher on the depth chart, especially with offensive team needs at almost every position, including running back, tight end, and offensive line. 

The Cardinals still need to aggressively find another receiver, regardless of what Fitzgerald decides. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray are getting more comfortable together, but Murray’s production as a passer could improve with long-term options to look to.

There are few receivers with as storied of a history as Fitzgerald’s, and his history with the franchise allows him more time than others to make a decision; Arizona has respected and offered Fitzgerald the space he needs regarding his future. As free agency gets closer, it does feel like the Cardinals need to prepare for a future without their veteran leader.

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