"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Larry Fitzgerald
Experience: 13th NFL season
Contract Status: 2016: $15,850,000
2015 season quick review: After five straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, Fitzgerald began to show the first signs of decline in 2012 as one of the faces of the Cardinals' franchise nabbed just 71 passes for 798 yards that season. Though Fitzgerald bumped up his production in 2013, he again struggled in 2014 as the 63 receptions Fitzgerald tallied were the fewest since his rookie season back in 2004. Fitzgerald entered the 2015 campaign with questions surrounding his age and eventual retirement plans, but quickly put those to rest with a Renaissance year that quieted doubters. After switching to the slot position from an outside receiver role when Bruce Arians was first hired, Fitzgerald finally blossomed in the role and amassed a career-high 109 catches and 1,215 receiving yards en route to one of the best years of his professional career. Aside from his statistical success, Fitzgerald played a pivotal role in the Cardinals' running game as his skills as a blocker in the slot were among the best of any receiver in the NFL. Though questions about an eventual retirement will always surface for receivers north of 30 years old, Fitzgerald used 2015 to prove he's still among the NFL's elite as a wide receiver.
Projected roster status: Fitzgerald's status on the roster is not in question as the Cardinals' superstar will once again be counted on at the top of the depth chart for production. Regardless of how Fitzgerald fares this season, the Cardinals know what Fitzgerald has meant to the team's success through the years and how beloved he is by the fans of the franchise, so even with the significant cap hit Fitzgerald's contract represents, his status with the team is a certainty.
Projected depth chart status: As the Cardinals hope John Brown continues to emerge as an every down threat, the team may not need to rely on Fitzgerald to have another 100-reception season to experience the same type of offensive success the unit enjoyed a season ago. Michael Floyd is back in the fold and beginning a contract season, and players further down the depth chart like Jaron Brown and J.J. Nelson should be able to contribute more as they grow within offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin's scheme. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald is so technically skilled as a route runner and has developed such a strong chemistry with Carson Palmer that it would come as a surprise if he wasn't at least in the mix for the team lead in receptions. Even in his 13th season in the NFL, Fitzgerald will be the Cardinals' top option on the depth chart in the slot, and should still fulfill his typical starting role when the team uses just two receivers in formation.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals are actually at a fascinating crossroads with their wide receiver unit, as it's conceivable both Fitzgerald and Floyd could move on from the team in the near future. Though Fitzgerald probably has the freedom to remain with the organization as long as he chooses so long as the Cardinals can negotiate a reasonable contract, Floyd is in a contract season and the Cardinals have a number of high-profile defensive assets who may take precedence when the team begins resigning players next offseason. General manager Steve Keim and Arians have the benefit of using 2016 as an evaluation period for the unit, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if the team used a first or second round draft pick on a wide receiver next year to bolster the team's depth.
Moving forward: How do the Cardinals move forward with Fitzgerald? Better yet, how do they eventually replace Fitzgerald? When Fitzgerald decides to hang up his cleats, it will be next to impossible for any player to live up to the standard Fitzgerald set within the organization. The pragmatic approach in a situation like this is for the team and the player to reevaluate their directions and motivations on an annual basis, which is something both parties are likely already doing. If Fitzgerald wants to continue playing into his mid-30s, the Cardinals could certainly use a technically skilled receiver, but Fitzgerald also must acknowledge when the time comes that his performance may no longer yield the type of contract he is used to playing under. The Cardinals will continue to bring in receivers over the next few seasons that hope to produce in top-of-the-depth chart roles, and though the team may not have another Fitzgerald waiting in the wings, it can attempt to make the unit deeper and more well-rounded than it was for much of Fitzgerald's career.
Key Skill: Blocking
If there's one skill that separates Fitzgerald from his counterparts throughout the NFL, it's his blocking. Yes, Fitzgerald has elite hands and an uncanny ability to reel in nearly anything thrown in his general direction, but Fitzgerald is practically unparalleled as a blocker.
Fitzgerald has always been a tenacious downfield blocker, but his transition to the slot following Arians' arrival has maximized his ability in a way that now benefits the entire Cardinals' offense. For receivers, blocking cornerbacks and safeties is the expectation, but for Fitzgerald, his ability to block linebackers and even edge rushers in the run game has helped spring running backs for significant gains and freed linemen to work to the second level even faster.
It's difficult to put into perspective just how important Fitzgerald is as a blocker because it's a skill that is highly underrated when evaluating receivers, but on a handful of occasions during the last few seasons, Fitzgerald has delivered highlight reel blocks that showcase his value.
Against Minnesota last season, Floyd caught a pass about eight to 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and in a typical situation, could have turned the play into a 15-to-20-yard gain as the defense flagged him down. However, Floyd had Fitzgerald in front of him leading a path down the field, and in the image below, we see Floyd preparing to follow Fitzgerald down the field.
Immediately after Floyd has the ball in his possession, Fitzgerald swings his head around to target a Vikings defender. In this instance, Fitzgerald recognizes where the rest of the defense is pursuing from, so he prepares himself to establish positioning between the sideline and the defender which creates an open space for Floyd to run toward.
One of Fitzgerald's best capabilities as a blocker is the leverage he creates with his lower body. As he prepares to break down for a block, Fitzgerald sinks his hips and fires upward to deliver a blow to a defender's upper body. This low-to-high movement allows Fitzgerald to drive his feet and continue gaining momentum through contact, and on this play, it makes all the difference for clearing a path for Floyd.
The difference in having Fitzgerald as a downfield blocker compared to nearly any other NFL receiver on this play is the difference between a first down and a touchdown. Fitzgerald wasted no time identifying the defender to block, the angle to attack from and the mechanics of the block and this block gave way to a Floyd touchdown. Though not every Fitzgerald block looks like this, he has the ability to change the game as a blocker in both the run and the pass game which is a skill few receivers ever develop.
Overall value: For all of the skills and veteran leadership Fitzgerald brings to the Cardinals, it's important to consider his 2016 salary represents the second largest cap hit of any receiver in the NFL (Julio Jones, Falcons). At the age of 32, it's entirely possible, and probable, that Fitzgerald won't match the production he brought to the Cardinals' offense last season. Though there are certain factors Fitzgerald brings to the franchise like his All-Pro blocking abilities and situational awareness that can't be quantified statistically (at least quantified easily), it will be tremendously difficult for Fitzgerald to live up to the monetary value his contract suggests he's worth. However, we'd argue a player of Fitzgerald's stature who means so much to the Cardinals' franchise and has contributed so positively to the team's recent success shouldn't have to as much worry about his statistical output, because the value he has provided the franchise through the years has been immeasurable in so many other ways.