On Wednesday evening, news broke that Arizona Cardinals' wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald plans to play out the final year of his contract in 2017, putting to rest rumors of Fitzgerald's pending retirement that swirled for much of January.
Fitzgerald's decision to return was first reported by ESPN's Jim Trotter, and confirmed by a number of media outlets around the league.
Having Fitzgerald back instantly makes the Cardinals a more complete team in 2017, as the NFL's leader in receptions returns for what will likely be his final season in the league. Over the last 13 seasons, Fitzgerald has played his way into becoming a lock for the Hall of Fame, and in the latter years of his career, the former first round draft choice hasn't slowed down, amassing 216 receptions and well over 2,000 receiving yards combined in the last two seasons.
There's no doubt that Fitzgerald's return afford the Cardinals an additional season with one of the league's top offensive weapons, but it also gives general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians much needed flexibility this offseason.
With quarterback Carson Palmer also entering the final year of his contract, the Cardinals' championship window may close after 2017, which means the franchise is likely viewing the upcoming season in a --yep, you guessed it-- all or nothing fashion.
Fitzgerald's return allows the Cardinals the freedom to use their first round draft choice, the 13th overall selection, on the best available player regardless of position, and it gives the team more leeway in free agency. Though Fitzgerald isn't likely to return beyond 2017, the Cardinals can view this offseason through a micro lens for the upcoming year as opposed to a macro lens in which they would have to make more long-term plans for the future.
Had Fitzgerald departed the Cardinals this offseason, Arizona likely would have had to make at least one big free agent splash at the receiver position, or use the team's first round draft pick to find Fitzgerald's successor. Now, Arizona has the ability to draft a cornerback, a middle linebacker, or address any position group the team fails to add depth to in free agency, which prevents the Cardinals from being hamstrung in the first round.
Even though Fitzgerald's $11 million base salary will command a significant portion of the team's available funds this offseason, Arizona may be able to keep a free agent it thought it might lose --perhaps Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger or even A.Q. Shipley-- because the team has a much better idea of what the depth chart will look like at wide receiver next season.
While keeping Fitzgerald doesn't necessarily eliminate the Cardinals' need for a quality secondary option at wide receiver, Arizona doesn't need to allocate funds this offseason to outbidding its competition for a primary option like it may have had to do if Fitzgerald left.
Ultimately, what Fitzgerald's return does for the Cardinals is provide clarity. In the short term, Arizona can attempt to capitalize on what is essentially the final season of a championship window by making decisions with the immediate needs of the club in focus. That means Keim and Arians can hold off on focusing so intently on the long-term vision for the future, because Arizona is in a win-now mode.
With Fitzgerald's status now certain, Palmer likely to return, and plenty of young talent on either side of the ball --think David Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu-- the Cardinals can begin to focus all of their attention on building for a Super Bowl run this offseason.