When Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. was a teenager, he was no stranger to Winter Park. The son of a Twin Cities media member who was friends with Dennis Green, it was set up for him to be a team ball boy. As such, he spent many a day during the summer and afternoons and weekends during the school year on the sidelines shagging footballs. In the process, he earned a couple of fans – no less than two of the best receivers in the league at the time, Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
Both of them were impressed with the kid's hands and ability to make one-handed catches – a Carter specialty. Flash forward 12 years and Fitzgerald is one of the most dominant players in the league. He was a standout at Pitt in college and, when he came up for the draft, Green had moved on from Minnesota to Arizona and didn't hesitate to snap up the talented receiver he first met as a youngster. On Sunday, he comes back home to the Twin Cities this weekend as the Cardinals come to the Metrodome to meet the struggling Vikings.
Although much has changed in Arizona since last season – Kurt Warner retired and Anquan Boldin was traded to Baltimore – one thing that remains constant about the Arizona offense is Fitzgerald and his ability to make plays.
Rookie Chris Cook said that he can't wait for Sunday. He said that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told him that one of the reasons the Vikings coveted him on draft day was for just such matchups – a big receiver who can make plays anywhere on the field.
"He's a big and physical guy with strong hands," Cook said. "He's a good route runner, he's a smart football player and he knows the game well. That's definitely a good challenge. Coach Frazier told me earlier that it was one of the reasons I was brought in – to match up with bigger receivers like him. I'm definitely looking forward to that challenge."
Cook circled this game when he first the saw the Vikings' 2010 schedule. Although it was filled with receivers who can do damage down the field from Brandon Marshall to Randy Moss (at the time with New England) to Greg Jennings to Miles Austin to Braylon Edwards – there were two players Cook especially wanted to face to see how he could stand up against what he considers the best wide receivers in the game today.
"When I saw (the 2010 schedule), Calvin Johnson and (Fitzgerald) were the two I was looking forward to a lot," said Cook, who handled himself pretty well in the first meeting with Johnson earlier this year. "That game gave me some confidence, but those two are different receivers."
If the Vikings secondary needed a challenge, few can bring it like Fitzgerald, who has built a resume that, if it continues at its current pace, will likely land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when his career is over.
Fitzgerald has been as consistent and dominant a receiver as the league has seen over the last five years. In that span, he has caught more than 95 passes in four of them, topped 1,400 yards in three of them and caught 10 or more touchdowns in four of the five seasons. It should be noted that the one season in which he didn't have 1,000 yards, 95-plus catches or 10 or more TDs was when he was injured and missed a month of the season.
His credentials are impeccable. He doesn't have prototype speed that most top receivers possess, but he does everything right, which makes him as dangerous as any receiver the Vikings will face this season.
"He has the size, skill level and ability to make plays," Sheppard said. "There's a lot of guys that don't run 4.3 40s and still get the job done. He may not have the best speed, but he gets open and makes plays. There are few in the league that are better and he is one of the top receivers in the league for a reason."
Second-year man Asher Allen knows firsthand how brilliant Fitzgerald can be. He wasn't with the Vikings when Fitzgerald made his only other hometown appearance – a game in which he caught 11 passes for 172 yards – but he was on the field last year when the Vikings faced Fitzgerald. In that game, he caught eight passes for 143 yards and a touchdown, making a huge impact in a 30-17 blowout win.
"He was impressive," Allen said. "He is one of those guys that you have to stay with all the time until you hear the whistle. You think you have him covered and there were times when we had him bracketed and he still found a way to go up and get the ball for a big gain. He's one of the best there is at wide receiver and we know we have our hands full."
Cook said he is expecting to see a lot time covering Fitzgerald Sunday and will have the chance to get physical with him at the line. Cook said he's comfortable going mano-a-mano even with All Pros.
"I don't like playing off (the line) anyway," Cook said. "I can stay in front of him and get my hands on him – I've got long arms. It's the kind of matchup I like."
The problem Cook and the other DBs will have is that the Cardinals have designed plays specifically to get Fitzgerald in space and, once he's open field with the ball his hands is when he is the most dangerous.
"He attacks the ball and the offense is designed to get him into a position to make plays," Sheppard said. "He's going to be one of those guys you have to account for on every play, because he's that good."
While his 2009 numbers are below his typical standards – 35 catches for 403 yards and four TDs through seven games – the Vikings know that he has the ability to explode, as he has proved that as recently as last year and in his only previous visit to the Metrodome. The cast may have changed, but he is still as dangerous as ever.
"He may not have Kurt Warner or Boldin out there with him, but he's still extremely dangerous," cornerback Frank Walker said. "We're not looking at him like he's not having the kind of seasons that he did with Kurt. We all know how special he is as a receiving threat and I don't think it matters who his quarterback is. He will still find ways to make plays that will hurt you. We will have to be prepared for him on every play because he's that good."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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