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Pro Football Focus: A Palmer-Fitz combo can carry the Cardinals this season

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) runs after the catch as San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite (57) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

It’s early, very early, but through three weeks of the NFL season, the Arizona Cardinals appear to be perhaps the most well-rounded team in all of football.  Coming a resounding 47-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers this past Sunday, the Cards once again boasted a stingy, opportunistic defense to go along with an offense operating with cyanide-level potency.

Admittedly, the latter matter doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, what with quarterback Carson Palmer appearing fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered last season, the anticipated growth of second-year wide receiver John Brown and the emergence of a three-headed monster at running back in the form of Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington and rookie David Johnson.

What does come as a mild surprise, however, is the reawakening of 32-year-old former All-Pro at wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.  Playing with seemingly a new lease on his football life, thanks in large part to the health of Palmer, Fitzgerald has proven once again to be one of the league’s most productive pass catchers, snagging 23 passes for 333 yards and a league-leading five touchdown receptions through three games this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, the substantial uptick in Fitzgerald’s production has plenty to do with the presence of Palmer, as well as Fitzgerald’s apparent increased comfort operating out of the slot receiver position.

Last season Fitzgerald spent 48.6 percent of his snaps in the slot, with another 36 snaps coming actually lined up as a tight end, and it seemed like a desperate attempt to scheme a role for him where he could still catch some balls, because he couldn’t get it done outside anymore. This year the number has actually gone up slightly, with 51.1 percent of his snaps through three games coming inside (and another five lined up at TE), but it doesn’t seem like a schematic trick anymore, because it’s working.

Fitzgerald has caught 82.1 percent of the balls thrown his way, notching 333 yards and five scores. He has shown the kind of toughness that he has been known for throughout his career, and he’s become a legitimate slot weapon. One of his two scores against the 49ers involved getting blasted in the end zone as he caught the ball, holding on to complete the reception as if it wasn’t any big deal.

With Fitzgerald’s returning to a career-best level, that of course has also had a tremendous impact on the numbers posted by Palmer thus far.  In fact, Pro Football Focus says that Palmer’s passer rating is north of 100 in virtually every phase of the game, regardless if the opponent is applying or not.

Needless to say, if both players remain healthy and the Cardinals can continue to stay in a rhythm collectively, the sky is truly the limit as to what head coach Bruce Arians’ bunch can accomplish this season.

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