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What Larry Fitzgerald’s return in 2020 means for the Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton (28) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Larry Fitzgerald entered another offseason without knowing what he wanted to do next football season. But this time, it felt like he really did know.

Although the season included just five wins, the energy around the Arizona Cardinals didn’t feel deflated like it had when first-year head coach Steve Wilks led them to a 3-13 campaign in 2018 before he was fired. Wilks’ replacement, Kliff Kingsbury, brought a different vibe.

It was business-like, but it also wasn’t tight.

As he proved his chops as a creative offensive mind and helped rookie quarterback Kyler Murray succeed, it became clear players on that side of the ball found it fun.

So when Fitzgerald, still going strong, took a month-and-a-half off before officially agreeing Wednesday on a one-year extension to play in 2020, it wasn’t surprising a bit. How will that impact Arizona next season, and what does it tell us about the state of the team today?

The trust in Kliff and Kyler is real

It’s notable when Fitzgerald’s announcement came this time around. His official return came a week earlier on the calendar than his Jan. 23, 2019, announcement of a return last year.

In the two years before that, Fitzgerald didn’t say he’d return until February.

Such an early extension verified general manager Steve Keim’s and others’ suspicions: Fitzgerald enjoyed the day-to-day grind with his young teammates, and as a football player, it revealed he wasn’t just blowing smoke about what Murray and Kingsbury could accomplish.

Fitzgerald said before the season finale he still got game-day jitters. He was still having fun.

The environment around him has to do with that, and it probably made his choice easier. His tweet following the announcement said as much.

Fitz is still a starting-caliber slot WR

Fitzgerald’s production in 2019 said enough.

He led Arizona with 804 receiving yards and appeared in all 16 games, averaging 10.7 yards per catch and scoring four touchdowns.

The 16-year pro saw a massive bump in targets compared to the 2018 season — 69 to 104. How much easier was life in Kingsbury’s offense?

In 2018, Fitzgerald’s average separation on targets was 2.3 yards. It was 3.0 yards this past year, and that allowed him to average 5.1 yards after catch (YAC) compared to just 3.2 a year prior, according to NextGenStats.

“I think he’s playing as good as anybody, honestly,” Kingsbury said at season’s end. “You watch what he does week-in and week-out, the little things, the blocking and the toughness that he brings to the offensive side of the football. He’s just still creating separation. He does it all.”

Take these Pro Football Focus grades with a grain of salt: His run-blocking grades significantly increased midway through the 2019 season, and his highest-graded game came in the second matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. Remember this?

Arizona still needs a deep threat or two

Christian Kirk and Fitzgerald are locks to start.

Whether Kirk can stay healthy and develop into a No. 1 receiver remains to be seen, but Kingsbury didn’t express much urgency about finding a true top wideout via the draft.

“I like what our wideouts did. I like what our offense did,” the coach said in his last press conference of the year. “I think it’s on us as a coaching staff to maximize who we have regardless of what it is. This is a wideout-heavy draft. There’s no doubt there’re some great players at that position, but we have to take the best player that makes us better immediately and has the biggest impact for the organization.”

What Arizona does certainly need is two more starters, and they preferably need to stretch the field vertically. The speedy Damiere Byrd a free agent.

Injuries and ongoing skill development for Byrd weren’t enough for second-round pick Andy Isabella to earn time over his veteran counterpart, as the Cardinals used the rookie in a limited set of packages. Isabella, who had one 88-yard touchdown catch-and-run, finished with nine receptions and four rushing attempts.

Fitzgerald’s return means that Isabella, 2019 sixth-round pick KeeSean Johnson and 2019 fourth-round pick Hakeem Butler must take major steps forward — roster spots could be tight if Arizona drafts another receiver and brings back Byrd or the reliable Pharoh Cooper. Johnson was a healthy scratch late in the year, and Butler’s status as the only true jump-ball type of receiver took a hit with a season-ending hand injury in the preseason.

Kingsbury went away from four-receiver sets after Week 4 of 2019, but given better WR talent, it’s likely he will revert back that way if he can.

Drafting Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III, or taking Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb to reunite him with Murray would signal that even more.

A chunk of cap space is gone … but

Is it an overpay to make Fitzgerald the third-highest salaried Cardinals player (by base salary) in 2020 as of his extension?

There’s obvious value beyond the stats, and there’s also an important message sent by the franchise, which offered Fitzgerald his salary from last season: per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport,  it’s $11 million plus incentives. That’s tied for 19th among NFL receivers.

“He’s the consummate professional. He’s what you want every player on your roster to be. I think any joy that he derived from this year, we got twice as much as a coaching staff,” Kingsbury said.

Fitzgerald will help develop a wide receiver room filled with players on rookie deals. View it that way, and if one or two of them break out, it’s money well-spent on the room’s 17-year veteran.

Arizona entered Wednesday with $64.9 million in effective cap space, per OverTheCap.com, and reducing that after Fitzgerald’s signing drops it to somewhere close to $54 million. Who knows what and where the Cardinals spend from there?

There’s still a good bit of cash to fill out the roster.


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