Player Points - Larry Fitzgerald
By Chase Stuart
June 2nd, 2010

Larry Fitzgerald will be the first or second receiver taken in just about every fantasy draft this season. His quarterback, Matt Leinart, won't even get drafted in smaller leagues. As of early June, Leinart has an ADP of QB24, and his draft status doesn't seem likely to rise over the next few months. Is this a case where the market is undervaluing how important quarterback play is -- i.e., Fitzgerald should have a lower ADP? Or is the fantasy community overvaluing how much of a quarterback's production is tied to his own ability -- i.e., should Leinart's ADP be higher because he'll have great numbers thanks to Fitzgerald? Or are Fitzgerald and Leinart both properly slotted?

Great quarterback play and great receiving statistics do not need to be tied together. Consider the following two examples:

  • QB A: 20/28, 240 yards (8.6 yards per attempt), 1 TD, 0 INT
  • QB B: 23/36, 260 yards (7.2 yards per attempt), 2 TD, 2 INT

There's no doubt that QB A had the better performance, and if he produced like that every week, he'd be viewed as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. QB B had a solid but unspectacular performance; the two INTs offset his good touchdown numbers and his high yardage total isn't very impressive when it comes off of 36 passes. But in PPR and 6-points per touchdown leagues, QB B's receivers have 48 fantasy points among which to divide; QB A's targets have only 38 FP to split up. QB A was better, but QB B was much better for his wide receiver's fantasy numbers. It's worth considering that a wide receiver's fantasy value may be tied more to his quarterback's number of attempts and his team's desire to pass around the goal-line than the actual ability of his quarterback.

Still, I was curious how unique such divergent views are about a team's passing game. From 2000 to 2009, only five wide receivers with top-5 ADPs played on teams without pre-season top-15 quarterbacks.

2002: David Boston (ADP WR4) and Jake Plummer (ADP QB16), Arizona

In 2001, Boston had a monster season at just 23 years of age. He caught 98 passes for 1,598 yards and 8 touchdowns, and looked like a freak of nature while doing it. Plummer had a solid season, mostly thanks to Boston. After throwing 15 more INTs than TDs in '99 and 8 more INTs than TDs in '00, he threw for 3,653 yards, 18 TDs and 14 INTs as Boston terrorized opposing secondaries. It was good enough for a 12th place fantasy finish for Plummer, but fantasy owners weren't particularly bullish on him just yet. Plummer ended up as the 16th ranked fantasy QB in '02, while Boston was one of the biggest fantasy busts of the season, as a torn right patellar tendon and a juiced-up body limited him to only 512 yards and one touchdown in eight games.

2004: Chad Johnson (ADP WR5) and Carson Palmer (ADP QB20), Cincinnati

Johnson emerged as a star in 2003, scoring 10 touchdowns, catching 90 balls, and racking up 1,355 yards, all good enough for a third place finish among fantasy receivers. His quarterback was a 31-year-old Jon Kitna, who got the most out of Johnson and Peter Warrick en route to a 7th place fantasy rank. But before the '03 season, the Bengals selected Carson Palmer with the first overall draft pick, and were ready to insert him into the opening day lineup by 2004. Palmer, as a 2nd-year-player who had never taken an NFL snap, had a predictably low ADP; fantasy owners weren't nearly as concerned about how Palmer's presence would effect Johnson. And they were right on both counts: The star not-yet-known as Ochocinco produced an impressive 95-1274-9 stat line, good enough for an 8th place finish; Palmer started 13 games and ended up as QB22.

2007: Steve Smith (APD WR1) and Jake Delhomme (ADP QB18), Carolina

In 2005, Steve Smith pulled off the amazing wide receiver triple crown, leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Few expected him match that incredible '05 production of 18.0 fantasy points per game. As it turns out, they were half right: he missed two games in '06, and his quarterback, Delhomme, missed three more. But in the eleven games where both players were active, Smith averaged 18.3 FP/G, even topping his scorched-earth run in 2005. As a result, by the fall of 2007, Smith was still the highest drafted wide receiver in the majority of leagues, despite "only" ranking 7th in fantasy points in 2006.

Delhomme was QB7 in '04, QB11 in '05, and then dropped to QB20 in 2006 as a result of three missed games and two games without Smith (although he averaged 17.1 FP/G in the 11 games he played in with Smith, slightly higher than his 16.8 FP/G average from 2005). By the time fantasy drafts took place in 2007, Delhomme was no longer a sexy pick, and his ADP reflected that. In the first two games of the 2007 season, owners who thought Smith and Delhomme were undervalued made out like bandits: Smith had 15 catches for 271 yards and four touchdowns, while Delhomme had thrown for 516 yards and 6 touchdowns in those games. But in week three, Delhomme suffered a season ending elbow injury, killing the fantasy value of both players. Smith ended the season as the 15th ranked wide receiver.

2008: Larry Fitzgerald (ADP WR5) and Matt Leinart (ADP QB22), Arizona

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Yes, back in 2008, it was Leinart, not Kurt Warner, who was expected to lead the Cardinals to a division title. But Leinart had one of the worst pre-season games in recent memory, going 4/12 for 24 yards with three interceptions in the third pre-season game against the Raiders. After being given just about every chance to be the team's starter, he was finally benched. Leinart would throw just two passes in the first three months of the 2008 season, before seeing some garbage-time action after the Cardinals locked up a playoff berth. Fitzgerald had 100 receptions for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2007, playing mostly with Kurt Warner as the starter. Even though fantasy owners thought the Cardinals were going to start the transformation from Warner to Leinart in '08, they couldn't dock Fitzgerald too much: he just looked too good when he finished as the 5th fantasy wide receiver at the age of 24. Once Warner got his job back right before the season opener, it surprised no one to see Fitzgerald would ultimately finish as the #1 fantasy wide receiver in 2008. He played even better in the playoffs, and ended the 2008 season with 1,977 yards in 20 games, the most in any one year in league history.

2009: Calvin Johnson (ADP WR4) and Matthew Stafford (ADPQB 31), Detroit

At just 23-years-old, Calvin Johnson caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and 12 scores, finishing as the number three fantasy wide receiver. That was the highest any receiver that young had ranked since Fitzgerald in '05 and Boston in 2001. Amazingly, Johnson produced those mind-numbing stats -- good enough for a 15.3 FP/G average -- despite playing with a three headed quarterback monster of Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna and Daunte Culpepper, none of whom threw more touchdowns than interceptions. And while fantasy owners knew that Stafford would struggle as a 21-year-old rookie playing for the winless Lions, they still expected great things out of Johnson. Stafford played in 10 games and finished as QB26; Johnson struggled with injuries and his play dipped when Stafford was out. In the end, Johnson was nearly matched his great '09 form when he and Stafford were healthy: in the 9 games they played together, and Johnson averaged 13.7 FP/G in those games, which include a quarter or two missed due to injury.

Two players on the above list -- Johnson and Fitzgerald -- turned in big seasons. Boston had a bad year, although one partially excused by injury. Smith and Johnson both missed some time, and despite not having well-regarded fantasy Qbs, saw their numbers take nosedives when their mediocre quarterbacks gave way to even worse passers. What does any of this mean for Larry Fitzgerald's 2010 season? It probably doesn't mean that Matt Leinart is going to bomb in the pre-season, and Derek Anderson and Larry Fitzgerald will torch opposing defenses all year long (although stranger things have happened). For Fitzgerald, if he stays healthy, he seems certain to produce, even if his numbers come as part of a high-attempt, turnover-laden offense rather than as part of an efficient one. For Leinart? None of the QBs on this list ended up being fantasy steals, which might be a signal that fantasy football players are likely to boost up QBs with great receivers. If you're a quarterback with a low ADP and a superstar wide receiver, you probably have some large warts that are justifiably turning fantasy owners away.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to stuart@footballguys.com.