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Larry Fitzgerald keeps producing, and you keep underestimating him

Larry Fitzgerald has been making fantasy owners smile for the past three years. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

There will be a day — some day — when Larry Fitzgerald decides to hang up the cleats. When he does, he’ll go down as a certain future Hall-of-Famer, inside the top three in receptions and receiving yards and likely top-six in receiving touchdowns. And while his greatness is measured over the course of the past decade-and-a-half, what fantasy owners are concerned about is this coming year. Every season for the past three years, Fitzgerald is slept on, underrated and under-drafted. And he still proves wrong those who miss out on him.

From a pure numbers standpoint, it’s hard to find anyone ever who’s more accomplished than Fitzgerald has been over the long term. Only he and Jerry Rice have had three separate 105-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in their 30s. A PPR machine, Fitzgerald has seen at least 100 targets in all 14 of his seasons. Since targets started getting tracked in 1992, only Tony Gonzalez (15) has more such seasons.

A move to the slot has been a very fruitful one for Fitzgerald. In an NFL that’s constantly trying to get faster, Fitzgerald remains a top player at a position that’s usually dominated by smaller, quicker players such as Golden Tate, Jarvis Landry and Doug Baldwin. When teams try to matchup with small slot corners, Fitzgerald uses his 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame to shield them off and haul balls in. When teams try to matchup with bigger corners, linebackers or safeties, Fitzgerald still proves he’s too quick and precise in and out of cuts, even at his advanced age. Fitzgerald has posted a top-20 catch rate each of the past two seasons, impressive considering he still spends nearly half of his time split out wide.

It’s why Landry himself told NFL Network, “I’ve been trying to model my game after him since, like, Pitt [University of Pittsburgh] days.”

What makes Fitzgerald a worthwhile pick is his overall consistency, and there’s no reason to believe that track record won’t extend to 2018. The 34-year-old hasn’t missed a game in three years and rarely comes to the sideline. Looking forward, the Cardinals have questions to answer at quarterback. They brought in Sam Bradford but also drafted Josh Rosen in the first round. The best thing about Fitzgerald, though, is that he transcends quarterback play. Here are his 2017 splits:

With Carson Palmer as starter: 6.4/70.6/0.4
With Blaine Gabbert as starter: 6.4/61/0.4
With Drew Stanton as starter: 8/89.3/0.3

The team has declared Bradford the starter to open the season, and that should be beneficial for Fitzgerald. Noted for his affinity for — and accuracy on — short throws, Bradford will find Fitzgerald to be a perfect partner: Fitzgerald’s 771 air yards last year were 64th in the league, a very low number considering he was third in targets and second in receptions. Bradford, meanwhile ranked 22nd among quarterbacks in air yards in 2016, his most recent healthy year. (all numbers via Player Profiler)

But the point of this exercise isn’t to prove that Larry Fitzgerald is good — you should already know that. The point of the article is to show how undervalued he is. Here’s a simple chart showing the difference between his pre-season ranking and his end-of-season ranking. Remember, Yahoo has moved to a 0.5 point-per-reception format, increasing Fitzgerald’s value even more.

Larry Fitzgerald continues to put up big numbers. (Data from FantasyPros)

Over the past three years, Fitzgerald has massively outpaced what was predicted from him. In 2014, he underachieved, but he also endured an MCL sprain that forced him to miss two games and kept him at far under 100 percent when he did play. Remember, he hasn’t missed a game since, thanks in large part to his move to the slot.

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Even with David Johnson back in the fold in 2018, Fitzgerald’s numbers shouldn’t dip; remember, he finished 11th two years ago with Johnson healthy. Plus, the Cardinals’ receiving corps is more watered down than ever, making Fitzgerald the premier go-to target in Arizona.

This year, Fitzgerald is ranked 14th among wide receivers, but he’s still only the 19th receiver off the board. Fitzgerald proved he was far from done with a monster 2015 after a disappointing 2014. He’s only solidified his status as a top-level fantasy option with two more terrific campaigns over the past two years. Passing up on him in this year’s draft would be a mistake, one far too many people have made in the past and continue to make this year. Don’t be one of those people, and reap the benefits of a Hall-of-Famer still producing at an elite level.

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