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Monday, July 15, 2013
West gaining ground on Larry Fitzgerald?

By Mike Sando

The Arizona Cardinals held a 10-0 lead in Atlanta last season when their defense picked off Matt Ryan, setting up first-and-10 from the Falcons' 18.

The team sent Larry Fitzgerald onto the field as the lone receiver in a run-oriented personnel grouping featuring two backs and two tight ends. Enabled by a play fake and outstanding pass protection, Fitzgerald beat the coverage and was running wide open through the end zone when quarterback John Skelton went to throw.



The pass missed Fitzgerald by several yards. This single play came to symbolize how much even a great receiver such as Fitzgerald requires a baseline level of quarterback play to produce at a high level. But in looking to explain all the reasons Fitzgerald's production plummeted last season, we should at least acknowledge another possibility -- that Fitzgerald wasn't at his best, either.

Facing fourth-and-2 in that same game against the Falcons, Arizona needed a conversion while fighting to overcome a 23-19 deficit with 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. This time, Skelton's replacement, Ryan Lindley, threw to Fitzgerald along the left sideline inside the 5-yard line. Fitzgerald was covered, but he leaped to get both hands on the ball, one at each point. Fitzgerald controlled the ball as his feet touched down, but he couldn't maintain possession as his body fell to the ground.

This wasn't a dropped pass by ESPN's game charting standards, but it was the sort of play Fitzgerald makes at his best. So, when the 10th-year receiver says he's coming off his worst season as a pro, we can presume he's taking his share of ownership for what happened in 2012.

The Cardinals would lose that Week 11 game to the Falcons and 11 of their final 12 overall. Fitzgerald would end a five-year streak as the NFC West leader in receptions and receiving yards. The San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree claimed top honors in the division with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards. Those numbers served notice that Crabtree would challenge Fitzgerald's largely unopposed run as the most productive receiver in the NFC West. But with Crabtree suffering a torn Achilles' tendon during practices this offseason, Fitzgerald appears primed to retake the top spot, particularly with a new quarterback (Carson Palmer) and an upgraded offensive line.

Or does he?

We consider today five leading challengers from the NFC West in 2013, ranked by ESPN's fantasy projections for total receptions:

1. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks. ESPN projects Harvin to finish this season with 101 receptions for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns, figures Fitzgerald has not exceeded over the past four seasons, including in 2009, when Kurt Warner was his quarterback. Seattle has other viable options in Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller. There are no guarantees Harvin will dominate the stat sheet. ESPN projects only 34 receptions for Tate, a player Seattle expects to flourish with Harvin attracting coverage.



2. Anquan Boldin, 49ers. Fitzgerald's former teammate in Arizona becomes the statistical beneficiary from Crabtree's injury. His production with Baltimore spiked in the playoffs last season after Boldin had 65 catches for 921 yards and four touchdowns in 15 regular-season games. Improved play from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was one factor. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has an 81.2 Total QBR score in his first 10 starts, counting playoffs. No player in the five-year history of the metric has posted a higher QBR score through his first 10 starts. That could help Boldin remain productive.

3. Vernon Davis, 49ers. Davis had 210 yards receiving over the 49ers' final two playoff games. He seemed underutilized as a receiver at times last season, but I expect his stats to spike this season. Crabtree was the preferred target for Kaepernick. We know that isn't going to be the case for much of this season.

4. Chris Givens, St. Louis Rams.
No Rams player has led the NFC West in receptions since Torry Holt in 2006. Givens impressed as a rookie. Right now, however, it's tough to know how all the pieces are going to fit in St. Louis. Rookie first-round pick Tavon Austin is going to factor right away, most likely. The team also invested heavily in free-agent tight end Jared Cook. ESPN seems to be hedging its bets by projecting Givens, Austin and Cook with between 51 and 57 receptions apiece.

5. Andre Roberts, Cardinals. ESPN's fantasy projections have Roberts with 57 receptions and teammate Michael Floyd with 53. Floyd seems like a volatile variable within this equation. He had 14 receptions over the Cardinals' final two games last season. He finished his rookie season with 45 receptions for 562 yards and two touchdowns. I'm taking the "over" on ESPN's fantasy projection (53 receptions for 686 yards and two scores).

The second chart shows ESPN's fantasy projections for every NFC West wide receiver and tight end with at least 40 projected receptions. The projections for Fitzgerald -- 79 receptions for 1,256 yards and seven touchdowns -- approximate his average totals for the past three seasons, with a spike in receiving yards. He's right there in the No. 2 spot, unfamiliar ground for the only consistently productive wideout in the NFC West.