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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 3
WR Larry Fitzgerald, ARI

The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information. This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.

Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic, he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider, or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast as you can!

When the Gut Check turned off the Heisman Trophy Awards telecast I understood why Jason White won the trophy. To overcome two ACL tears, completely overhaul his approach to the game, and come out the other side better than before is a testament to White’s character and talent. It was a well-deserved honor.

Nonetheless, half the voters didn’t choose the best player in college football this year. That is not a slight to Chris Perry, Jason White, or Eli Manning. The fact of the matter is Larry Fitzgerald’s game is The Truth. And the question whether Fitzgerald will become an elite, NFL receiver isn’t “if,” but “when.” If you caught The Truth from either the 2003 highlight reels or the Heisman segment devoted to Fitzgerald, you already know what I’m talking about. Fitzgerald isn’t just NFL ready in the sense of drafted now, producing later—he’s ready to produce immediately. Fitzgerald will prove in his first year that he’s the most NFL-ready receiver in the class. If you don’t think The Gut Check knows what he’s talking about, then take a seat, listen to the choir, and let him preach a Fantasy Football Sermon until you see the light.

Generally, the Gut Check likes to explore statistics but sometimes it’s just as worthwhile, if not more so, to examine the promise of a player through analysis of the people around him. Stats may tell how much a player did but they don’t capture the conditions of the performance—another reason why film tells more truths than numbers ever will.

During the Heisman broadcast, Fitzgerald’s father, Larry Fitzgerald, Sr., and his college coach, Walt Harris used the same phrase to describe Larry, Jr.: “Larry’s game speaks for itself.” These are two men that have lived enough life to understand there are no adjectives that adequately encapsulate Fitzgerald’s game. It’s like trying to tell a little kid what “hot” means without getting burned—one has to experience it to understand. And like most little kids, that’s just how opposing defensive backs saw the light this year.

Why else did Walt Harris choose to describe a moment instead of a generic list of physical attributes when asked to compare Fitzgerald to all the talent he’s seen? It occurred during the West Virginia game where Fitzgerald made a mind-blowing catch: contorting himself in mid-air to snatch a third down pass away from an incoming sandwich of two defensive backs for the first down. And what was meaningful about the moment wasn’t even the catch that Harris described. It was Fitzgerald’s response to his coach’s sideline amazement: “There’s more where that came from….”

More where that came from? If The Gut Check didn’t see Larry Fitzgerald earlier in the season he would have written him off as the next Keyshawn Johnson in training. But all season long there was more—and as crazy as it sounds—it was better. And taking into account that Fitzgerald is the epitome of class on and off the field, “There’s more where that came from,” isn’t a threat, it’s a promise in the same mold that Fitzgerald promised to Coach Harris to hand the ball to the official after every touchdown. And as Barry Sanders knew, acting like you’ve been there before is the ultimate way of saying there’s more to come.

So why take Walt Harris’ praise of Fitzgerald with more than a grain of salt in comparison to any other coach touting his player for an individual award? One has to know a little bit about Walt Harris. Bill Walsh says, “Harris is one of the best coaches in the country,” you know Walsh is referring to coaching in the truest sense of the word. Harris has seen his share of football: first, as a college player under Buddy Ryan; then, the X and O’s man as the mid-eighties mastermind of Coach Majors’ offensive juggernauts at Tennessee; and later, as an NFL coordinator when he resuscitated Boomer Esiason and the Jets offense. He’s evaluated enough personnel and taught enough football to know when a player has the kind of game that belongs in rarified air. Whether it has been expressed with the brashness of a Michael Irvin and Randy Moss, or with a quieter fire of a Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison, Harris saw the same expectation within Fitzgerald to make the key play at the key moment. It’s Fitzgerald’s expectation to be great that will fuel his quick adjustment from the college game to the pro game. That’s what Walt Harris illustrated with his simple anecdote.

The game film doesn’t lie about his physical talents. As impressive as they are, forget about Fitzgerald’s hands. It’s what Fitzgerald does without the ball that sets him apart from most receivers during their rookie year. On ESPN’s pre-game show earlier this season, Michael Irvin demonstrated Randy Moss’ talent for timing the trajectory of a football into his hands as his back is to the throw. As physically talented as Moss is as a player, this is what has separated him from the pack. The film shows Fitzgerald has this same inherent sense of timing. This is one of the same reasons why The Gut Check believes Irvin made the bold prediction that Fitzgerald with his work ethic, is a future Hall of Famer before playing a regular season game in the NFL.

It is no coincidence that Fitzgerald, a former ball boy for the Vikings, has a game that mirrors two of the greatest receivers in the sport: Cris Carter and Moss. Most experts will compare Fitzgerald to Carter due to the similarity in sneaky speed, body type, and ability to catch the ball. But all one has to do is watch Fitzgerald catch those Rod Rutherford bombs going all out with his back to the ball, a corner escorting him on one side, and a safety over the top to see his game is equally indebted to Moss.

Remember, Fitzgerald got to watch Moss not only on game day, but also in practice and camp, where his teammates say the Vikings receiver makes the freakiest plays look routine. The only other person with that sense of timing when it comes to catching a ball was Willie Mays. Considering the sport, the era, the proximity where Fitzgerald grew up to where Moss works, and the position they both play, it’s not much of a leap.

One of the Gut Check’s friends—a guy that generally has a good bead on receivers—agrees that Fitzgerald is playing a version of “Moss Ball” without the freakish speed and leaping ability. Where the Gut Check and his friend disagree is on the conventional wisdom dictating that Fitzgerald will need a couple of years to adjust before he starts producing. It’s true the Fitzgerald is not blazing fast nor does he appear to have Moss’ vertical leaping ability. But the differences in Fitzgerald’s game is something that the Gut Check believes will make him nearly as productive a fantasy receiver and possibly more so as a football player.

Think about the highlights over the last two years. What makes Fitzgerald rare is his consistent ability to make plays anywhere on the field in the tightest of coverage. The Gut Check is talking about the kind of coverage that other WR prospects will need a year or two of adjustment time once Tagliabue and Washington call their name in April.

Other than Moss, no feature wide receiver makes a living primarily on go routes, fades, screens, and drag routes. Fitzgerald won’t light up the scoreboard on one long reception with the frequency of Moss, but he’ll make a ton of plays anywhere on the field. How often does Moss catch a TD pass from inside the red zone that isn’t a pass thrown to the corner of the end zone or while he’s still behind the line of scrimmage? Whether it’s the coaching staff or Moss, there is some reticence in the play calling to send him over the middle on routes. This is obviously where Fitzgerald’s game is indebted to Cris Carter.

One can argue that the coaching staff wants to use Moss’ physical talents to his advantage and minimize his potential for injury. It makes sense, since Moss’ physical skills make him difficult to contain even when defenses know what’s coming. At the same time, Moss could be an even bigger threat if he ran a greater variety of routes. In contrast, Fitzgerald makes a living in tight coverage and may prove to be as consistent a fantasy producer, because what he lacks in terms of Moss’ speed and leaping ability, he will make up for with the ability to produce with a greater variety of routes.

Another aspect of Fitzgerald’s game that takes place without the ball is his run blocking. There are enough testimonials from the opposition about Fitzgerald’s run blocking to illustrate that this is not a guy that takes plays off. According to the opposition, Fitzgerald is a physical blocker along the lines of Hines Ward. So unlike other rookies, Fitzgerald’s NFL coaching staff won’t have to wait to put him on the field due to the fear they may sacrifice their the running game.

Finally, don’t listen to the analysts and experts that bring up Fitzgerald’s less than huge game against the Miami Hurricanes. Although it’s probably true the ‘Canes are the closest thing the NFL has had to a farm system team in recent college football history, the argument is short sighted. Just the year before, Fitzgerald had 7 receptions for 74 yards and a score against a very similar Miami defensive unit. Need the Gut Check remind you how many season’s Fitzgerald had been playing big-time college football at that time? It was Fitzgerald’s display that prompted several college analysts and former NFL players to remark that the receiver they had seen in 2002 most ready for the NFL was actually a freshman. The Gut Check is beginning to believe that the scouts take on a player the year before the player’s last college season is often more accurate than the paralysis by analysis that comes when the money is on the line.

Throw in the fact that Denny Green drafted a player that he’ll knows so well, that he’ll know how to use the rookie’s talents immediately. Bolden will command double coverage early—regardless that the experts predict Fitzgerald immediately takes this away. No self-respecting defensive coordinator is going to make this change until Fitzgerald proves otherwise. The Cardinals are also a team filled with skilled receivers at the TE (Freddie Jones) and RB (Marcel Shipp) positions. This provides Josh McCown with enough weapons to make safe, drive saving plays without taking too many risks.

So be advised that the Gut Check is high on Larry Fitzgerald. If you aren’t now, you will be soon enough. It may happen when Arizona beat writers are reporting with cautious optimism that Fitzgerald actually looks better in pads than he did at mini-camp, and faster than everyone thought. If not then, you’ll be seriously considering a seat on the bandwagon once Fitzgerald shows a glimpse or two in a preseason game. Is the Gut Check willing to project some numbers in terms of Fitzgerald? If Fitzgerald is allowed to enter the draft and does, The Gut Check believes that a complete year without missing time due to injury will yield at least 70 receptions for 1100 yards and 5 scores. Those are top 20 totals for a fantasy WR in most years—and that’s taking into consideration that Fitzgerald is playing with a QB still maturing into the position or on the downside of his career. One last thought, if you still aren’t willing to accept The Truth that is Fitzgerald’s game, at least consider the recent history of the Heisman Trophy: unless the winner is a running back, the best NFL players among the nominees usually turn out to be the finalists and not the recipients. Of course, if none of this has swayed you, then just like the kid at the hot stove (or the defensive backs on Fitzgerald), you’ll just have to experience it to understand…