The Arizona Cardinals have already been dismissed from the playoffs, meaning it’s quite possible Larry Fitzgerald has played his final game for them. Inevitably, the connect-the-dots conjecture of Fitzgerald being released and subsequently “coming home” to play for the Vikings escalated quickly. It’s time to address the speculation (again).
“Bridgewater back to pass… he has all day. He fires deep to Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone… touchdown, Vikings!”
Hold the phone just one second.
First of all, when does Bridgewater ever have all day to pass? Secondly, as I type these words into my laptop Larry Fitzgerald is still under contract with the Arizona Cardinals. Therefore, front office members of the Vikings (and other teams) are unable to address the thought of him being released and becoming a free agent.
That isn’t stopping the rumor mill from churning on social media, websites and talk radio.
Fans from all over the NFL are yearning and begging for Fitzgerald to be released so their team can get a crack at him. Nowhere is that clamoring as feverish as it is in the Twin Cities, where Fitzgerald went to school and worked as a ball boy for the Vikings as a kid. You can’t wander anywhere in Vikings nation without Fitzgerald speculation percolating or fans dreaming of the Bridgewater-to-Fitzgerald connection above.
Obviously, the media is doing its part to spike the Fitzgerald rumor punch bowl with sources and opinions and guesses as to what might happen.
Far be it from me to not jump into the Fitzgerald fray. But I’ll say it again: he’s still under contract with the Cardinals.
That leaves us two fundamental questions at this point: What are the Cardinals going to do about the Fitzgerald issue? And if Fitzgerald isn’t a Cardinal next season, what team will he be on?
What will the Cardinals do with Fitzgerald?
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told Pro Football Talk last week that the team has no plans to release Fitzgerald. That of course was said prior to the Cardinals’ playoff game against the Panthers. What else was he supposed to say? You’d be naïve to think the Cards’ front office hasn’t given this a lot of thought. What they do with Fitzgerald will invariably dictate their entire offseason so they have to consider it. Why? Because Fitzgerald is due a $16.25 million salary in 2015 and will count $23.6 million against the Cardinals’ salary cap. If current projections hold true and the cap is around $140 million, that’s close to 17 percent of their cap for a wide receiver in his age-32 season.
One need not be a salary cap-ologist to recognize that’s a tad high for such a player – even one of Fitzgerald’s accomplishments. You can maybe get away with paying a franchise quarterback in his prime that kind of money, but not a future Hall of Fame wide receiver whose best seasons are behind him.
That $23.6 million cap hit is the fourth-highest in the league, per Sportrac.com. We’re not talking fourth-highest among wide receivers; we’re talking fourth-highest among all players, behind only Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Darrelle Revis.
The obvious solution is for the Cardinals to ask Fitzgerald to restructure his contract; however, he did that last year and is unlikely to do so again, per several media reports. Moreover, he’s unhappy about his role in the Arizona offense, sources told FOXSports.com. He reportedly doesn’t like playing the slot and he has become less of a focal point with younger receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown stealing more and more looks.
Will Fitzgerald’s reluctance to restructure his deal force a trade? That would seemingly be the way out for the Cards, but there probably aren’t many teams willing to trade very much for him and then pay him a ginormous salary on top of it.
Fitzgerald is due an $8 million roster bonus in March on the fifth day of the new league year. The NFL league year begins anew on March 10, which is when free agency begins. In other words, a decision in the next eight weeks is imperative.
My guess lines up with the general consensus: the writing on the proverbial wall says Fitzgerald will be let go before that big roster bonus is due in March.
If Fitzgerald is done with the Cardinals, where will he play in 2015?
Let’s assume Fitzgerald becomes a free agent in March. Where will be play next season? That’s anyone’s guess and only Larry himself would know for sure who’s on his short list.
One would assume the Vikings are at least on his radar, but there’s no guarantee that Fitzgerald would want to play at home in front of friends and family. That sounds good on the surface, but is also comes with a lot of extra pressure. We simply don’t know where he stands on this.
What we think we know is that Fitzgerald wants to play somewhere he can be a bigger part of the offense, line up out wide rather than in the slot, still be paid handsomely and... oh yeah, have a chance to win a ring.
Does that mesh with what the Vikings could offer him? Again, that part is uncertain. The Vikings are towards the middle of the pack right now in terms of projected salary cap space for 2015. However, that is without knowing what they’ll do with the fat contracts of guys like Adrian Peterson, Chad Greenway and even Greg Jennings. One would have to think that any pursuit of Fitzgerald would coincide in some way with Jennings no longer being on the roster or, at a minimum, taking a dramatic pay cut. Jennings turns 32 years old three weeks after Fitzgerald does next summer and is due to earn about $9 million. That sounds like a redundancy by my math. It’s unlikely any team would want to squeeze two 32-year-old wide receivers making that kind of money under their cap.
Clearly there are a number of teams (e.g. every team playing a playoff game this weekend) that would seem better-positioned to make a run at a Super Bowl than the Vikings are right now. We’ll assume that would rank pretty high on Fitzgerald’s list of priorities if faced with free agency given that his playing days will be over soon. The Patriots have long been rumored to be interested in Fitzgerald. The Seahawks need a wide receiver and have more cap space than the Vikings. Only five teams are projected to have more cap space than the Colts, according to overthecap.com. Suffice it to say, Larry will have some potentially attractive options.
It must be said that Fitzgerald is no longer the same player who led the Cards to the Super Bowl following the 2008 season. He hasn’t topped 1,000 receiving yards for three straight seasons -- averaging 55 yards per game in that span -- and only found the end zone twice this past season. Blame a big part of that on the inconsistent play of the Cardinals’ quarterbacks, but surely Fitzgerald is not an elite player like he once was.
Would Vikings general manager Rick Spielman make a run at Fitzgerald? Without knowing what happens with Peterson, Greenway et al it’s really hard to say. The Vikings need a wide receiver so his addition would check that box. Having Fitzgerald would presumably be a good fit in terms of providing leadership on offense, especially for a young receiver like Cordarrelle Patterson. It would certainly help Bridgewater to have a Fitzgerald to play catch with. He’d also sell tickets and lots of jerseys. He’d be an immediate fan favorite. Heck, he’d probably surpass Bridgewater in that regard at least for a year or two.
Given everything we know right now, I remain skeptical of a scenario in which the Vikings would ultimately wind up with Fitzgerald on their roster by sometime in March. I won’t rule it out, though. If I thought it was impossible I likely wouldn’t have used all this space to address the possibility.
Stranger things have happened, but there are a lot of moving parts.
Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData, head writer at VikingsJournal.com, co-host of the Fantasy Football Pants Party at 1500ESPN.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell