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Larry Fitzgerald’s return for a 17th season is an endorsement for Kyler Murray

Larry Fitzgerald’s Hall of Fame induction will have to wait until at least 2025. The Cardinals wide receiver announced he’s coming back to the gridiron next fall.

Fitzgerald will return for his 17th season as a pro, and that’s great news for a rising offense that needs a steady leader to guide its young stars. It’s also a sign that he believes 2019 No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray can help him wrap up a legendary career on a high note.

Fitzgerald isn’t the perennial All-Pro he used to be, but the 37-year-old remains a valuable contributor and mentor both on and off the field. He had nothing but good things to say about his rookie quarterback in 2019, at one point calling him the “ultimate weapon” and praising his leadership in the huddle.

“I’ve never seen a quarterback come in so quickly and be able to command an offense,” Fitzgerald told former teammate Kurt Warner during last year’s preseason. “I mean, from Day 1, he’s out there checking the different plays, sliding the line, different protections, getting us in screens when blitzes are coming. His understanding of the offense is crazy.

The past five months have proven that wasn’t just lip service. Murray and Fitzgerald formed an instant connection that helped ease the Heisman winner’s transition to the NFL. Their first two games together saw the veteran receiver spring for 13 catches and 217 receiving yards — his first back-to-back 100+ yard performances since September 2015.

That pace didn’t stand — Fitzgerald didn’t have more than 71 yards in a single game over the rest of the season — but the connection between the 16-year veteran and his debutant QB remained strong. Fitzgerald went on to lead the Cardinals in total targets, receptions, and receiving yards. He also shared the team lead in receiving touchdowns. His 7.4 yards per target were his best since Arizona’s 2015 run to the NFC Championship Game.

What does this mean for the Cardinals?

While the exact reason for his return wasn’t mentioned in the Cardinals’ official release, you have to imagine it’s tied to the ongoing improvement from his rising QB. Here’s how Murray grew over the course of his first NFL season.

Kyler Murray’s improvement in 2019

Kyler Murray Att Comp % Yards/game Yards/att TD INT Passer rating Record
Kyler Murray Att Comp % Yards/game Yards/att TD INT Passer rating Record
Games 1-4 169 62.7 267.8 6.3 4 4 78.8 0-3-1
5-8 123 65 229.3 7.5 3 0 95.5 3-1
9-12 135 64.4 219.5 6.5 7 2 94 0-4
13-16 115 66.1 214 7.4 6 6 83.8 2-2
Total 542 64.4 232.6 6.9 20 12 87.4 5-10-1

While those aren’t great numbers, Murray’s improvement was clear. It’s also important to note this all came behind an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked a league-high 48 times. It also came against the backdrop of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s modified Air Raid offense and an inexperienced wideout corps in which 26-year-old Damiere Byrd and 24-year-old Pharoh Cooper were the team’s most seasoned veterans behind Fitzgerald.

That doesn’t mean Arizona’s receivers group wasn’t loaded with talent — there was just much more potential than production waiting in the Cardinals’ wings.

Christian Kirk saw his usage rise in his second year as a pro, and 2020 may be the time the WR1 torch is officially passed down from Fitzgerald to his young ward. Though his efficiency numbers dropped alongside Murray in 2019 — his yards per target fell from 8.7 as a rookie to 6.6 — Kirk remains a dangerous weapon Kingsbury’s been able to deploy from all over his lineup. That includes out of the backfield where he had 10 carries for 93 yards last season.

Behind him sits the 2019 draft haul. Kingsbury brought three different talented wideouts to Glendale last spring, though none of them panned out as rookies. Second-round speedster Andy Isabella was a legend at UMass (102 catches as a senior), but made just nine catches in 15 games last fall. Sixth-rounder KeeSean Johnson was the team’s most productive first-year wideout, but still caught only 21 of his 42 targets.

6’5 Hakeem Butler brought first round talent to Iowa State, then fell to the fourth round of the 2019 Draft. He reportedly struggled to pick up the Cardinals’ offense before being placed on injured reserve in a wasted year, but could still turn the corner with another season of practices under his belt.

Fitzgerald’s return means another year of mentorship for this explosive group of high potential targets. That’s like adding an extra coach to Kingsbury’s staff — one who knows the Cardinals’ organization better than almost any man alive. That group will also have some help out of the backfield.

David Johnson, should he ever return to his 2016 form, was briefly one of the league’s best pass-catching running backs. Kenyan Drake, rescued from the Dolphins last year, had 28 catches in eight games out of the backfield with Arizona. If the club can re-sign Drake, who thrived in the desert in 2019 and may be eager for a return, this Cardinal defense could be sneakily good.

This year’s draft and free agency should bring more help as well — especially at tight end, where Arizona got little production (though Maxx Williams’ recent contract extension suggests the team expects big things from him). Fitzgerald’s return leaves approximately $56 million in spending room under the 2020 salary cap, which should help bring much-needed veteran talent to a young team.

Any upcoming moves will help Murray’s growth, but nothing may make his 2020 better than another year with a sure-handed Hall of Famer hauling in passes downfield. Fitzgerald is a rising tide that can lift every ship in the Cardinals’ offense. Now he’s trusting Kingsbury and Murray to do right by him and help him send out his career, whether that’s in 2020 or beyond, on a high note.

This Article was first Published on sbnation.com

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