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The return of Fitzgerald

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You could be forgiven if you wondered just how good Larry Fitzgerald would be in 2015. Coming off an injury-plagued 2014 where he didn’t even have 800 receiving yards, and with quarterback Carson Palmer coming off a torn ACL, it seemed unlikely the 32-year-old would put up big numbers. Yet, that is precisely what he has done. His 706 yards are just 78 short of 2014’s total, and he is on pace for a career high in receptions. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league. How has Fitzgerald confounded our expectations?

Rediscovering the End Zone

Young Larry Fitzgerald was one of the best red zone threats in the NFL. Four times in five seasons, he caught at least ten touchdowns. Lately, six-point plays have been much harder to come by for the University of Pittsburgh product. In the previous four seasons combined, he had just 24, or less than he had in two seasons at his best.

In 2015, Fitzgerald is finding the end zone again. His seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games are tied for second in the NFL, behind only Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable wide receiver in the league in the red zone.

Several things stand out about Fitzgerald’s red zone work. First, the Cardinals are relying on him a lot in goal-to-go situations in particular. His seven targets there are tied for fourth. Second, he is extremely reliable. Just two of the ten passes thrown in his direction have been incomplete, best among the 25 players with ten or more red zone targets. Third, the Cardinals are spending a lot more time in goal-to-go this year. Arizona receivers have been targeted 20 times in goal-to-go situations this year, compared to 19 all last year.

The Impact of the Quarterback

The last stat brings up an important point. The 2015 Cardinals are better on offense than the 2014 Cardinals were, but the 2014 Cardinals also had three different quarterbacks start. Drew Stanton did not play as well as Carson Palmer did, and Ryan Lindley was worse. How much did playing with Stanton and Lindley hurt Fitzgerald’s numbers in 2014?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite a bit. Table 1 has the details, relying on Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR and per-play DVOA statistics:

Table 1. Larry Fitzgerald’s Production by Quarterback, 2014-15

Season/QB DYAR/game DVOA Catch Pct.
2014/Palmer 27 41.3% 80%
2014/Not Palmer -15 -34.1% 48%
2015/Palmer 31 32.3% 79%

This says what Fitzgerald has done this year with Palmer is just a continuation of what he did in Palmer’s six starts last year. The red zone numbers were not the same because Palmer was not as efficient throwing to other Arizona wide receivers last year.

Palmer was injured at midseason and Fitzgerald suffered an MCL sprain two weeks later that caused him to miss the next two games and be hobbled afterward. How much did that hurt his performance, rather than the quarterback play? Only some of it. Even in Stanton’s early season appearances, Fitzgerald was not nearly as efficient as he was with Palmer.

Targets, the Lifeblood of Production

The decline in Fitzgerald’s numbers did not come from less usage. Both Stanton and Lindley actually targeted him more frequently than Palmer did. He was thrown the ball on 17.8 percent of Palmer’s attempts last year, compared to 18.5 percent for Stanton and 20 percent for Lindley.

This is one of the ways things have changed in 2015. Last season, Palmer and Stanton targeted Fitzgerald and four other players regularly, generally at least 10 percent of the time. This year, the Cardinals have concentrated on targeting Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd much more heavily. One reason Fitzgerald has put up such numbers is he has been targeted on 26.7 percent of Palmer’s throws.

The Return of Prime Larry Fitzgerald

The target data is just one more way 2015 Larry Fitzgerald looks like 2008 or 2009 Larry Fitzgerald. Those were Kurt Warner’s last two seasons and the last time Fitzgerald played with a veteran quarterback in the midst of an outstanding season. His 2015 target percentage is right in line with how often he was targeted in those seasons. Target percentage is just one number, but high volume and a good quarterback can go a long way.

Another way this looks like prime Fitzgerald is his red zone dominance. Playing with Warner, Fitzgerald led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in both 2008 and 2009. The rise of tight ends might mean he doesn’t do the same this year, but his six touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in are the most he’s had 2009. The numbers are not quite the same (his red zone catch percentage was not close to what it had been with Warner the past two years), but they are close enough you could say this is the same Fitzgerald we’ve seen before.

What It Means Going Forward

We have seen Fitzgerald do this before, so we know he can continue to do it. For him to continue his great season, health is paramount. The table makes it clear Carson Palmer’s presence is vital. Fitzgerald’s own health is of course also exceedingly important.

Arizona’s shift to a three-headed passing game means the health of the other passing game pieces is important. Fitzgerald is the most valuable receiver in the league by FO numbers, but John Brown is second, and he ranks ahead of Fitzgerald outside the red zone. The much-improved offensive line is also key. If the good health continues, Fitzgerald should continue his late-career resurgence even if his red zone numbers decline.

Sunday Night Football odds: Eagles laying touchdown against Cowboys

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The fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are coming off a bye while the Dallas Cowboys had a short week to work on their road woes should tip off straight-up bettors, but the spread might be another story.

The Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, are 7-point favorites on the Sunday Night Football odds against the Cowboys with a 43.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Philadelphia is 16-3 straight-up and 12-6-1 against the spread in its last 19 games after having at least a full week off, while Dallas is 0-9 SU in its last nine games after playing the Monday prior.

Dallas carries a good head-to-head trend of being 5-1 SU and ATS in their last six road games at Philadelphia, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, and is also 6-3 ATS in its last nine road games as an underdog of 6.5 or more points.

The Cowboys are 3-5 both SU and ATS after a home loss against the Houston Texans on Monday. Dallas and quarterback Dak Prescott have habitually struggled to score points on the road, and a nicked-up offensive line faces a very strong Eagles defensive line led by tackle Fletcher Cox. For all the formidability of its front four, though, the Eagles are giving up 4.5 yards per rush and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should find some room to the outside as both a rusher and pass receiver.

Dallas will be without wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin) and will need more out of Amari Cooper in the passing phase as the ex-Oakland Raider enters his second game for the Cowboys.

The Eagles, who are 4-4 SU and 3-5 ATS and need the win to have any reasonable chance at defending their Super Bowl crown, are 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS over their last eight games at night. Bettors’ confidence in the Eagles’ offensive capabilities might come down to the health of right tackle Lane Johnson (knee), who is expected to play and provide resistance to the Dallas pass rush.

Quarterback Carson Wentz now has wide receiver Golden Tate, recently acquired via trade, in his arsenal against a Cowboys pass defense that allows the sixth-worst opponents’ passer rating (101.1) in the NFL.

The ground game has generated middling results for the Eagles, who are still hoping either Corey Clement or Wendell Smallwood can take a lead role. Dallas also allows the second-least yards per rush in the NFL, which is a small reason to think the Cowboys will offer some resistance by forcing Wentz into obvious passing downs.

Wentz will likely face some long-yardage scenarios, though, as the Cowboys allow the second-least yards per carry.

There are pronounced UNDER trends in this matchup. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last three games against the Eagles, with an average combined score of 30.67 points. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last eight games on the road, with an average combined score of 31.25 points. And the total has gone UNDER in eight of the Eagles’ last nine games at home, with an average combined score of 31.89 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

NFL Week 6 odds: Bengals, Eagles, Patriots are all betting favorites

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The Cincinnati Bengals usually handle struggling teams, but it’s fair to wonder if that trend will be cancelled out by their long-running difficulties against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals, led by quarterback Andy Dalton, are 2.5-point favorites against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Week 6 odds with a 53-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

According to the OddsShark NFL Database, it is only the sixth time in the last 14 seasons that the AFC North-leading Bengals are favored at home against the Steelers, but they are 14-4 straight-up in their last 18 home games against teams with losing records, and are also 6-1 SU and against the spread in their last seven games.

The Steelers, 2-2-1 SU on the season, have dominated the matchup with a 16-2 SU record in their last 18 road games against the Bengals, but they are also 1-6 ATS in their last seven games in the early afternoon.

The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-point road favorites against the New York Giants  with a 43-point total for the Thursday Night Football matchup. The Eagles are 14-6 ATS in their last 20 games against the Giants. The total has gone OVER in the Eagles’ last five games against the Giants, with an average combined score of 54.6. The Giants are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 home games.

The Seattle Seahawks are 3-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 48-point total in a matchup at Wembley Stadium in London. The Seahawks, who will be idle in Week 7, are 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The Raiders are 2-5 SU and 1-5-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The total has gone UNDER in 10 of the Raiders’ last 12 games, with an average combined score of 43.33.

The Chicago Bears are 3-point road favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42-point total. The Bears are 1-9 SU in their last 10 games on the road against teams with winning records. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Bears’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 37.43. The Dolphins are 0-7-1 ATS in their last eight games at home after consecutive road games.

The Washington Redskins are 1-point favorites against the Carolina Panthers with a 44.5-point total. The Panthers are 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Redskins. The Redskins are 3-10 SU in their last 13 games in Week 6. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Redskins’ last five games in the early afternoon.

The Los Angeles Rams are 7-point road favorites against the Denver Broncos with a 52.5-point total. The Rams are 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Rams’ last 10 games on the road, with an average combined score of 54.5. The Broncos are 4-13 SU and 2-14-1 ATS in their last 17 games.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 3-point road favorites against the Dallas Cowboys with a 40.5-point total. The Jaguars are 4-22 SU and 6-20 ATS in their last 26 games in the late afternoon. The Cowboys are 0-5 SU and ATS in their last five games in the late afternoon.

The New England Patriots are 3.5-point favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs with a 59.5-point total in the Sunday Night Football matchup. The Chiefs have covered in every game so far this season and are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games after consecutive ATS wins. The total has gone OVER in 10 of the Chiefs’ last 14 games at night. The Patriots are 10-4 ATS in their last 14 games at night.

And the Green Bay Packers are 9.5-point road favorites against the San Francisco 49ers with a 46.5-point total for Monday night’s game. The 49ers are 0-14 SU and 5-9 ATS in their last 14 road games as an underdog of 7.5 or more points. The Packers are 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 home games as a favorite of 7.5 or more points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.