TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals know that a young wide receiver group will benefit from learning the Larry Fitzgerald way.
The 16-year NFL veteran and a diverse staff dedicated to the position group is tasked with giving Kliff Kingsbury’s offense some pop from the jump of mandatory mini-camp, which begins Tuesday. The Cardinals also hope an offensive-minded head coach and the pieces around Fitzgerald give the veteran a sense of fulfillment after a three-win season in 2018.
“I’m hoping he enjoys the process and enjoys what the offense turns into and how we’re playing and it gives him a reason to stick around a few more years,” Kingsbury said Wednesday as organized team activities wrapped up. “He practices and plays like he’s trying to make the team.
“You’d think he’s starving out there.”
It’s not absurd to suggest Fitzgerald’s numbers could improve from a year ago.
He caught 69 passes for 734 yards and six touchdowns in 2018. Age hasn’t led to injuries, as he’s played 16 regular season games in each of the last four years.
Kingsbury’s offense should be more pass-heavy, too.
Fitzgerald’s slot position he’s played since former head coach Bruce Arians joined the team in 2013 might change based on the play, but Kingsbury said a lot depends on which other receivers make the 53-man roster.
The opportunities will be there in any case, and it could help that rookie quarterback Kyler Murray is expected to bring a new dynamic to the offense.
“The first thing that pops out to you is just how intelligent he is,” Fitzgerald said of the No. 1 overall pick. “I mean, he knows the system better than we do. He can get us into any play at any time and then he has the ultimate weapon in the exit button. If things break down, he can get going pretty quickly.
“Scramble drill, you get a lot of explosive plays that would happen with broken down plays. That’s one of the things we’re working on. He’s going to add so many different dimensions.”
During the 20-minute portion of open practice on Wednesday, the Cardinals ran an extended scramble drill, giving the receivers reps of plays that extend more than a route and longer than five or so seconds.
Murray should be able to help Fitzgerald do his best on such plays — even the less athletic Carson Palmer did it once — but the vice versa is true as well.
“I just think he’s a security blanket,” Kingsbury said of Fitzgerald. “There’s a comfort level there, if you get (a pass) close, he’s going to make a play for you. For a young QB, you know he’s going to make plays, and that goes a long way.”
Already, Fitzgerald is finding himself reinvigorated working with the youngsters.
But he’s also found a new staff acting as a refresher for himself.
Wide receivers coach David Raih, a 38-year-old hired away from the Green Bay Packers, and new assistant wide receivers coach Peter Badovinac, have brought new energy and a curiosity to learn themselves. Fitzgerald has found Raih’s background unique; he was a backup quarterback at Iowa and has coached quarterbacks, receivers and offensive linemen in college and the pros.
And then there is former Cardinals wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan.
The 74-year-old is not on the permanent staff but, as described by AZCardinals.com’s Darren Urban, has been coaching in a hands-on role throughout OTAs.
Sullivan previously coached for the Cardinals in the early 2000s and worked with Fitzgerald in the lockout before the 2011 season, which Fitzgerald has credited with helping him into his most productive NFL season (Fitzgerald averaged a career-high 17.6 yards per catch that year).
“It’s actually embarrassing and really kind of exciting because I haven’t been utilizing a lot of the stuff he taught me from years back, kind of got into some bad habits,” Fitzgerald admitted, “and now I feel kind of reinvigorated now, using his technique now and seeing how effective it is.”
It’s been clear over the last several years that regardless of Fitzgerald’s non-committal feelings about extending his career, he has enjoyed the process — teaching, learning and competing.
On the day after Fitzgerald’s former quarterback, Palmer, found out he would be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor, Palmer said he was certain Fitzgerald, 35, could extend his NFL career three more years.
“I don’t know about that,” Fitzgerald said of the idea. “I take it one day at a time.”
The Cardinals hope this coming season can help him enjoy each of those days. That will pay dividends for their success in 2019 and beyond.
“He takes great pride in showing them the way,” Palmer said, calling in to reporters from a vacation at Yellowstone National Park on Wednesday. “Those guys, if they have the right mindset, they will learn more in these first couple of years playing with him than they will the rest of their career.”
IN AWE OF CARSON
Here’s Kingsbury on his admiration for former Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who will be inducted into the Ring of Honor this year:
“I think he’s one of the most underrated quarterbacks of all-time. Actually came out, same year, was at the Senior Bowl and unfortunately got put on his team. I remember walking out the first day and it’s just like this Greek god throwing lightening bolts. Like, this is not going to be a good week for me, next to him.
“Phenomenal talent. I mean, like, if God made a quarterback, how it’s supposed to look, how he’s supposed to throw, how he’s supposed to drop, great charisma, personality.”