Arizona's top pick could earn $60M in 6 years

Originally Published: August 2, 2004
By Len Pasquarelli |

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and first-round selection of the Arizona Cardinals, reached an agreement on his first NFL contract.

As the third player chosen overall in the draft, the former University of Pittsburgh star, one of the most physically gifted wide receivers in the college game over the past decade, will sign a deal that appears to be the most lucrative ever for an NFL rookie. The six-year contract could be worth as much as $60 million and includes slightly more than $20 million in guaranteed bonus money, also a record.

Fitzgerald's deal with the Cards could earn him more money than Eli Manning. With a base package of $40 million, and including bonuses, $13.5 million will be paid out to Fitzgerald this year.

Manning, the first overall pick in the NFL draft, signed Thursday with the Giants on a deal that includes a $20 million signing bonus in a package that with incentives could be worth $54 million over six years. The base package is $45 million.

"This is something I've been dreaming of for 20 years," Fitzgerald said. "To finally be able to come into training camp and line up and snap helmets on with the likes of Emmitt Smith and Anquan Boldin and Freddie Jones, that's very exciting for me."

The accord, which was struck at about 2 a.m. (ET), got Fitzgerald to camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., in time for the Cardinals' first day of practice, although he missed both practices Monday after getting tied up with paperwork at team headquarters in Tempe, Ariz.

"I'm a rookie," he said. "I don't want to lose a rep or a practice. I don't want to miss valuable coaching points that all my coaches are going to have for me. I feel like I'm a day behind already."

The two sides, with agent Eugene Parker representing Fitzgerald and vice president Rod Graves bargaining for the club, worked feverishly in the 24 hours preceding the agreement to close the deal.

The Cardinals have been notorious for stingy negotiating that kept many top picks from reporting on time, but Parker, who also represents Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith, believes things have changed under Graves.

"Give them credit," Parker said. "They stepped up and negotiated. They were motivated, we were motivated, and even though things could be a little adversarial at times, the focus stayed on what was important: getting him there on time."

With the Fitzgerald agreement, the number of unsigned first-rounders dropped to eight.

Months before the draft, Cardinals first-year coach Dennis Green made it very clear that Fitzgerald would be his first choice in his second incarnation as a head coach. Fitzgerald was a ball boy for Minnesota when Green was the coach there, became a close friend of Vikings star Cris Carter, and often hung around the locker room. Fitzgerald and Green have remained close over the years.

Last month, Green announced that Fitzgerald would line up as a starter when the Cards opened camp. Arizona will align in a three-wide receiver formation, with Fitzgerald joined by second-year veterans Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson.

"He's a fabulous player," Green said. "Him and Anquan, together they're very impressive -- big, physical, catch everything in sight, run down the field. So I think everybody was pleased, and I think he was pleased, because he's seen our offense over the years."

Boldin was last year's NFL offensive rookie of the year, and no one will be surprised if Fitzgerald captures the same honor this season.

Fitzgerald, who won't turn 21 until Aug. 31, played only two seasons at Pitt and bypassed his final two years of college eligibility. Despite being only a sophomore, he gained entry into the draft because his family was able to demonstrate to league officials that he was technically three years removed from his high school graduating class, even though he attended a prep school for a year.

In just 26 games, Fitzgerald had 161 receptions for 2,677 yards and a school-record 34 touchdowns.

A class act off the field, Fitzgerald is an imposing playmaker on it, a rare combination of size, speed and body control. He became renowned for his acrobatic catches and for his uncanny ability to adjust to the ball.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at Information from senior writer John Clayton and The Associated Press was used in this report.