Commentary

Best WR? Fitz screens the question

The league -- and Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald themselves -- ponders the idea

Originally Published: October 8, 2009
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Two of the NFL's best receivers will be showcased in the desert Sunday when the Houston Texans visit the Arizona Cardinals. Paul Kuharsky (AFC South) and Mike Sando (NFC West) of ESPN.com's NFL Blog Network asked the Texans' Andre Johnson and the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald -- and their peers -- who's better and why.

Larry Fitzgerald wasn't even the best wide receiver on his own team a couple of years ago.

A record-setting run through the playoffs last season changed perceptions in a hurry.

Fitzgerald has changed, too.

Perhaps taking a cue from teammate Anquan Boldin, Fitzgerald dedicated himself to the finer points of the position, becoming much more precise and purposeful in his approach. He started to become a complete receiver, not just a supremely gifted one.

If Fitzgerald isn't the consensus choice as the NFL's best receiver, he's right up there on a short list featuring Week 5 opponent Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans.

"There are a lot of assets with those two guys [Fitzgerald and Johnson] because they are special players," Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said Wednesday. "What you love the most is when you get down into the red zone. They give you opportunities to do some things when the field is shortened and there is not much space -- to put the ball in certain areas that a lot of guys can't go up and compete for."

Speaking in separate conference calls, Fitzgerald and Johnson each singled out the other as tops in the league at attacking the ball when it's high in the air.

Both cannot be right, but with these two, it's impossible to go wrong.

Here's the rest of our look at Fitzgerald, and a link to a corresponding piece about Johnson from Paul Kuharsky.

Three questions with Fitzgerald


Sando: The best receivers tend to study their peers. What does your scouting report on Andre Johnson say?

Fitzgerald: Well, first of all, he puts so much pressure on your team because he's so explosive off the line of scrimmage. I've watched every single route he's run so far. Every week, my video team gives me every single route that he runs, Reggie Wayne runs, Randy Moss. I watch all of my peers pretty much every week when I've got free time at my house. [Johnson] attacks the defense. He forces you to show your hand in what you're going to do immediately. And then he has such great timing with [Matt] Schaub that even when he's not even open, Schaub puts the balls in there tight for him and he just makes tremendous catches. He just continues to run at full speed all the time, and he forces coverages to dictate their hand. And that's why he makes so many plays down the field.

Sando: Even the best players have an off day on occasion. When you look back on those times, what happened?

Fitzgerald: It varies from game to game. Sometimes, defenses do a good job of just scouting you and taking away your strengths. I wouldn't consider those games bad games. They might not be as productive as you would hope for on a personal level, but sometimes defenses, they're just a step ahead of you. And then other games when you're not playing well, you're not running your proper depth, things like that. Those things frustrate you the most because those are the self-inflicted blows and those are what great players or any player wants to stay away from.

Sando: Who is the best receiver in football and why? (And it's OK to choose yourself.)

Fitzgerald: Oh, man. That's really a tough question. I think the top five guys, that could change weekly. It's all about matchups and who's playing well. Dre [Andre Johnson] obviously is in that top five. Reggie Wayne, I definitely have to put in that top five. I would put myself in that top five. You've got Randy Moss. DeSean Jackson's playing lights-out right now. Steve Smith's playing lights-out right now. You've got a lot of guys around the NFL that are playing really good football, so it's hard to say from week in to week out. I think you kind of have to assess that after the year is over.

[Carolina's] Steve Smith is great, but Steve Smith from the Giants right now, he's playing lights-out.

An NFC personnel expert on Fitzgerald


"Fitzgerald disguises his routes well. He shows very good burst out of his breaks, he's patient as a route-runner and he has excellent body control. He knows how to use his hands and strength to fight off press coverage. He's adept at gaining inside position and uses his size well to create additional separation. He's a big receiver with the speed to run vertical routes effectively. There's no one better attacking the ball in the air. He's not explosive after the catch, but he can make a defender miss and he can break tackles. Dangerous in the red zone, too."

What others think of Fitzgerald


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Isaac Bruce, San Francisco 49ers receiver:

"He is a guy who has gotten some experience as far as playing in the league for a while. He is learning how to read coverages. He was a great receiver in his college days [at the University of Pittsburgh] as far as beating man-to-man coverage. Right now, teams are trying to take him away, and that means a lot of zone. That means a lot of in-and-out coverages. I'm sure from what I have seen on tape he's able to defeat those coverages.

"It's a big-time difference between running man-to-man routes and running zone routes. When running routes in a zone, it's very, very important that you get route depth. You must be precise in your break. You have to be careful not to drift upfield. When you get a guy who can't run routes in a zone, he'll drift upfield and may cause an interception or cause the receiver to take a blow-up shot or take a hard hit."

Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals coach:

"Great player, a guy that obviously has grown leaps and bounds as a receiver, but also as a leader. And that's something that you really like to see with your team, because of the way he works in practice, the way he is around the guys. When you have a player that plays at a level that high, it does great things for your team, but then he's such a good teammate."

Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville Jaguars coach:

"He is a big, strong, athletic guy. He is a special young man. He actually was a ball boy in Minnesota when I was up there as a player, so I have known him for a long time. … He's a class guy. I love to see guys like that do well. I think he's the right kind of guy for the league to have out in front because he's a classy guy. He's a good football player. He's tough, he's big, he's strong, he's fast. But he's a good man, a good person. I do respect who he is, what he stands for and the type of player he has become."

Popularity meter


"Q" might be Boldin's nickname, but few receivers can touch Fitzgerald in Q rating right now.

He's everywhere.

From the "Madden NFL 10" video game cover to ABC's "Good Morning America," from "The Tonight Show" to those offbeat IHOP commercials, Fitzgerald has gone national in a big way.

A three-time winner at the latest ESPYS, Fitzgerald has shown up on the covers of Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Men's Fitness and elsewhere.

Fitzgerald's jersey sales ranked 20th among NFL players for the six-month period ending Sept. 30. Only Terrell Owens and Hines Ward sold more among wide receivers. Thirteen of the top 20 sellers were quarterbacks.

ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer says of Fitzgerald:


"A couple years ago, Fitzgerald was a real headache for a quarterback because the talent was unlimited but the discipline was not there. He was not known as a hard worker on the details. He was still living in the world of 'Throw it up and I will catch it.' Going into last year, he made a great investment. There was a real recognition on his part that he needed to improve upon his craft.

"As soon as that happened, Kurt Warner was able to anticipate his throws like he did with everyone on the Rams and Boldin and Jerheme Urban. He could trust Fitzgerald. Once that is there, a guy like Fitzgerald is unstoppable because now you control the short passing game with his size, the intermediate game with the fear factor and the deep game with his physicality.

"The quick game, just his pure size helps. You can force the ball to him. The deep game was always there because it's straight physicality, his size combined with athleticism. The intermediate game takes trust."

The case for Fitzgerald as the NFL's best WR:


Sando: There's so much to like about each of these receivers. I would have sided with Johnson a year ago. His superior speed gives him the better overall fear factor, but Fitzgerald's big-game production, increased attention to detail and striking development into a leader took him to another level.

Mike Sando covers the NFC West for ESPN.com.