With or without Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals' receiver room needs work

TEMPE, Ariz. -- With a little over a week until the start of free agency, the Arizona Cardinals still don't know if they'll be playing with or without future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in 2021.

Since he began playing on one-year contracts in 2016, the 37-year-old Fitzgerald has never taken until March to decide his future. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said last week he had no updates on Fitzgerald's status and was giving the 11-time Pro Bowl player the "space" he "deserves."

Fitzgerald has been a constant presence for the Cardinals since the 2004 season, but regardless of whether he returns, Arizona's wide receiver room may be in for an overhaul.

The Cardinals finished with 4,102 receiving yards last season, their most since 2016, but often it was DeAndre Hopkins or bust. Hopkins had 1,407 yards -- third most in the NFL -- and six touchdowns on 115 catches in his first season with the Cardinals. The next most? Christian Kirk's 621 yards on 48 catches.

"DeAndre is phenomenal talent," first-year Arizona wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson said. "Right now, to be honest with you, he's probably the only one in the league I can compare to Calvin Johnson. [He] has the kind of skill set that Calvin had, playing above the rim, and just in those competitive situations, finding a way to come down with balls and everything like that.

"He's a generational talent, and I'm looking forward to working with him."

Among Arizona's top five receivers last season, two weren't designated wide receivers. Tight end Dan Arnold was third with 438 yards on 31 catches, and running back Chase Edmonds was fifth with 402 yards on 53 catches. For a team that plays 65% of its snaps with at least three receivers on the field -- 20.3% with four receivers -- more from that group is needed.

Fitzgerald, who played in 13 games last season, finished with 409 yards, his fewest in a regular season in his career. And his 7.57 yards per catch was the lowest of his career. For context, the last time he played in less than 16 games was 2014, and he had 784 yards.

Kirk also saw his production drop in Year 2 under coach Kliff Kingsbury. He went from 709 yards on 68 catches in 13 games in 2019 to 621 yards on 48 catches in 14 games -- although with 10 starts -- in 2020. He did set a career high with six touchdowns, which was equal to his scoring production in his first two seasons.

Two years ago, the Cardinals drafted three receivers, but only Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson remain, and neither contributed much to the Cardinals' offense, with 224 yards and 173 yards, respectively. The Cardinals released Hakeem Butler, the third receiver drafted in 2019, before last season.

Jefferson is in the early stages of evaluating what he's working with but had an early diagnosis of the Cardinals' receivers room: "This team has talent."

He praised both Isabella and Johnson for having the ability needed to play in the NFL. Thus far, however, the talent Jefferson sees on tape hasn't translated to production.

"My job is to come here and get the most out of both of them, and I'm sure that both those guys have a lot to add to this team," Jefferson said in February. "So I'm in the evaluation stage right now of the receiver group, early stages of it, and I'm looking forward to working with those guys."

With Hopkins accounting for 34.3% of Arizona's receiving and no one else accounting for more than 15.1%, the Cardinals didn't have a clear-cut No. 2 receiver last year. Adding one this year will be a priority, whether that's in free agency or in a draft loaded with receiving talent. In his latest mock draft, ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay projected five receivers to go in the first round, where the Cardinals hold the No. 16 pick.

If he returns, Fitzgerald's impact on the passing game shouldn't affect how the Cardinals approach the offseason. In whatever role he assumes, Fitzgerald's reliability makes him a threat. He has the lowest drop percentage -- 0.8% -- in the last five years among receivers with at least 200 catches.

Arizona has a foundation in its receiving room with Hopkins, but it's up to Keim to put complementary pieces around him, regardless of whether Fitzgerald returns. Kirk could be one of those players. Beyond that, however, Arizona hasn't been getting much production out of the rest of its receivers.

And that could lead to an overhaul this offseason.