The 2004 NFL Draft will most certainly go down as one of the best in NFL history.
The first-round featured 10 future Pro Bowlers in the first 10 picks, and four of those 10 players – Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Phillip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger – are almost certainly future Hall of Famers. Manning retired two years ago, and Rivers joined him after last season, making Fitzgerald and Roethlisberger the two last players standing from the top of that draft.
Roethlisberger has already made his intention to return for an 18th season clear. He’ll be back quarterbacking the Pittsburgh Steelers. That decision makes sense for both parties. The Steelers, despite a disappointing loss in the first round of last season’s playoffs, have a talented offense and a team capable of contending for a championship. Roethlisberger has some flaws at this point in his career, but he completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,800 yards and 33 touchdowns with 10 interceptions last season. It would be hard for the Steelers to find similar production in the draft or free agency, and a drop-off could knock them out of contender status.
Fitzgerald’s situation is less clear, though. He was certainly a contributor for the Arizona Cardinals last season. He caught 54 passes for 409 yards and a touchdown in 13 games. That’s solid production, but not irreplaceable.
What could be irreplaceable, though, is Fitzgerald’s impact on young quarterback Kyler Murray. In two seasons as the Arizona starter, Fitzgerald has been Murray’s favorite target. Murray isn’t the big play threat he was early in his career, but he’s big, his hands are reliable, and he’s a precise route runner. He’s a constant safety valve for Murray, especially when Murray gets outside of the pocket or improvises, as he often does.
Fitzgerald has caught 129 passes over the past two seasons for the Cardinals, and he led the team in receptions in Murray’s rookie season. Last season, though, the team added All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a trade with Houston. Hopkins and Murray quickly developed great chemistry and Hopkins was tied for second in the league in receptions, was third in receiving yards, and caught six touchdown passes.
Hopkins is clearly the team’s go-to player, but that doesn’t necessarily make Fitzgerald expendable. Fitzgerald’s intelligence and leadership, particularly his on-field awareness, have helped the Cardinals and Murray in several key game management situations. His hands and size also make him a reliable target in short yardage situations.
In an interview with Insider, Murray also noted how important Fitzgerald has been to him as a mentor. “Obviously, receiver-quarterback relationship, when things aren’t … Say we miss a route, or I miss a throw or stuff like that — he’ll never drop the ball,” Murray said. “It’s always my fault. Let’s put it that way. But he’s like a big brother to me.”
Fitzgerald is certainly a first ballot Hall of Famer when he eventually does retire, but the chance to capture an elusive Super Bowl title on a young team with a chance to contend, and one that wouldn’t necessarily need him to play a primary role, might be too good of an opportunity to pass up an 18th season.