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Fitzgerald on pace for best season at 32

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. already restructured his contract to save the Cardinals $13 million in cap space this year, so what's another $40 between superstar and team executive?...

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Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) carries the ball against the St. Louis Rams during the first half of a Dec. 6 game at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo by Jeff Curry - USA Today Sports)

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. already restructured his contract to save the Cardinals $13 million in cap space this year, so what’s another $40 between superstar and team executive?

That was the bill to clean the suit team president Michael Bidwell was wearing when Fitzgerald dumped a bucket of ice water over his head following Arizona’s 27-3 victory over the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday, Bidwell’s 51st birthday.

“He payroll-deducted the dry cleaning out of my check, so I wasn’t too happy about that,” Fitzgerald quipped Tuesday.

It was a landmark day for both.

Fitzgerald, the former Holy Angels standout from Minneapolis, became the youngest receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 receptions. At 32 years, 97 days, he eclipsed Andre Johnson, who reached the milestone in 33 years, 163 days.

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What is more, Fitzgerald is on pace for the most productive season of his 12-year career, having forged a potent connection with resurgent quarterback Carson Palmer. Fitzgerald has 91 receptions for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns through 12 games; his career bests are 103 receptions (2005), 1,431 yards (2008) and 13 touchdowns (2009).

The Cardinals (10-2) average 31.8 points and 419.5 yards a game - most in the NFL. A victory Thursday night over the visiting Vikings (8-4), coupled with a Seattle loss to Baltimore on Sunday, would allow Arizona to clinch the NFC West title.

“I’m just getting opportunities and just in the flow of the game every week,” Fitzgerald said. “The rapport with Carson is really good. Having him healthy is the main cog. He’s playing at an MVP level. He makes everything go for us, and everyone’s having success because of what he’s doing.”

Fitzgerald was 21 when he broke in with Arizona in 2004. He was a one-man scoring machine in college at Pittsburgh and quickly established himself as a dynamic, respected playmaker in the NFL.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer does not gush much about competitors, but he laid it on thick this week when asked about Fitzgerald.

“He’s outstanding, he really is,” Zimmer said. “And for a guy, the class of person that he is, he does a lot of dirty work - he blocks an awful lot, he blocks big guys, safeties, whoever, he’ll block them.

“He doesn’t complain when he gets a pass interference (call) or somebody holds him or something like that. Obviously, he’s got great hands, runs great routes and he doesn’t try to be the center of the game. He tries to be a professional receiver, and I have a lot of respect for him. He was raised right. He’s phenomenal.”

Fitzgerald was a Vikings ball boy in the late 1990s, befriending wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Carter is in the hall of fame. Moss is destined to join him. The three are among only 10 players with at least 13,000 yards and 90 touchdowns.

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It is reasonable to consider Fitzgerald for a bust in Canton; however, the eight-time Pro Bowler is missing something. “I think it would be a much better discussion if I’m able to put a deep playoff run and a possible Super Bowl championship into the equation,” he said.

The Cardinals reached Super Bowl XLIII in 2009 but lost 27-23 to Pittsburgh.

“I think at this point in my career, you don’t really play for the personal accolades,” he said.

Total buy-in to coach Bruce Arians’ scheme was gradual. Fitzgerald was moved from his traditional outside receiver position to the slot, requiring him to block more in the middle of the field in the running game.

Arians said Fitzgerald is healthy after battling through hamstring and knee injuries the past two years.

“He’s in great shape. Also, it took him awhile to fit into the role that was a little bit of change for him,” Arians said. “And he and Carson got on the same page, and it’s fun to watch them play together.”

Fitzgerald was due $16 million in 2015 under his old deal. Instead, he agreed to a new two-year, $22 million contract, creating $13 million in cap space for the Cardinals, who are reaping the residuals.

Fitzgerald has no timetable for the rest of his career but said he must remain effective and productive to keep playing. The loquacious veteran has it all figured out.

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“When you come into the league, it’s, ‘Does he have the ability to live up to the potential?’ ” Fitzgerald said. “And then once you start playing well and you get to a second contract and a couple of Pro Bowls, they say, ‘Is he going to stay hungry?’

“And then as you get older it’s, ‘Can he still play?’ So at every point of your career, you’re always fighting ... somebody’s perception of what you can do and what you can’t do. I just love that challenge in every aspect.”

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