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Larry Fitzgerald's production in the slot helps him ascend NFL rankings

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians decided shortly after he was hired in 2013 to move his star wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, inside to the slot after years of him playing outside. Arians knew from experience it would extend Fitzgerald’s career.

At previous stops in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Arians saw the Steelers' Hines Ward put up consistent numbers and watched the Colts' Reggie Wayne go from 75 to 106 catches after moving them inside. He expected the same from Fitzgerald.

“That’s how you extend your career and get those numbers,” Arians said. “We had that conversation three years ago. No one likes to hear that they’re not ‘X’ anymore. He gets to play ‘Z,’ but he’s going to make his money in the slot at this time in his career, and he’s doing a fantastic job at it.”

Arians didn’t know how much moving Fitzgerald inside would help him scale the record books.

Fitzgerald set a career high in catches last season and is on a record pace this year, helping him move into third place on the NFL’s all-time receptions list -- a mark he hit Sunday -- behind No. 1 Jerry Rice and No. 2 Tony Gonzalez.

“It’s rare, rare, air that he is in,” Arians said.

Back in 2013, Arians thought 80 to 90 catches would equate to a “great” season for Fitzgerald in the slot. In his first two seasons under Arians, Fitzgerald caught 82 and 63, respectively, the lower number coming when Fitzgerald missed two games in 2014 with a knee injury.

In 2015, Fitzgerald set a career high with 109 catches, and he’s on pace for 117 this season. He now has 1,106 for his career.

“A hundred catches for anybody is really hard,” Arians said. “When you get in there and block, you are going to get beat up, playing over the middle, but he’s so big and strong and he’s in great shape all the time.”

One reason Arians thinks Wayne, Ward and Marvin Harrison were able to finish their careers as three of the top receivers of this generation was durability. The more they could play, the more plays they made.

Fitzgerald, 33, hasn’t missed a game in the past two seasons and has missed just six in his 13-year NFL career.

“Durability is the big thing,” Arians said. “Availability helps your stats as much as anything.”

That’s why Fitzgerald has been able to catch at least one pass in 191 consecutive games, the third-longest streak in NFL history and the longest for an active receiver. Arians doesn’t want to be responsible for that streak ending, so he builds in a pass to Fitzgerald among the first 15 scripted plays of every game.

To keep Fitzgerald’s body as fresh, Arians started giving him Wednesdays off from practice. At first, Fitzgerald was reluctant to take it.

“My body just feels so much better,” Fitzgerald said. “I practice Thursday, I practice Friday and then I can get my massage, do my chirotherapy and do everything that I need to get prepared for Sunday.

“So my body feels a lot better, a lot fresher.”

It has also helped that Fitzgerald is playing with a talented quarterback, fast receivers and one of the best running backs in the NFL.

“First of all, I got a great quarterback,” Fitzgerald said of Carson Palmer, one of 13 signal-callers whom he has connected with for touchdowns in his career. “He’s got unbelievable touch and feel. He gets the ball to me accurately and I just catch it if it’s thrown to me. That’s pretty simple. And Coach does a great job of moving me around, getting me in favorable positions and featuring me, so I’ve just taken advantage of the opportunities that I’ve been given.

“It’s not rocket science or anything like that.”

Fitzgerald basically knew nothing but playing outside during the first nine seasons of his career. He ran 3,013 routes out wide from 2004 to 2012, according to ESPN Stats & Information, compared to 702 from the slot. Since the start of 2013, Fitzgerald has run just 915 routes outside compared to 1,229 inside.

Palmer’s only comparison to Fitzgerald is 37-year-old Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr., but Fitzgerald’s stats overshadow Smith’s. What stood out to Palmer besides Fitzgerald’s intangibles -- his excitement when teammates score or how he celebrates his teammates’ touchdowns when other “premier receivers walk off the field” -- is how Fitzgerald has adapted to his new role.

“There are just not that many guys that can change positions essentially, like Larry has, and be just as good at the new position at an older age as he was the old position at a younger age,” Palmer said.

With fellow receivers Michael Floyd working the sidelines and J.J. Nelson and John Brown taking the tops off defenses, and with running back David Johnson commanding eight defenders in the box, the underneath is an open canvas for Fitzgerald, who's usually in single coverage.

“It works its way out,” Fitzgerald said. “Having those things going for you presents more opportunities.”