Larry Fitzgerald

Why 49ers' Richard Sherman loves playing Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald

Why 49ers' Richard Sherman loves playing Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald

SANTA CLARA -- Richard Sherman once again will play against a role model Thursday night.

For the 15th time in their respective careers, the 49ers cornerback and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's teams will square off with one another on Thursday night at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. Sherman has seen no other individual opponent more than Fitzgerald, who moved to No. 2 all-time in receptions earlier this season, and Sherman said Wednesday that Fitzgerald's influence on his career can't be understated.

"Oh, he's had a tremendous impact on my career," Sherman said at the 49ers facility. "Both on the field and off. I consider me and Larry pretty good friends. The way he carries himself, the way he runs [the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund], the way he does things off the field had a tremendous impact on my career and what I've done with [the Richard Sherman Family Foundation], what I've done with different things on and off the field. How I carry myself in certain respects."

Fitzgerald has long been a thorn in the 49ers' side, catching 173 passes for 2,030 yards and 18 touchdowns in 30 matchups against San Francisco. The rivalry has ebbed and flowed during that time, with both the 49ers and Cardinals winning at least four straight against one another -- twice -- during Fitzgerald's first 15 NFL seasons, including Arizona's active eight-game winning streak dating back to 2015.

The Cardinals have tried to prepare for an eventual life without Fitzgerald, boasting four receivers within their first two NFL seasons on the roster. Yet, the future Hall of Famer endures as the team's top receiving option. Fitzgerald leads the Cardinals in targets (59), receptions (38) and receiving yards (447). He arguably has become a more sure-handed pass-catcher in the twilight of his career, as the four highest catch percentages of his career -- including 2019 -- have come within the last five seasons.

Sherman said Fitzgerald "forced me to raise my level as a rookie" with the Seattle Seahawks in 2011, when Fitzgerald hauled in 14 catches for 213 yards and a touchdown in two matchups against Seattle. The subtleties of Fitzgerald's route-running made him successful then as they are now, according to Sherman.

"He always makes you be on it," Sherman said. "You've gotta study every tendency, every split, every hitch or every knee-jerk. He even runs his corner routes a certain way, and you just have to be aware of where he is on the field at all times as long as he's playing because he can make an impact."

[RELATED: Bosa brothers named NFC, AFC defensive players of the week]

Sherman joked that Fitzgerald already was a decade into the NFL when he debuted. The veteran cornerback was off by two years, but Fitzgerald was a fixture of consistency before Sherman came to the league and has been one since.

How much longer will that be the case? Fitzgerald once again is playing on a one-year contract, and he has said he'll "know when it's time" to retire. The 49ers will play the Cardinals once more this season after Thursday. Week 11 at Levi's Stadium conceivably could be the last time Fitzgerald and Sherman play against one another, but Sherman will cherish the matchup whether or not the clock is winding down on Fitzgerald's career.

"I appreciate going against him the most," Sherman said. "He always gives great challenges. It's a great battle."

49ers will have hands full with Kyler Murray for foreseeable future

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AP

49ers will have hands full with Kyler Murray for foreseeable future

The 49ers got off to a winning start to the 2019 NFL season Sunday with a 31-17 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately for San Francisco, nobody in the NFC West lost.

The LA Rams went into Carolina and earned a tough 30-27 win over the Panthers, and the Seahawks managed to hold on and beat the Cincinnati Bengals 21-20 in Seattle. Both of those results were somewhat expected, as the NFC West squads were favored in both matchups.

That can't be said for the Arizona Cardinals, who were underdogs at home against the Detroit Lions. They didn't win, but they didn't lose either, as Arizona erased an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Detroit on the way to a 27-27 tie.

While the Cardinals never got a chance to attempt a game-winning kick in overtime, they wouldn't have even reached that point if not for the heroics of their rookie quarterback.

Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, looked somewhat overmatched in the preseason, and that remained the case Sunday as Detroit built a 17-3 lead in the first half, over which he completed just 6 of 16 passes for 41 yards and zero touchdowns with one interception. The second half -- and especially the fourth quarter -- presented a different story.

After the Lions increased their lead to 24-6 just 13 seconds into the fourth quarter, Murray began to work his magic. His deft touch was on display, as he found running back David Johnson down the seam for the first touchdown pass of his career.

That cut the Cardinals' deficit to 24-16, and in the final minute of regulation, Murray pulled Arizona even to send the game into OT.

With first-and-goal at the Lions' 4-yard line, Murray rolled out to his right and found none other than the immortal Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown to pull the Cardinals within two. 

Then, on the two-point conversion, Murray connected with Christian Kirk for the game-tying score.

Arizona got the ball to start overtime, and on the second play, Murray showed off his arm strength, finding Fitzgerald deep down the left side to set up a go-ahead field goal.

On each of those plays, you can see aspects of Murray's skill set that made him so appealing to Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals. Murray's athleticism is off the charts, he has great arm strength and accuracy, and as Week 1 showed, he also has a flair for the dramatic.

[RELATED: What we learned about 49ers in season-opening win over Bucs]

The 49ers' defense played a key role in their season-opening win, but moving forward, it sure looks like they'll have their hands full with Murray for many years to come.

NFL Preview 2019: Ranking the top five wide receivers in the NFC West

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AP

NFL Preview 2019: Ranking the top five wide receivers in the NFC West

Wide receiver is not a position of strength for the 49ers. 

Although San Francisco arguably boasts the best receiving weapon in the NFC West in tight end George Kittle (1,377 yards, eighth in NFL last season), their wide receivers weren't nearly as productive in 2018. Injuries slowed Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garcon and Trent Taylor, while 23-year-old Kendrick Bourne played his way into a bigger role in the absence of some -- and sometimes most -- of his peers. 

Jimmy Garoppolo's torn ACL didn't help matters, either, but Bourne, Pettis and Goodwin combined for 28 fewer receiving yards than Kittle. Pettis and Goodwin missed four and five games, respectively, but neither's per-game averages would have resulted in more than 650 receiving yards over the course of a 16-game season. 

The 49ers' receiving corps is young and promising, but you won't find any of its members among the five best receivers in the NFC West. Here's a look at the top five ahead of the 2019 season:

Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams

In his first season in LA, Cooks developed strong chemistry with quarterback Jared Goff in Sean McVay's high-octane offense. His 1,204 receiving yards were second-best among NFC wideouts -- only behind teammate Robert Woods. Those 1,204 yards also were a career high.

Cooks primarily is known as a deep threat, but he also was very effective catching screens last season. His wide receiver rating -- or, Goff's quarterback rating when throwing to Cooks -- was second-highest in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Cooks also ranked second in the stat on post and corner routes, and that versatility makes him the most dangerous wide receiver in the division. 

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

Lockett set career highs in just about every area last season, catching more touchdowns (10) in his fourth NFL campaign than the totality of his first three. Few receivers in the league were as explosive as Lockett, as he led qualifying players in receiving yards per target (13.8) and finished fifth in yards per reception (16.9), according to Pro Football Reference.

But what set the 26-year-old apart last season was his surehandedness. He caught 57 of 70 targets (81.4 percent), which was good for 12th in the NFL. Doug Baldwin's retirement unquestionably makes Lockett Seattle's No. 1 receiver, and he could springboard into the league's elite if he maintains his efficiency as he is targeted more often. 

Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Kupp's torn ACL in Week 10 marked a clear turning point in the Rams' season. Goff greatly missed his most reliable target from Week 11 onward, averaging nearly three fewer yards per attempt as he threw just 11 touchdowns over the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. 

The 26-year-old Kupp was well on his way to a career season, already having caught 40 receptions for 566 yards alongside six touchdowns. Assuming he returns healthy in 2019, Kupp will open up a lot of options for an already intimidating Rams offense and is close to a sure bet to give LA a third 1,000-yard receiver. 

Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams' embarrassment of riches out wide is made clear by the fact their most prolific receiver isn't their best. Like Cooks and Kupp, Woods set plenty of career highs last season, with 86 receptions for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns. 

Woods had never cracked 800 yards in his previous five seasons, but was far more consistent last season. Woods failed to exceed 60 receiving yards in just two games in 2018 after being unable to do so in six during the previous season. He also dropped just two of the 88 catchable passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus, and figures to once again be a reliable option for the reigning NFC champions. 

[RELATED: Ranking top six RBs in NFC West ahead of 2019 season]

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

Fitzgerald caught the third-fewest passes of his career last year (69) for the fewest yards (734) on the third-fewest targets (112), but the 35-year-old saved some of his best work for the second half of the season. He caught four touchdowns in his last eight games, and had twice as many 50-yard receiving games (four) as he did in his first eight. 

It's clear that Fitzgerald's best years are behind him, and he might not have much left in the tank beyond next season. But he'll provide Kyler Murray a safety valve all over the field, and Murray's talent very well could be enough to give the probable Pro Football Hall of Famer a late-career boost.