Eric Decker is shaping up to be one of the more divisive players in 2012, with Footballguys.com staff rankings ranging from 11th all the way down to 40th. The diversity of opinion is understandable given Decker's limited track record and the major changes afoot in Denver.
Let's start with what we do know about Eric Decker. The 6'3" and 206-pound receiver was drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Minnesota. Decker would have been drafted even higher were it not for a foot injury that sidelined him during most of the pre-draft process, but the Broncos (and several other teams as we would later find out) believed Decker was one of the best receiver prospects in the 2010 class that also featured Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas. Not only does Decker possess excellent size, he's a better athlete than many realize, clocking in at a 4.45-second 40-yard dash, and having been drafted, not once but twice, by the Milwaukee Brewers as a center field prospect.
We also know that Decker worked his way into the starting lineup in his second season, starting 13 of 16 games. Decker's numbers weren't necessarily eye-popping: 44 receptions for 612 yards and eight touchdowns, but digging deeper tells a much more compelling story.
Kyle Orton vs. Tim Tebow
The 2011 Denver Broncos were defined by Tim Tebow and his improbable rise to prominence that was capped by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. But as we know, Tebow's success came in an unconventional way, as his passing numbers were just about as bad as any we've seen in the modern era. That's relevant because Tebow's success came at the expense of a traditional, pro-style passing game - and that was BAD NEWS for Eric Decker. But what many may forget about 2011 is that Kyle Orton opened the season as the starter. Orton may have flaws but was a much more accurate pocket passer than Tebow will ever be, and it showed in Decker's output:
With Orton (Games 1-4) - 5 receptions, 67.5 yards, 1 touchdown per game Game 5 (Orton and Tebow split time) - 2 receptions, (-4) yards, 0 touchdowns With Tebow (Games 6-16) - 2 receptions, 31.5 yards, 0.4 touchdowns per game
Pro-rating those tallies over a 16-game season yields:
Orton (Full Season) - 80 receptions, 1,080 yards, 16 touchdowns Tebow (Full Season) - 32 receptions, 503 yards, 6 touchdowns
Kyle Orton vs. Peyton Manning
If Eric Decker could be put up 80-catch, 1,000-yard numbers with Kyle Orton throwing him the ball, what might he achieve with Peyton Manning under center? Let's back up for a minute and acknowledge that the Broncos won the most coveted free agent sweepstakes in league history, landing Peyton Manning to return the Broncos to championship contention. Hopefully we don't have to justify Manning's abilities or his Hall of Fame credentials, and it stands to reason that he's going to completely reinvent the efficiency and output of the Broncos passing game in 2012. If you're one of those people who worry about Manning's health, Decker isn't going to be your guy. So it's not worth spending a lot of time defending whether Manning can be...well, Peyton Manning. If you think Manning can maintain his prior level of productivity, keep reading. If you don't, draft someone else.
Manning has an ability to elevate those around him. Sure, he had the likes of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis, but those are the exceptions to the rule. Here is a quick list of the other receivers who attained relevance thanks to the three-time NFL MVP: Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Marcus Pollard, Torrance Small, Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, and Terrence Wilkins. Were they all stars? No, but every primary or secondary receiver in Manning's tenure has been a viable fantasy starter, particularly in PPR leagues.
Decker is better than most of those players. He's more physical, a better route runner, has better hands, and can generate more yards after the catch. In addition, Decker has been Manning's early favorite in OTAs, and the coaches have gone on record saying that Decker will run 30 to 40 routes per game. In other words, he's going to get plenty of opportunities.
What about Demaryius Thomas? - Thomas is the more highly regarded prospect, and Manning's signing has people expecting great things from him too. Thomas is the more explosive player - particularly as a vertical threat. But he's not the complete receiver Decker is. Thomas may out leap Decker or beat him in a foot race, but Decker can catch that ball at any point in the field against any coverage. Thomas cannot.
Won't the Broncos be a run-heavy offense? - Don't count on it. Too many people are looking at what Denver did last year and thinking it has any relevance to what they'll do now. You don't sign Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million contract unless you're going to build the offense around him, not the other way around. That means you can expect 525-550 pass attempts at a minimum, with upside to 600 attempts.
Doesn't his catch rate raise alarm bells? - Decker caught 44 receptions last year in 91 targets for a meager 48% catch rate. That might lend some to wonder if Decker doesn't have the hands or separation ability to elevate his game. But remember, Decker got a bulk of his targets from Tim Tebow. In those first four games catching passes from Orton, Decker had a 59% catch rate (20 receptions in 34 targets). If you need further evidence, consider that Decker had a whopping three drops in more than 340 collegiate targets. He has great hands; Tebow has a way of making just about anyone look bad.
Decker was on pace for 80 receptions and 1,000+ yards when Kyle Orton - a traditional pocket passer - was under center
Peyton Manning will completely change the tenor of the Broncos passing attack, and Decker is poised to be one of the focal points
From a skills perspective, Decker has few flaws - he runs well, is accurate and precise in his routes, has strong hands, and doesn't need much separation to come away with the catch
We have a limited sample size to base our enthusiasm, as Decker was only a significant fantasy contributor in four games
Peyton Manning is coming back from a missed season and a neck injury, so if his comeback doesn't work out according to plan, Decker's chances for a breakout season all but evaporate
If we're wrong and the Broncos maintain a more run heavy orientation, it's going to be hard for both Decker and Demaryius Thomas to deliver on their status as fantasy breakout candidates
Eric Decker is one of those players that could make or break your draft this year. His current average draft position (WR29) probably isn't a fair indication of where you'll need to draft Decker. As our rankings show, at least one or two of your league members are going to see Decker as a possible top-20 receiver - particularly in PPR leagues. The question you need to ask yourself is whether you should take the risk. We wholeheartedly think you should take the plunge. Decker is not some run-of-the-mill receiver who happens to be in the right place at the right time. He was a third-round pick in spite of a bad foot and would have been a first- or early second-round pick otherwise. He is a great athlete, has plus size and hands, and has already shown a rapport with Peyton Manning in OTAs. This year there is a very large tier of receivers that you can comfortably target as your WR2 or WR3, and Decker is among them. With Manning at the helm, Decker's downside is minimal (far less risky than his running mate Demaryius Thomas), but he could easily catch 100 passes if things fell just right. We're not expecting the century mark, but 80 receptions and roughly 1,000 yards is hardly an aggressive expectation.
Jason Wood's Projections for Eric Decker
85 receptions 1,080 receiving yards 7 touchdowns