Peyton Manning: Eric Decker Will Become Star QB's Top Target
When the Denver Broncos made the decision to part ways with incumbent starter Tim Tebow in favor of signing Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million deal, the organization essentially decided to scrap its entire 2011 offensive game plan as well.
And fortunately for Denver, that change will almost certainly pay dividends.
While much was made of Tebow's late-game heroics (and for good reason), the Broncos had one of the least efficient offenses in football last season. According to Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency rating, the Broncos ranked just 20th in weighted DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in 2011.
Unsurprisingly, the Broncos' biggest deficiency was in the passing game. Tebow was the NFL's most inaccurate qualifying quarterback last season, completing just 46.5 percent of his passes. And while no one has ever accused Tebow of being a bastion of offensive efficiency, Denver's No. 26 isn't good enough and almost solely rests on the arm of the young quarterback.
That inefficiency is likely the top reason that Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway made a rare decision, choosing the 36-year-old Manning over Tebow, who is 11 years his junior.
And with one of the most efficient passers in NFL history now at the helm, Denver's offense should skyrocket next season.
Manning's last healthy season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2010 saw him complete 66.3 percent of his passes, a rate nearly a full 20 percent better than Tebow. In fact, the three-time NFL MVP hasn't completed less than 65 percent of his passes since his terrible (relatively speaking) 2001 season.
And in Manning's last eight seasons with the Colts, only once did his team finish outside of the top three in weighted passing efficiency—a sixth-place finish in 2009.
That improvement alone will undoubtedly help the Broncos avoid some reversion to the mean after winning 2.2 games more than their Pythagorean expectation (explained by Grantland's Bill Barnwell here) would suggest.
But it won't be all easy sailing for the new Denver quarterback as his teammates and coaching staff will need to make a massive adjustment from last year's mindset.
For offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Manning's arrival means a demotion from the guy who calls plays to the guy who simply draws them up.
Anyone who has seen the future Hall of Famer play over the past 15 years knows of his consistent line and route adjustments at the line. Manning is now the Broncos' offensive coordinator. If anyone (McCoy included) expects him to suddenly become diminutive at the line, they are in for a unpleasant surprise.
The consistent audibles and shifts will also take a toll on the offensive line and running backs as they get used to a new man behind center.
But the biggest change in responsibility will come from the team's top two wide receivers, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
With Tebow at the helm last season, Thomas blossomed late in the year.
In the Broncos' final seven games (including the playoffs), the 24-year-old Thomas grabbed 35 balls for an astounding 745 yards and four touchdowns. Prorated over an entire 16-game schedule, Thomas would have a superstar stat-line of 80 catches, 1,703 yards and eight touchdowns.
Decker, after being a favorite of pre-Tebow starter Kyle Orton, grew quickly out of favor in the new offense. In those seven games where Thomas blossomed, Decker caught just seven passes for 85 yards.
Look for those roles to do a complete 180-degree shift this season as Decker becomes Manning's top target while Thomas settles for being a secondary afterthought.
For better or for worse, only certain types of players can thrive with Manning as the signal caller.
Manning's most successful teammates in Indianapolis have consistently been pass-catching tight ends (Dallas Clark), dual-threat backs (Edgerrin James) and wide receivers who run crisp, efficient routes.
In Indianapolis, Manning was blessed with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, two of the best route runners of this era. Though Decker is not as talented Harrison or Wayne, his skill-set is inalienably similar, albeit in a slightly slower 6'3" frame.
Thomas, however, is the exact type of receiver Manning struggles connecting with.
The most similar comparison we can make to Thomas is Pierre Garcon. While Garcon's best season with Manning (67 receptions, 784 yards and six touchdowns) eclipses anything Thomas has done in his young career, the new Washington Redskins receiver caught just 55.1 percent of the passes thrown to him in three years playing with Manning.
Of the Colts' top targets, that was easily the lowest percentage throughout Garcon's tenure.
Certainly a piece of that Garcon's inefficiency has to do with the routes he ran in Indianapolis. As Wayne began slowing down, Garcon became the Colts' only receiver who could create downfield separation. That forced the team into situations where Manning would force the ball simply to stretch out the defense.
With Denver's receiving corps being among the thinnest in depth and least explosive in the NFL, Thomas' role will almost surely look a lot like Garcon's this season.
But the overarching larger concern with Garcon (as well as Thomas) was his inconsistency as a route runner. For Manning, inconsistent routes are the bane of his existence. He thrives on squeezing pinpoint passes into tight areas using anticipatory timing to assume when a route runner will be in a particular spot on the field.
Who will be the Broncos top receiver this season?
If Thomas continues his poor route running trend, it will lead to a ton of incompletions and undoubtedly some interceptions.
The former first-rounder may be listed at No. 1 on the depth chart, but barring a huge leap forward in his route running, don't expect a top-shelf performance from Thomas this season.
Instead, you would be wise to bet all your chips on Decker emerging as Manning's top target throughout the 2012 campaign.
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