Eric Decker, not 2010 first-round pick Demaryius Thomas, is ready to make the biggest leap among the Denver Broncos' wide receivers in 2012.
Of course, the only reason any receiver is making any jump in production is Peyton Manning. The former Indianapolis Colts star chose Denver out of the many teams that wanted him as their quarterback, and the Broncos and their fans couldn't be happier.
The transition from Tebow to Manning would help any receiver's production—especially an athletic freak like Thomas. However, if you're looking for a sneak fantasy-football play or a prediction that will amaze your friends, know that it's Decker who will take the most advantage of Manning's presence.
First, some history. Decker was a third-round pick by the Broncos in 2010—the very same year the team selected Thomas. However, Decker's mid-round draft status had little to do with his talent or athleticism and more to do with an injury that sidelined him throughout the second half of his senior season.
When Decker was healthy, he was a force for the Minnesota Golden Gophers—a one-man wrecking crew that couldn't be covered man-on-man by anyone in the Big Ten. Before his injury, Decker was averaging 124.8 receiving yards per game. Had he been healthy, it is very possible that he would have been a first-round pick.
Athleticism? Decker has that, too. Not only was he a tremendous college receiver, but he also played outfield for the Minnesota baseball team and was drafted by both the Milwaukee Brewers (2008) and the Minnesota Twins (2009).
In fact, that Decker was drafted at all is a credit to the respect teams had for him. Because of the aforementioned foot injury, Decker didn't work out at the NFL combine. He was essentially drafted blind by the Broncos, who hoped that he would heal up and bring the same dominance he had in college to the NFL.
Of course, Thomas is no slouch. When he was drafted, he drew comparisons to another former Georgia Tech receiver, Calvin Johnson, because he is such a great size-speed combo. Because of the option offense he played in, he was (somewhat) drafted blind as well. He was not asked to do many of the things NFL receivers must do, and he wasn't asked to run many of the routes.
With last year's 551 yards being his career high, many are expecting Thomas to improve upon that in 2012, and he should.
So, again, why will Decker see the biggest improvement? One word: separation.
In the above plays, both from Week 2 of the preseason, Decker gained separation from two of the most dangerous young cornerbacks in the league. In frame one, Decker ran a perfect dig route against Richard Sherman. In the second, a crossing route against Brandon Browner.
In both plays, it wasn't Decker's athleticism that helped him create cushion, but his route-running ability.
As we've seen time and time again, Manning doesn't play favorites with his targets. Instead, he throws to whoever is open. More often than not, on this Broncos team, that will be Decker.
Here, Decker was asked to run a corner route into the end zone as the two outside receivers ran drag routes underneath. This is often referred to as a "rub" route, because the other receivers are taught to get in the defenders' way as their paths cross. It's also a difficult play to run for the receiver in Decker's position because the timing and the steps have to be perfect.
Like most routes Decker runs, this one was.
Touchdown, Broncos—get used to it.
Perhaps the most compelling reason Decker will get such a boost this year—albeit a negative reason—is that Manning's arm isn't the same as it used to be. He's clearly lost velocity and doesn't have the crazy deep ball that we're used to seeing. Thomas can do a lot of things on the football, but running really fast downfield for it is his most marketable trait.
Again, none of this is to imply that Thomas won't have a fantastic season—he will. So will Brandon Stokely, Joel Dressen, Jacob Tamme and others. Manning joining the team will give this offense a huge shot in the arm.
Above all, Eric Decker is the player who best fits Manning's skill set and should benefit more than most people think—even more than Demaryius Thomas.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."