Eric Decker Is Emerging as Peyton Manning's Favorite Target

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystSeptember 26, 2012

September 23, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker (87) catches a pass during the second quarter against the Houston Texans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.  Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE
Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

We are three games into the 2012 season and Peyton Manning is 1-2 for the first time since his rookie year. Manning had to build chemistry with an entirely new set of teammates when he came to the Denver Broncos (outside of Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley, who he played with in Indianapolis), and the things aren't exactly mile high for the future Hall of Famer. 

Manning’s clearly himself from a mental standpoint, but he’s had ups and downs physically. Either he'll get over the hump physically, or he’ll ride highs and lows all season. Answering that question will take time.

The only question that has no definitive answer is this one: Who is Manning’s favorite target in the passing game? This question is of particular interest to fans, fantasy footballers and opponents.

Manning’s favorite target is Eric Decker; he just doesn’t know it yet. That’s not to take anything away from Demaryius Thomas, who could certainly fit the role of Reggie Wayne next to Decker's Marvin Harrison. 

The reason Decker is Manning’s favorite target is because he knows how to get open and has soft hands. Decker is always in the right place at the right time and Manning is learning to trust him. It’s that trust that will get Decker extra looks on third down and when Manning is under duress. If Decker keeps performing, Manning will keep feeding him the ball.

Decker benefits from the perception that Thomas is the main deep-threat receiver. Defenses have safeties roll coverage toward Thomas and leave Decker alone to work on a cornerback. The result has been a lot of Decker completions.

Perhaps Week 3 was the tipping point and Manning is starting to realize that Decker is his go-to guy. Decker and Thomas had 11 targets each, but Thomas hauled in just three passes and failed to drag his feet in the end zone. Decker hauled in eight passes for 136 yards and had an additional 35-yard completion nullified by a holding penalty.

The Manning-to-Decker connection was a good one against the Texans and there are examples that demonstrate the connection will continue to be a strong one.


The Back Shoulder Throw

An accurate throw to the receivers’ back shoulder is virtually indefensible if properly executed. Manning is not averse to throwing to the back shoulder as evidenced by one of Decker’s receptions on Sunday.

Decker gives the defenders a double move, hoping to create a little separation. Unfortunately, Kareem Jackson doesn’t bite on the fake.

Decker plants and comes back to the ball and thus creates a tiny window for which to catch Manning’s pass.

With one hand, Decker secured the throw as he slid to the ground. As you can see, the defender had great coverage for the duration of the play, but Manning was still able to get a completion on 3rd-and-10 to extend the drive.

Plays like this demonstrate how Manning and Decker are connecting. Manning knew exactly where Decker was going to be and trusted him to be there despite the tight coverage.


The Data

After three games, Decker is averaging more yards per catch (14.3) than Thomas and has caught a higher percentage of his targets (65.4 percent). Thomas would seemingly have a huge advantage in yards per catch after he turned a screen pass into a 71-yard touchdown in Week 1, but that’s simply not the case.

Thomas currently has a slight edge in total targets (29 to 26) and will continue to be involved in the offense, but that could change if he doesn’t start hauling in a greater percentage of his targets (55.2). Decker has produced more yards with fewer opportunities, and eventually, that’s going to net him more looks in the passing game.

Both Decker and Thomas are currently on pace to go well over 1,000 yards receiving, but it’s Decker that will ultimately emerge as Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver.