Why Eric Decker Is a No. 1 Receiver

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Why Eric Decker Is a No. 1 Receiver
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos had a prolific, record-breaking offense in 2013 because quarterback Peyton Manning had great weapons. Manning can do a lot with a little, but he doesn’t break the records he did without Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker.

In 2014, only Decker is uncertain to return. According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the Broncos view Decker as a No. 2 receiver and he’s likely going to see a contract in free agency equal to that of a No. 1 receiver. Decker will be seeking at least $9 million per year, per Rich Cimini of ESPN New York.

That’s a lot of money for a No. 2 receiver in a year where the draft is stuffed full of talent at the position. Except Decker is a No. 1 receiver who people have unfairly and unjustly labeled as a No. 2 receiver.

Decker is essentially dealing with two stereotypes: that his production is the result of the man throwing him the ball and that a receiver that hasn't been a No.1 receiver can't be one on another team. There are other reasons for knocking Decker, but it’s a lot harder to make the case against him after examining all the facts.

 

The Manning Factor

While Decker has been a No. 2 receiver since Manning arrived in Denver, that doesn’t mean he would be on another team, especially a team that is shopping for a free agent. A team looking hard at Decker likely doesn’t have a Demaryius Thomas already on the roster.

There is no doubt Manning had an impact on the performance of his receivers, but history suggests that Decker can maintain his production without him. Manning makes receivers, but he doesn’t dismantle them when he’s done.

A few examples include Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon. In Garcon’s case, he actually improved nearly all of his numbers without Manning.

Wayne’s numbers did dip in 2011 without Manning, but that was mostly due to fewer opportunities. Wayne’s average yards per reception was actually higher than in 2010 when he had Manning and equal to 2012 when Andrew Luck arrived.

Reggie Wayne Production
Year QB TAR REC YDS TD Catch % YDS/REC
2010 Manning 172 111 1,355 6 64.5% 12.2
2011 Painter/Orlovsky/Collins 121 75 960 4 62.0% 12.8
2012 Luck 179 106 1,355 5 59.2% 12.8

ProFootballFocus

The biggest difference in 2011 was the number of targets Wayne received, just 121 compared to a league-high 172 in 2010 and the third-most in 2012 with 179, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Fewer opportunities means less production, it's really that simple. 

What this means for Decker is that his production should carry over as long as he receives a similar number of targets. Over the last two seasons, Decker has averaged 128 targets.

Going back to his first nine games in the NFL prior to Manning’s arrival and before Tim Tebow took over at quarterback in Week 5 of the 2011 season; Decker caught 61.9 percent of the catchable passes thrown his way. It’s a small sample, but the number is not a lot less than the 64.4 percent of the passes he caught in 2013 or the 67.5 percent since Manning’s arrival.

An increase in catch percentage by a young receiver getting more opportunities is a reasonable explanation for a small difference in catch percentage, at least as much, if not more, than the presence of Manning. Garcon went from a catch percentage of 55.3 percent with Manning to 63.1 percent without him, for example.

Eric Decker vs. Pierre Garcon
Player Year TAR REC YDS TD Catch % YDS/REC TAR/TD
Eric Decker Manning Era (2012-2013) 255 172 2,352 24 67.5% 13.67 10.63
Eric Decker Pre-Manning Era (2010-2011) 42 26 376 5 61.9% 14.46 8.40
Pierre Garcon Manning Era (2008-2010) 208 115 1,572 10 55.3% 13.67 20.80
Pierre Garcon Post Manning Era (2011-2013) 366 231 2,976 15 63.1% 12.88 24.40

ProFootballFocus.com

Also notable is that Decker has dropped fewer passes since Manning arrived. In 2011, Decker had one of the worst drop rates in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He’s improved his drop rate in each of the last two seasons.

Decker’s drop rate was better than Garcon, Thomas, Josh Gordon, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson in 2013. Perhaps Manning’s ball placement has helped, but a catchable ball is a catchable ball.

If Manning significantly affected drop rates, it doesn’t make sense why those of Wayne, Garcon and Austin Collie improved without him in 2011. Unless a receiver's drop rate increases with more opportunities on average—in which case Decker’s improvement is even more impressive.

Per PFF, Decker also stretched the field quite well in 2013. Even though Manning’s arm strength improved from 2012 to 2013, his arm still wasn’t the best. Deep passes by their nature require the receiver to either beat the cornerback off the line, at the top of the route or to go up and get the ball in the air.

2013 Deep Threats
Name Targets Receptions Yards (Rank) TDs
DeSean Jackson 33 16 553 (1) 8
A.J. Green 38 15 586 (2) 8
Josh Gordon 36 15 511 (3) 6
Eric Decker 25 15 509 (4) 5
Demaryius Thomas 30 12 491 (7) 4

ProFootballFocus.com

Decker had 15 receptions of 20 yards or more for 509 yards and five touchdowns. Thomas—considered a No. 1 receiver—had 12 receptions for 491 yards and four touchdowns in those situations. Gordon—considered one the best deep threats in the league—had 15 receptions for 511 yards and six touchdowns.

Defenses primarily played some variation of Cover 2 against the Broncos, with most teams choosing to roll the coverage toward Thomas. It shouldn’t be an indictment on Decker because defenses chose to slow down his teammate.

Had Decker not produced, that strategy would have been effective. Until the Super Bowl, very little was effective at slowing the Broncos offense down besides simply trying to keep the ball away from them.

 

The Underrated Receiver

Decker’s production suggests he is a No. 1 receiver, and is likely to remain so as long as he gets plenty of opportunities. Receivers are a product of their quarterback to some extent, but just because Decker’s quarterback has been Manning for the last two seasons doesn’t mean he’s going to take a huge step back without him.

For whatever reason, people aren’t recognizing just how good of a player he is. Decker is an impressive 6’3” and 214 pounds, runs good routes, possesses good speed and has significantly improved his concentration over the last couple of years. He’s also relatively young at just 26 and has missed only two games in the last four years, so he’ll likely be worth a multi-year contract.

Unlike Greg Jennings, who received $9 million per year from the Minnesota Vikings last year at age 29 after missing half the season. Teams get desperate, but their overspending last season as well as other factors are likely going to artificially deflate Decker's market. 

Comparing Decker to Wallace and Jennings
Player Year Age Games Receptions Yards TD Average $ Per Year
Greg Jennings 2012 29 8 36 366 4 $9 million
Mike Wallace 2012 26 15 64 836 8 $12 million
Eric Decker 2013 26 16 87 1,288 11 ?

Pro-Football-Reference.com, Spotrac.com

Mike Wallace received $12 million per year at age 26 from the Miami Dolphins after similar accomplishments as Decker over the first four years of his career. Much of Wallace’s production was possible because Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to extend plays.

Wallace was also coming off what was probably the worst year of his career, not his best one like Decker. Regardless of the perception of Wallace’s contract, the absurdity of handing out big contracts in free agency is really a separate issue.

Decker is quite probably a better all-around receiver and investment than either Wallace or Jennings were last season, so it will be interesting to see how his contract stacks up.

Consider also the motive for the Broncos to say ahead of free agency that they believe Decker is a No. 2 receiver. The only reason information like that gets out is if the team can benefit in some way. Leaking that information drives down Decker’s price and gives the Broncos a shot to retain him.

To the Broncos, Decker is a No. 2, but he’d be a No. 1 on many teams. Any team that signs Decker now has some doubt. What do the Broncos know that we don’t know? The Broncos will likely struggle to replace all of Decker’s production in the offseason with a single player, so the answer is actually quite simple.

"I would love to come back. I don't know my future either," Decker said via 9 News in Denver. It's reasonable to think that Decker's future could still be in orange if 31 other teams are thinking the same way as the a lot of fans and NFL media.

No one is suggesting Decker is one of the top few wide receivers in the NFL, but he’s more than good enough to qualify as a No. 1 receiver on most teams. A smart organization would scoop Decker up if the market for his services were slow before allowing the Broncos to snag him on the cheap.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all salary data via Spotrac.com. All statistics, including drop rate and target data, are via ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).

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