Arguably the top wide receiver of this year's free-agent class, former Bronco Eric Decker is looking to get a big paycheck this offseason. Decker has put up eye-popping numbers over the last three seasons, especially with Peyton Manning quarterbacking the team for the last two years.
The Indianapolis Colts are now looking for another receiver to put in their top three, one that could potentially take Reggie Wayne's spot as the veteran ages. With Wayne's age and ACL injury in 2013, the Colts know that his return to the field could be rocky. The team needs some stability at wide receiver.
Tampering be damned, it sounds like the Colts are really serious about having a WR as their first signing. Would have expected OL.— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) March 3, 2014
Eric Decker is one of the few free agents that the Colts have specifically been linked to prior to the free-agency period, per Vic Lombardi of Denver's CBS 4.
One of the the other free agents interested in Indianapolis, D'Qwell Jackson, just signed with the Colts on a four-year, $22 million contract, and Decker could be next. Decker's mutual interest in Indianapolis and the Colts' desire to add stability at wide receiver make the Decker-to-Indianapolis connection one of the most talked about possibilities of 2014.
So, if the Colts were to bring in Decker, what would he bring to the table? What drawbacks are there? In the end, are the benefits worth the cost? That's what I wanted to know as I dug into the 2013 tape.
Pros: Do-Everything Decker
The thing that stands out about Eric Decker is that he literally has every aspect you would want from a receiver.
Decker has the size that an NFL team would want from an outside receiver at 6'3" and 214 pounds. He has the size and strength to wrestle with physical cornerbacks, and can also run block particularly well, a characteristic the Colts value highly. Last season, Darrius Heyward-Bey got playing time deep into the season almost solely because of his run-blocking ability.
With the size comes a knack for scoring, as Decker's 32 touchdowns in the last three years is more than any other receiver but Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson. Decker caught 24 of those touchdowns in the red zone, more than any player in the league but Jimmy Graham, who caught 27.
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Decker also is incredibly versatile, lining up all over the field and running every route possible for Denver last season. He ran drive routes up the seam, shallow crossing routes from the outside, nine routes up the sideline, etc. His route tree is extensive, and it allowed Denver to use several different alignments and personnel packages throughout the season to get the matchups Manning wanted.
One game in particular I watched was the Broncos' matchup against Houston in Week 16. In that game, Decker ran routes from both the slot and outside wide receiver positions on both sides. Of 60 receivers, Decker finished third in the league in catch rate in the slot at 80 percent, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), although his base position was the outside right.
While Decker has occasionally picked up a reputation for dropped passes, his drop rate of 8.42 percent, according to Pro Football Focus, in 2013 was close to league-average. He was sandwiched between Houston's Andre Johnson and Washington's Pierre Garçon and finished ahead of teammate Demaryius Thomas and other star receivers such as Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson. Decker was reliable and caught a large portion of his receptions in tight spaces, showing commendable focus.
Along with his size and versatility, Decker has the top-end speed to be a deep threat. Only A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Josh Gordon had more yards on passes thrown 20 yards or more last season, per PFF, and Gordon's catch rate of 60 percent on such passes led the field.
Combine all of the above elements, and you have the receiver who can do it all. He can run short routes on third down in a possession role. He can be a red-zone target. He can stretch the field on the outside. He knows where he's supposed to be and when he's supposed to be there.
Throw in run-blocking skills, and Decker fits what the Colts need in their rotation almost perfectly.
So why then is there so much hesitation among many Colts fans to sign the receiver?
Cons: Jack-of-all-trades, Master of None
The underlying problem behind signing Decker to a hefty contract is that he's good at a lot of things, but he's not really great at anything. Without one elite trait to fall back on as his calling card, Decker could struggle as a No 1 receiver.
Despite his size, Decker doesn't (and/or can't) go over the top of defensive backs to get balls down the field. He has a slight edge due to his height and length over a lot of corners in terms of the area that a quarterback can place the ball. However, Decker doesn't possess the athleticism to quickly adjust to an underthrown ball and go up and get it in traffic.
Then you look at his speed, which was a 4.54-second 40-yard dash when he entered the league and he plays at about that level now.
Again, it's fast enough to be a legitimate threat down the field, but he's not explosive enough to get separate down the field. He'll make a catch and then be tackled, not being much of a threat to pull away from the defense. The separation is enough for a hyper-accurate quarterback like Manning to make the throw, but there's little room for error.
Decker does a good job of concentrating on a pass and making a catch in small windows, which is fortunate because the tight space thing isn't just limited to deep passes.
While Decker's route tree is extensive, and he's a solid route-runner, he's not quite quick enough in his breaks to consistently get open.
Again, Manning's hyper-accuracy and meticulous pre-snap adjustments meant the ball went exactly where it needed to go. Decker (and the Denver system) got space enough to catch the pass, but not for much else (and not enough for the majority of NFL quarterbacks to complete passes).
Denver's offense was designed to get receivers space for yards after the catch, but Decker still averaged a middling 4.6 yards after the catch per reception, per PFF.
It's that lack of quickness and explosion that allows Decker to be shut out by good man coverage cornerbacks, as he was in the Super Bowl.
Pro Football Focus
In a different system, with a different quarterback, it's hard to see Decker putting up the kind of numbers that he did with Manning over the last two years.
It is within that disconnect that the problem lies.
Decker, understandably, wants to be paid for the production he has put up over the last two years, production that stands up with just about any other receiver in the league not named Calvin Johnson.
Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN.com predicts Decker getting a deal near the $10 million per year range. Michael Ginnitti of Spotrac.com predicts a five-year, $57 million contract worth over $11 million per year.
But when you pay to bring in a player, smart teams don't pay for what said player did in the past. Smart teams pay for what's going to happen, not what's already behind.
For Decker, I don't think any team is going to get the same kind of production from him that Peyton Manning and one of the greatest offenses in NFL history got from him. No other team has a quarterback like 2013 Manning with the weapons around Decker to keep defensive attention elsewhere.
Decker is going to get paid like a No. 1 receiver, and when it comes down to it, he's not the kind of receiver who can handle No. 1 attention.