NFL Predictions: Denver Broncos' Eric Decker, Julius Thomas Breakout in 2011

Jason MuckleySenior Analyst IIAugust 30, 2011

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 2:  Wide receiver Eric Decker #87 of the Denver Broncos scores a touchdown off a pass from Tim Tebow during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers at INVESCO Field at Mile High on January 2, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

After three preseason games and the regular season less than two weeks away, there have been two players on the Denver Broncos' offense who have stood out from all the rest: wide receiver Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas.

Former head coach Josh McDaniels drafted Eric Decker in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft (87th overall pick) out of the University of Minnesota. 

At Minnesota, Decker set school receiving records with 227 receptions and 3,119 yards receiving. Those records are rank sixth and eighth, respectively, all-time in Big Ten history.

Decker is known as a big receiver with small receiver skills. He reminds me of the New England Patriots’ Wes Welker or the former Bronco Brandon Stokley. He finds open spots in the defense to camp out and then vacuums up every ball that comes his way.

Last season, Decker had only six receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown. Decker got most of his work in 2010 on special teams. He was utilized in the kick return game and racked up 556 yards on 22 returns, averaging 25.3 yards/return. His longest return went for 51 yards. He has eight receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown so far this offseason.

Decker should be a major contributor in this year’s lineup as a possession receiver. He should be a go-to receiver on short yardage situations or in tight spots, such as in the red zone, either to move the chains or put the Broncos on the board.

ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 11:  Julius Thomas #80 of the Denver Broncos at Cowboys Stadium on August 11, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Decker’s game has only improved with time and experience in the NFL. I believe he will challenge the Bronco’s current slot receiver, Eddie Royal, for playing time this season. Decker has been a favorite target of each of the three quarterbacks so far this preseason.

Another breakout star in 2011 will be Julius Thomas.

He has already made waves in three preseason games, where he has made some spectacular grabs and shown off his big, athletic body, using it to shield defenders from the ball and haul in receptions for big chunks of yardage.

Before coming to the Broncos to play in the NFL, Thomas was a four-year basketball star at Portland State. He remained for a fifth year in Portland to play tight end for the Vikings.

Thomas has tons of raw ability and unmatched upside. He has demonstrated flashes of his true potential, making huge plays for the Broncos so far in his three preseason games. He has reliable hands and he has been able to position himself between defenders to make easy catches.

His detractors around the league were skeptical that Thomas could make the jump from college basketball star to a pass-catching tight end in the NFL. However, his play this offseason has warranted comparisons to a young Antonio Gates. Gates has been the gold standard when it comes to receiving tight ends, and there is an influx of former college basketball players that NFL teams have tried out in recent years, to replicate the success that the San Diego Chargers have enjoyed since acquiring Gates in 2003.

Thomas looks to make an immediate impact as a rookie this season and will big a huge contributor for the Broncos.

I am very excited to watch these guys play week in and week out here in Denver, they have been great bright spots for the Broncos during a few seasons filled with setbacks.