Two days ago, the Jets signed wide receiver Eric Decker to a five years, $36.25m contract. Unlike most of the recent acquisitions by the Jets, Decker is pretty well known. However, I’ve been reviewing footage from his career so far to assess what he brings to the table.
The 6’3″, 214-pound Decker – who turns 27 today – was a third round pick of the Denver Broncos who has been in the league for four years. After catching a total of 50 passes in his first two seasons, he has been one of the more productive receivers in the league over the past two seasons. He has had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons in a row, catching over 80 passes in each season and scoring a total of 24 touchdowns.
After the jump, observations from reviewing footage from Decker’s career so far to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Eric Decker?
Decker went to college at Minnesota, where he developed into one of the top receivers in the country with 84 catches for over 1,000 yards as a junior. While this was going on, he was also drafted by two Major League Baseball teams. Unfortunately, in his senior season, he suffered a season ending foot injury, cutting another promising season short after eight games.
That injury prevented Decker from working out at the scouting combine or Minnesota’s pro day in 2010, hurting his draft stock. The Broncos still took him in the third round, even though his foot injury continued to bother him into the season. Denver were relatively deep at wide receiver, affording them the luxury of bringing him along slowly. He would end up his rookie season with just six catches. In 2011, Decker would catch 44 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. The Broncos traded away their number one receiver, Brandon Lloyd, and reached the postseason with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
2012 signified the arrival of Peyton Manning and Decker’s production took off. He caught 85 passes and scored 13 touchdowns in 2012 and then followed that up with 87 receptions and 11 touchdowns in 2013. He also set a career high with 1,288 receiving yards in 2013, over 200 more than in the previous season. He joins the Jets following a trip to the Super Bowl, where the Seahawks defeated the Broncos, holding him to one catch for six yards.
62 games, 44 starts (plus six playoff games)
222 catches, 3,070 yards and 33 touchdowns (plus 14 catches for 195 yards in postseason)
61% catch rate
One carry for one yard (and one for nine in postseason)
One pass attempt (incomplete)
13 tackles (seven on special teams, all in 2010)
Nine punt returns for 157 yards, including a 90-yard touchdown (plus four for 75 in postseason)
24 kickoff returns for a 25.3 yard average, including a long of 51 yards
Six fumbles, with three lost (two on special teams)
16 penalties (one on special teams)
Based on all the footage watched, here was what Decker brings to the table, divided into categories:
Measurables – Since Decker didn’t work out before the draft, we don’t have numbers for him, but he has very good size, his forty speed was estimated by NFL Draft Scout as 4.45 and he has certainly displayed good athleticism on the field. The only thing he did participate in at the combine (other than the weigh-in and interview process) was the Wonderlic test, where his score of 43 was the best of all players that year.
Usage – Decker is a full time player, who was in on almost 90% of the snaps last season with Denver for the 5th highest snap count for all NFL receivers during the regular season. Since they have Wes Welker, he doesn’t need to line up in the slot very often. However, he still played 330 snaps in the slot in 2013 which was more than in the previous season. When lined up in the slot, he ended up catching 32 passes (at an 80% catch rate) for 350 yards and two touchdowns, so he was very productive there. The previous season he caught 23 of 25 targets when in the slot.
Decker also lined up five times in the backfield.
Deep threat – Decker caught 15 passes last year on balls thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (for 509 yards and five touchdowns). That came on just 25 attempts for a 60% catch rate. By comparison, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes peaked at around 30% during their time here. Only one player (Desean Jackson) had more than 15 receptions on such throws, but his catch rate was less than 50%. Only two players with more than 10 such targets had a better catch rate than Decker. Of course, who was throwing the ball is a factor here (and something we’ll revisit later on), but one of the two players with a better catch rate was Santonio Holmes (8 for 11) and Manning’s overall percentage on such throws was just 46% so that doesn’t completely explain his success.
For Decker, this did represent an significant improvement over his numbers for 2012, where he caught 34.8% of passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield. Not surprisingly, in 2011, it was even lower – 25.9%. Again, who was throwing him the ball is a factor here.
He did show an ability to get behind the defense, often taking advantage of defensive players biting on play fakes or double moves, but certainly capable of getting a step on his man.
Blocking – Decker has had some good success with blocking since entering the league. His PFF grades for run blocking have been positive in each of his four seasons in the league for a cumulative grade of +8.9 for run blocking and +9.9 for overall blocking. He ranked third in the NFL in 2011 when the Broncos had a more run-oriented offense and 11th last season.
The film backs this up. Decker brings effort and technique, but most of all just an imposing presence. He crashed down on a linebacker or defensive back from the outside effectively on a few plays, including one where he had his target flinching even before he lowered the boom. He was also competent at setting the edge and driving the cornerback out of the play on the outside or downfield. There’s shades of Braylon Edwards in terms of how they use him, but unlike Edwards, it’s rare that he lets his target get off his block or misses the target altogether. He also avoided any holding or illegal block calls. Good blocking seems to have quietly been one of the attributes the Jets have been placed a premium on for their receivers since Marty Mornhinweg arrived. David Nelson, Josh Cribbs, Greg Salas and Saalim Hakim all showed promise here. Decker could well be better than all of them.
Routes – In 2013, Decker exhibited the ability to run all of the routes in the route tree, apart from a deep corner route. That might just be a Peyton Manning issue, because it seems that isn’t a throw he’s attempting very often at this stage of his career. There was a pretty even split between each of the different routes and the success he had running each. In terms of double moves, one route he used to good effect was a hitch and go, which saw him earn a couple of penalties and a first down.
On one play against the Saints, he ran a sharp in-out route that caused the cornerback to lose his balance and fall over, leading to an easy touchdown. He is also able to use his size over the middle and downfield to create natural separation.
Hands – Decker has averaged over 10 drops per
game season over the last three year, which is obviously disappointing. However, we need to re-calibrate the scale slightly here, because usually when I’m scouting receivers the Jets have signed, they’ve been role players rather than targeted over 100 times per season. We know Decker can catch the ball, because he’s done it over 200 times in three years. This shows he’s capable of production that the Jets desperately need. However, it’s still worth analyzing these drops in more detail.
Decker actually had five drops in the first four games and then only four in the last 18, so you could say he got over these issues. However, looking at the nature of the drops, nearly all of them came as he had a defender draped all over him or had to dive for the ball. Only two were concentration drops, both on quick screen passes to the slot. Even on these, the pass was inaccurate, one being too high and the other too low. His worst drop was not on a pass, but on an onside kick, where he let the ball go through his hands and the other team recovered. Overall, his six fumbles are hopefully not a major cause for concern because he’s had over 260 touches.
When he does catch the ball, Decker usually catches it cleanly and has good technique in terms of staying inbounds, keeping low passes from hitting the turf and using his body to bring the ball in while tightly covered. He can go up and high point the ball, catch it in a crowd and make diving receptions. One in particular saw him make a juggling one-handed grab for a touchdown against the Chiefs. On the basis of all this, I’d stop short of saying he has great hands, but they’re at least good.
Decker has a 61% catch rate for his career, which is reasonably good, but it’s been much better over the last two years. The results are skewed by 2011 where he only had a 46% catch rate with Tebow and Orton throwing him the ball. His catch rate did fall in 2013, though, dropping from 70% in 2012 to 63%. Looking at the numbers initially, you might have expected that Decker’s increased yards per catch average (2013: 14.7 and 2012: 12.6) and lower catch rate could be due to him getting more downfield targets. However, somewhat bizarrely, he actually had a higher catch rate on deep balls and also caught more short passes close to the line of scrimmage. Instead it was on intermediate throws where his percentage suffered.
Yards after the catch – Along with his downfield catch percentage, the one area of statistical improvement Decker showed in 2013 was in terms of yards after the catch. He improved from 310 yards after the catch to 440 and improved his YAC per reception by over a yard to 4.6. That accounts for part of the increase in average yards per catch, although it’s still only middle of the pack on a league-wide basis.
You might actually expect Decker to do more in this area, given his returning experience and his combination of speed and size. It would be nice to think that he’s improving in this area, but it probably has as much to do with the fact that they threw him more short passes. He did break eight tackles – twice as many as in 2012. Then again, five of those came in an early season game against the Raiders. The screen pass is something Decker added to his arsenal in 2013, though, catching nine of 11 for 61 yards as opposed to just one of two for seven yards in 2012.
One impressive aspect is his physicality. There were several plays where he drove a defender for extra yardage, especially when trying to get into the end zone. I’d definitely say there were more shades of Edwards here.
Intelligence – As noted above, Decker had a sparkling Wonderlic score and has a reputation for being very smart. Despite all the complex audibles at the line, Manning’s offenses have a tendency to be pretty simplistic with good execution being the key rather than smoke and mirrors. The Broncos, like the Colts before them, don’t vary formations too often and usually run variations on a series of similar looking plays. However, Decker’s intelligence should enable him to get to grips with Marty Mornhinweg’s arguably more complex system and the emphasis on good execution is a good habit to be bringing with him.
Instincts – Everything I saw suggested Decker’s instincts are good. He just looks like he knows what he’s doing out there when you watch him closely. In particular, his open field running seemed to show he had a knack for seeing the field and using his blockers.
Special Teams – Decker returned kickoffs and played on kick coverage units as a rookie, to good effect, but hasn’t done that since early in 2011. He has returned some punts, including this 90-yarder for a touchdown in 2011. However, he has actually only returned eight other punts in his NFL career and since he’d become a full time starter, it seemed his special teams days were over.
That’s until the Broncos went back to him during the postseason, where he had 66 yards on three good returns against the Chargers (and one other return for nine yards later in the postseason). I don’t know if the Jets will risk him in that role, but he does have that ability and maybe they will consider it for important games, like they did with Antonio Cromartie on the kick return unit.
Demeanor – Decker isn’t as demonstrative as many receivers, although he plays hard, fights for yardage and shows emotion – but not too much emotion – whenever he makes a mistake or a big play.
Attitude – Again, I’ve seen nothing to suggest Decker has a poor attitude and everything I read on the subject seems positive.
Injuries – Obviously Decker’s foot was an issue when he entered the league. He tore ligaments and required surgery. He hasn’t missed a regular season game since his rookie season though. He did, however, injure his knee in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, missing the second round game. In 2012, he was listed on the injury report just twice (thigh, ankle), but he was banged up quite a bit in 2013, listed as probable 10 times with shoulder, knee, ankle, thigh and toe injuries.
The possible downside
The major reservation everyone has about this deal – one allayed somewhat by the fact his salary falls well short of the $10-12m annual salary some projected he would command – is that it’s expected Decker won’t maintain the same level of production he managed with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. While he’s reportedly determined to prove he wasn’t a product of Manning, we’ve seen players like Deion Branch, Santonio Holmes and Alvin Harper move from a team with an elite quarterback to a team without one with the result being a significant drop in production.
Some will point to Decker’s eight touchdowns in a run-oriented offense in 2011 as a sign that he can still produce without an elite quarterback to throw him the ball. Initially, I had thought you could dispel this theory pretty easily, because the Tebow-led option offense was so run oriented that the defense would usually have nine in the box. Therefore, Decker would only need to beat single coverage or could get behind the defense solely due to the element of surprise actually throwing the ball downfield provided, as was the case on this play in the game where Tebow famously only completed two passes but still led the Broncos to a win.
However, a closer look at the breakdowns and some of the footage from early in the 2011 season shows that Decker was more productive earlier in the season with the clearly non-elite Orton leading a more conventional attack. In the first four games, Decker scored two touchdowns twice and had a 100-yard game and three games with at least five catches. Extrapolating those four games over a whole season suggests he was on course for 80 catches and over 1,000 yards. Therefore, it’s actually possible he was going to put up big numbers and Tebow’s insertion into the lineup hurt his production – which, given how often they ran the ball, stands to reason.
There’s one other reservation you could have about this deal and that’s the fact that the Jets have never really had any success from signing a free agent receiver coming from another team. Looking back over some of their past free agent mishaps, fans don’t have fond memories of the likes of Art Monk, Jeff Graham, Justin McCareins and Derrick Mason. McCareins was actually traded for rather than a free agent signing, but fits in here because – like the others – he was a number two at best and the Jets were essentially just hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. The Decker signing is different from each of these though.
Monk was signed by the Jets long after his production had started to wane. He had two seasons with fewer than 50 catches after having averaged 74 in his previous four. Derrick Mason was also well past his prime. Although Mason had caught at least 60 passes and missed only a handful of games over the previous 10 seasons, he was 37 and not expected to be a starter. As it turned out, his downfall was much faster than Monk’s and the Jets traded him away after a month of the regular season.
McCareins didn’t have a bad first season with the Jets, but was too mistake prone to establish himself as a number one and he soon fell out of favor. This is again different to Decker because rather than being in his prime and establishing a high level of production, McCareins had just had one decent year and the Jets were hoping he would continue to emerge.
The closest comparison is Graham. He was 27 and coming off an 82 catch, 1,300 yard season (with the previous year not being too far behind). The thing about the Graham move is that while it is remembered as a disaster, there was a remarkable paucity of talent on those Rich Kotite teams and Graham’s production wasn’t actually that bad, he just wasn’t able to single-handedly provide the veteran impact they needed. The Jets will be hoping that Decker will function as an integral part of the offense rather than being forced to try and carry it.
(Bonus Link: Here’s an excellent article that touches on similar themes to those discussed above, reaching a similar conclusion.)
From what I’ve seen of Decker, he displayed the ability to do pretty much whatever you’d hope to see out of a receiver. He has size, speed, hands and route running ability, which he uses to produce in a variety of different plays. You’ve heard of quarterbacks that can “make all the throws”? I’d liken Decker to a wide receiver version of that – he can “run all the routes” and “make all the catches”. The challenge is the same though – can he be consistent enough to continue making these contributions each week? Of course, a lot of that is going to come down to whoever is tasked with getting him the ball. Presumably this will be Geno Smith, at least in the short term and the hope will be that rather than Decker being brought down by Smith’s inadequacies, he’s going to help him to overcome them.
It remains difficult to project how close Decker can come to matching the kind of production he’s managed over the past two seasons, but even if he falls short there’s still a good chance he’ll provide a significant upgrade over the next few years to hopefully justify the financial outlay.
Some stats from PFF were used in the completion of this article.