NFL Misconceptions: Eric Decker

The NFL is full of misconceptions. By now, you should know that. Player-by-player, coach-by-coach, team-by-team, game-by-game, week-by-week — there are piles of misconceptions. If a player isn’t constantly shoved into your face by media or consistently producing at the top level, he isn’t recognized to be a good player.

This is the case of Eric Decker. The No. 3 target for the Denver Broncos, he simply does not get enough credit for the mammoth of a beast he is. For sake of argument, I’m going to spend most of this article comparing him to Jordy Nelson, who has been pinned by most everyone to be a borderline top 10 receiver. You’ll quickly figure out why I chose Nelson to compare to Decker as we venture on this jaunt.

I’ll break it down into college numbers, pro numbers, and what we can expect going forward. Let’s get to it.

College

Decker played his full college career out at Minnesota, where as Nelson played three years at Kansas State before entering the draft. Both posted very similar college numbers. Example one: yards per target. You can click to enlarge this graph, and all others.

Each posted roughly 10 yards per catch in their final year of college, though Nelson did it on nearly 70 more receptions. Decker bagged just 50 receptions in his final year at Minnesota due to a foot sprain that forced him out of five games and also held him out through the combine.

Nevertheless, Decker posted nearly 50 percent market share of his team’s yards in his final year and 60 percent of touchdowns — both feats that Nelson never conquered. Nelson’s yardage market share continued to increase until it peaked in his senior year.

These market share numbers, among others, launched the “Eric Decker Factor”, from RotoViz writer Jon Moore. As noted, Decker did not participate in the combine due to his foot injury, so we don’t have many combine numbers. But he did run a 40-yard dash. What we do have is posted below. Jordy Nelson’s combine numbers are included for a comparison point.

Player
Height
Weight
40-yard
Eric Decker
6’ 3 1/8’’
217
4.56
Jordy Nelson
6’ 2 5/8’’
217
4.51

Decker missed most drills, but considering his college baseball career and of course his game tape, he could have been expected to match Nelson’s numbers. Decker was drafted in the third round by Denver despite his foot injury, and Nelson was drafted in the second round by Green Bay. Let’s jump into his pro numbers.

Pro

Nelson was drafted in 2008 but didn’t completely break out of his shell until 2011, whereas Decker was drafted in 2010 and became noteworthy for his attraction to the end-zone with eight touchdowns on 44 catches in 2011.

However, 2011’s bar was set by Tim Tebow at the helm, and Jordy Nelson busted open for 1,302 yards and 15 touchdowns — his best season. The two seasons aren’t comparable in any facet, as Nelson dominated across the board, posting top five numbers in most stats. 2012 is the first comparable year — when Peyton Manning took over for the Broncos under-center. Below are the stats.

Player
Rec
Yards
TDs
YPR
YAC/R
YPRR
CR
DR
Eric Decker
91
1,148
13
12.6
3.4
1.80
70.0%
12.37%
Jordy Nelson
57
842
7
14.8
5.0
1.86
68.7%
14.04%
Jordy was injured multiple times in this season and played through injury at times. He played 12 full games, two of which were in the playoffs. His stats extrapolated come out to: 86 receptions, 1,263 yards, and 11 touchdowns. The most important things to look at are YPC, YAC/R, YPRR, CR, and DR. Those numbers would tend not to vary depending on volume.
Player           
Rec
Yards
TDs
YPR
YAC/R
YPRR
CR
DR
Eric Decker
49
721
3
14.7
5.2
2.10
65.3%
12.50%
Jordy Nelson
49
772
7
15.8
5.0
2.33
72.9%
4.44%

It’s the difference between the two is clear: hands. Decker has had a drop rate of over 12 percent in every season in the NFL, once posting over 16 percent in 2011 (though he played less than 50 percent of his team’s snaps that season). His big problem this year was dropping 31.3% of catchable passes — five passes — over his first two game. He’s found a way to tame the drop beast and has limited it to 12.50%.

Luckily for Decker, hands is one thing a receiver can work to get better at. You can’t change a small frame. The talent is here, it’s just a matter of getting those hands into full form.

Decker’s lack of touchdowns in 2012 comes from the insufficiency of looks when it comes down to the red-zone. With the emergence of Julius Thomas and the addition of Wes Welker — both tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns — as well as Knowshon Moreno to churn out goal-line touchdowns, it’s no shock that Decker isn’t getting looks in the red-zone despite his 6’3″ frame.

Whereas Nelson has only posted similar numbers team full of injured counterparts — Jermichael Finley on IR, Randall Cobb missing most of the season, and James Jones struggling to stay on the field. He’s seeing plenty of targets when it matters — in the red-zone.

Future

From the numbers posted thus far, it’s clear that Jordy Nelson is and has been the better receiver in the NFL based on production. I’m not arguing that.

But it can also be argued that Decker — who has a similar build and catch rate when compared to Nelson over the last two years  — is comparable and on the same level from a skill stand-point as Jordy Nelson. He’s sat behind Demaryius Thomas as a WR2 for his short NFL career, but will hit the market after this year as an unrestricted free agent, as long as the Broncos do not choose to franchise tag him.

If the 26-year-old Decker lands on a WR-needy team with a quarterback who can play — say, for example, the Panthers — then, from what we have seen him do thus far, he can produce at the caliber that Nelson has produced over the last three seasons as a WR1.

As far as fantasy implications, I believe that in the near future Decker will be outproducing Nelson if he is placed on a team that he can be a true WR1. Decker is 26, Nelson is 28 and has two more years of NFL wear and tear on him. If Decker remains with the Broncos, his value won’t vary drastically from what he posted in 2013, and he will continue to be classified as a middling receiver, which is a false narrative based only on his physique and production.

Thanks for reading. Leave comments below, or let me know if your thoughts on Decker changed on my Twitter.

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For the numbers and charts I used throughout this piece, subscribe to RotoViz and ProFootballFocus’ premium stats. 

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