Is the Jets' Passing Game Ruined Without Eric Decker?

Eric Decker is a key component of fantasy lineups in 2016. Is he replaceable?

Tom Hanks never seems to have any luck with airplanes.

Whether in Cast Away, Cloud Atlas, or -- heck -- even Apollo 13, the most common antagonist to a Hanks character is some sort of flying apparatus. He reprises that same relationship this year in his Hollywood blockbuster Sully, about the Hudson River hero, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who crash-landed a plane outside of New York and saved all 155 lives of crew and passengers.

I would fly with Captain Sully any day -- he’s cool under pressure and great in emergencies -- but I will never travel with Tom Hanks, based on his track record.

A different kind of jet in New York is ailing today, though. The New York Jets football team has found out that wide receiver Eric Decker, one of their top targets in the passing game, will hit injured reserve with a labrum tear in his shoulder and likely miss the rest of the season. The Jets have had Decker inactive for a few games, so we have some idea of how they'll handle his absence, but how should we as fantasy players react?

How much does Decker’s injury impact the fantasy value of the New York Jets?

There’s No Crying in Football

Let’s start with what Decker himself was providing this year.

There are 82 wide receivers to this point in the NFL season that have seen 20 or more targets. As he hits the injured reserve, Decker himself ranks 16th among them in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target. NEP is a value analytic that helps us properly weight production by game situation; you can learn more about it in our glossary.

While 21 targets is obviously a small sample size, it’s no laughing matter to lose a top-quarter-of-the-league receiver from your team. He only played three games, and the rate stats were sure to regress closer to his career average, but Decker’s 2016 season was by far shaping up to be one of his best. Prorated for a full 16 games, Decker was on pace for 1,035 receiving yards 11 touchdowns on 112 targets, which would have put him only a shade behind his 2015 fantasy finish (173 standard points).

The biggest loss, perhaps, is not just Decker’s impact in himself, but the stability his presence gave quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick as a reliable target. 2016’s 42.86 percent catch rate aside, Decker has a 62.60 percent catch rate over his two-plus years in New York. Losing that is a big deal when your quarterback has tossed a league-leading 10 interceptions and is a shell of himself from last year.

Courtesy of Rotoviz’s Game Splits App, the table below shows the fantasy production for Ryan Fitzpatrick over the last two years when he has Decker in the lineup versus no Decker.

Split FPTS Pass Att. Comp. % Pass TD INT Pass YD/Att
With Decker 21.34 34.28 58.84% 1.78 1.06 7.27
Without Decker 16.88 45.67 60.59% 1.33 2.00 5.99

Without Decker’s field-stretching impact, the Jets become a more regressive offense with less efficiency. Their passing yards per attempt drop by 1.28, and Fitzpatrick throws fewer touchdowns and more interceptions on average. The one positive thing for fantasy football about Decker’s absence is that there is a chance the Jets need to throw more to achieve the same kind of impact they have when he plays (11.39 more passing attempts per game).

Who will be the beneficiaries of these targets?

Like a Box of Chocolates

Obviously, starting wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa will be the biggest continuing recipients of added attention.

Marshall has averaged 12.96 standard fantasy points per game when sharing with Decker, but 16.40 points per game with Decker out. He’s gained 3.34 targets per game over the last three weeks compared to his average with Decker in. Assuming health, Marshall will continue to be a locked-and-loaded fantasy WR1 for the rest of the season. Enunwa, too, sees a strong increase: from 3.91 points per game to 5.37 without, and his per-game target load nearly doubles (4.69 to 8.00). As he works into the offense more, he may be a flex option in good matchups; he’s a definite hold for now.

But this only accounts for 6.65 targets per game, and we’ve seen Fitzpatrick toss 11-plus times more the last three games with Decker out. Where do those passes go?

Running back Bilal Powell could also see more work. He is merely a complementary change-of-pace back with complete three-down starter Matt Forte healthy, but the trend of offensive coordinators using their backfield receiving specialists as slot receivers certainly hasn’t eluded offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Powell has been in over the last few games as a catch-up receiving aid, so it’s no surprise that he too is averaging almost three targets more per week without Decker. This shouldn’t be regarded too lightly, however; Powell can provide some of the receiving stability lost with Decker’s absence.

Reaching for the Sky

The above are our most likely suspects to pick up the slack with Decker out, but a few intriguing deeper names are rookie wide receivers Robby Anderson, Charone Peake, and Jalin Marshall, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Jalin Marshall and Robby Anderson have already seen some work this season, and the table below shows their production by Reception NEP and Target NEP so far.

Player Rec Targ Rec NEP Rec NEP per Target Catch % Rec Succ %
Robby Anderson 5 10 8.10 0.81 50.00% 100.00%
Jalin Marshall 5 8 -1.69 -0.21 62.50% 80.00%

Marshall is dealing with injuries, and may be a less compelling option anyway; his -0.21 Reception NEP per target reflects short usage close to the line as a hit-or-miss slot receiver. Anderson, however, has already been utilized as an outside wide receiver at points, and has parlayed his five receptions into 56 receiving yards. Anderson is already playing the fourth-most snaps per game among Jets’ wide receivers and figures to be the next man up in three-wide sets.

Charone Peake intrigues from a physical standpoint, as the former Clemson wideout stands 6’2”, weighs 210 pounds, and runs a 4.37 40-yard dash. Peake has the most upside, but is still a developmental project and may not see the field much this year.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins could earn work, especially if the Jets use Enunwa out wide and let ASJ use his physical presence to dominate the slot. Seferian-Jenkins has seen just five targets this season, but caught all of them and has a 1.30 Reception NEP per target; this rate will obviously regress with added volume, but he’s already getting buzz. The one hitch: offensive coordinator Gailey has targeted tight ends just an average of 60 times over his last four years running an offense. Perhaps Seferian-Jenkins’ athletic ability will win him over, but there’s a low floor and low ceiling for him until we see it happen.

Decker’s absence will create a void in the Jets’ receiving group that will need to be filled. Still, with the way this team is constructed, it appears that a number of bit parts will be cast to help out on Broadway, rather than a new leading man to take Decker's spotlight alone.