Eric Decker Will Be a Top-Tier Fantasy Receiver in 2017
Having grown up in Wisconsin, I get a lot of guff from my family members about living in Minnesota and “becoming one of them," especially in regards to sports.
The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team has been the dorky little brother to the juggernaut Wisconsin Badgers for all of recent memory. But when wide receiver Eric Decker was catching passes on Saturdays at TCF Bank Stadium, none of that familial teasing mattered; Decker was the only show in town.
When I first came to college, there was one phrase I heard every Saturday that made me proud of my decision to move here: “Weber-to-Decker, and that’s another Golden Gopher first down!”
Decker has come a long way from those heady days as a Big Ten wideout, eventually ditching the cozy confines of Minneapolis for first the mountain air of Denver and then the bright lights of Broadway. He was more often the second banana than the top dog in each of these stops, but with the New York Jets looking to cut him in a full-blown youth movement, Decker (just like fantasy owners) is in limbo about how to handle his 2017 season.
Regardless of where he lands, however, Eric Decker should produce like crazy in 2017.
Decker at Minnesota was a “big fish, small pond” situation. He was the go-to option, with no one to leech off of him.
In the pros, though, he’s been a supporting actor more often than not. At his first stop, he was the Robin to Demaryius Thomas's Batman on the Denver Broncos. Over the last two years they were together, Thomas saw 283 targets to Decker’s 258. While an average 12.5 target difference doesn’t seem like a ton, the presence of another top-notch wideout really stunts a receiver’s production; Decker maxed out at 38.79 percent of the team’s wide receiver targets in any given season in Denver while Thomas earned 40.40 percent.
In 2015, Decker was in his second year with Gang Green when they acquired fellow star Brandon Marshall. Marshall promptly slid into the top wideout role for the Jets and soaked up 38.36 percent of their wide receiver targets; Decker was shunted down to 29.27 percent.
Despite a somewhat smaller role than other receivers, he produced his best years when he wasn’t the primary target, averaging 1,126 yards and 12 touchdowns across his 2012, 2013, and 2015 seasons. Even better than the box score, we can verify how effective he was through numberFire’s signature analytic, Net Expected Points (NEP).
Reception NEP (and its per-target variant) helps us explain how much value a wide receiver generates in the passing game, but that value is extremely team-dependent. On a team that throws short a lot, players will have lower Reception NEP per target rates; less yardage per throw means less value gained each play. On a team that doesn’t throw often, a wide receiver will generate lower Reception NEP totals.
When we compare Decker’s Reception NEP production to his that of his teammates', though, we can see a reflection both of his role and his success in that role – adjusted to not be skewed by a record-setting passing season.
In 2012, Decker was utilized as an effective downfield and red zone target in the Denver offense, and saw even more value on a per-catch basis than Thomas due to this usage. We can see this when we look at Decker’s isolated Reception NEP per target (his rate minus the team average). Decker earned 0.08 more Reception NEP each target he saw than the average, while Thomas was at 0.01 more than average.
Despite these higher-value targets, Decker still turned in above-average marks in catch rate and Reception Success Rate – he was consistently successful despite a more hit-or-miss role. The same can be said of his 2013 season as well; despite a target slump due to the addition of Wes Welker, and usage that flipped Thomas into the higher-value role by Reception NEP per target, he remained exactly team-average in every category.
When his usage is reduced, Decker still managed to find quality looks to help maximize his targets; even when used in a lesser role, Decker remains a high-floor, secure option. This kind of production in stuffed depth charts should give us confidence that even if he goes to a team where he won’t be the clear-cut number one, he’s still going to be a productive receiver and valuable player.
Digging Out of a Hole
If Decker does join a barren team situation (sort of like the Jets), that could improve his chances to become a legit fantasy beast.
In 2014, Eric Decker saw just 114 targets, his second-lowest total in a full season in his career. However, the New York Jets threw the ball to wide receivers just 230 times that year (and just 498 times overall). The lack of talent in the receiving group (and among the quarterbacks) allowed Decker to soar over the rest of the depth chart, grabbing nearly 50.0 percent of the available receiver targets. That kind of target load is a testament to how reliable he is as a pass-catcher. The Jets' passing pie was so small to begin with, however, that even a large slice of it wasn't that large.
What this means: there’s little chance he goes to a less productive offensive team than the Jets.
Over the last three years – during Decker’s tenure there – the Jets completed the second-fewest percent of their passes, for the ninth-lowest touchdown rate and the worst interception rate in the league. Even more important, they were the ninth-least pass-friendly team in the NFL by pass-to-run play calling ratio and in total volume of passes.
If Decker goes to a team like the Baltimore Ravens, who have inquired about his availability, his production could be big. That offense averages 354 targets to wide receivers annually, and with Decker at an average 35.24 percent wide receiver target share for his career, that puts him somewhere around 125 targets in 2017.
Even if he produces at his lowly Jets years’ averages of 8.15 yards per target and 7.09 percent touchdown rate, that gives Decker a rough projection of 1,016 yards and 9 touchdowns. In fantasy terms, that puts him around 233 PPR fantasy points – the 13th-best wide receiver score in fantasy last year. All of this lines up really well, especially when you consider that Decker is getting drafted as just the 38th wide receiver in PPR fantasy leagues.
No matter where he winds up, Decker fits perfectly into any situation. Keep drafting him with confidence this year, even if he’s not the top dog where he lands.