What Does Eric Decker Bring to the Tennessee Titans?

Eric Decker signed a one-year deal with the Titans this week. How does he change their offense?

Sometimes the sayings you hear as a kid really stick with you; these aphorisms help guide and teach life lessons for a long time. For instance, one thing I always heard was “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” – meaning that if you’re going to bother with something, you might as well go above and beyond instead of phoning it in.

That to me is what the Tennessee Titans’ acquisition of wide receiver Eric Decker indicates: They aren’t just talking about revamping their offense, they are truly committing to building an offensive juggernaut around quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Titans had already begun to remake one of the league’s worst receiver groups in the offseason, drafting Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, but they add strength to a strength by bringing in Decker to join them.

Decker isn’t just depth behind these rookies, or a veteran presence in the locker room, however. He should be an integral part of the offense in 2017 and brings a new dimension to Tennessee and Mariota’s receiving corps.

Like a Box of Chocolates

When Decker entered the 2017 offseason, he surely didn’t realize that the talent-barren New York Jets would be so ready to cut him loose, nor that they would wait so long if they were going to do so. As our own Dan Pizzuta so astutely tweeted: “Do the Jets know they didn't have to actually wait until after June 1 for their post-June 1 cuts?”

We may never fully understand the magical mystery tour that is the New York front office and ownership, but one thing is for certain: Good players don’t tend to get cut this late in the year. Last year’s June wide receiver cuts included names like J.J. Worton, Quenton Bundrage, and only two with numberFire player profile pages: Corey Washington and Stedman Bailey; not good players. This year, Decker has the dubious honor of being the premier piece dropped in summer, but that should not worry us about his future impact.

In a piece about two weeks ago, I outlined why Decker will still be valuable as a fantasy football option no matter what offense he goes to; the simple fact of the matter is that the Jets have been a horrid team for passing both in quality and quantity. We can prove that by examining numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below compares the Jets’ and Titans’ rankings in a few passing categories over the last three years: total volume of pass plays, pass-to-run ratio, and their value by Adjusted Passing NEP per play.

Team Passes Pass/Run Adj. Pass NEP/P
Jets 22nd 25th 26th
Titans 24th 20th 28th

The Titans are slightly behind the Jets both in total passes and passing value per play in the last three years, but the heartening thing is that they lead the Jets in pass-to-run ratio for play calling. All this indicates is that Decker’s fantasy floor hasn’t really changed at all from his time in Gotham – where he averaged 995 receiving yards and 8.5 touchdowns. In Tennessee, however, his ceiling is much higher.

If the Titans become a slightly more pass-heavy team and continue to lean on quarterback Marcus Mariota, they will continue to grow in terms of the volume they provide. Mariota is still growing into his potential as well, and therefore the Titans’ value upside is much greater than any of the Jets’ carousel of quarterbacks.

A Bird in the Hand

Decker can be a legitimate player thanks to the Titans’ offense, but he also creates a much better outlook for Tennessee.

In Decker’s time with the Jets, he was the first or second target in the offense – a clear-cut top dog. He saw total target shares (the percent of an offense’s targets going to a specific player) of 19.0 percent and 26.5 percent in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Tennessee tends to spread the ball around even a bit more; no Titans receiving option has seen a target share over 25 percent in the last two seasons (since Mariota was drafted). In 2015, Delanie Walker got the closest at 21.4 percent of the total offense, but they simply do not concentrate looks on one player. With Decker’s presence, that gives them yet another weapon to slide into an already distributive offense and keep opposing secondaries on their toes even more.

That’s great for Decker, too, who has a career average of a 21.5 percent target share -- he can thrive as an offense’s second receiver just fine, thanks to his efficiency.

In my previous piece on Decker, we looked at the Reception NEP value he provided compared the average of the offenses he was in. The higher he was above the team’s average Reception NEP per target, the more we could isolate how he was thriving despite his team situation.

We can do the same thing with the 2016 Titans’ receivers (minimum 30 targets), showing their Reception NEP per target above or below their team positional average as well and compare Decker most recent production to them.

Player Team Targets Reception NEP/Target Compared to Team Avg.
Kendall Wright TEN 43 0.87 +0.17
Rishard Matthews TEN 108 0.80 +0.10
Tajae Sharpe TEN 83 0.52 -0.18
2014-15 Decker NYJ 123 (avg.) 0.79 +0.14

There’s a very real chance Decker’s target volume doesn’t get to the 120 range in Tennessee, but he overproduced his New York teammates by a larger margin than any Titans’ receiver who remains on the roster did in 2016. Kendall Wright, who departed for the Chicago Bears this offseason, was used in more of a deep threat role than Decker likely will be, but Decker slides in as the most value-efficient receiver on the roster right now (with the caveat that we don’t have 2016 data on the rookie Davis).

One way he can reach that value without catching 60-yard go-route bombs? His red-zone value. Over the last two seasons, and bearing in mind that Decker played just 18 of a possible 32 games in that span, he has been the eighth-most targeted NFL receiver inside the 10-yard line and is tied for fifth-most touchdowns in that area. The table below shows the Titans’ receiving options compared to him.

Player Targets Inside Opp. 10 Catch Rate TD %
Eric Decker 20 55.00% 81.8%
Delanie Walker 17 70.59% 66.7%
Rishard Matthews 9 77.78% 85.7%
Kendall Wright 6 50.00% 66.7%
Tajae Sharpe 2 50.00% 0.0%

Only Rishard Matthews outpaced Decker in terms of touchdown rate in close over the last two years, but with Decker joining him and Walker as end zone rebounders, we could see a massive upswing in value and efficiency for the Titans and Mariota, who are again building on a strength; they have been the best in-close passing team with a 27.0 percent touchdown rate and 2.0 percent interception rate inside the 10 (seventh-best).

This is the kind of “exotic smashmouth” football head coach Mike Mularkey was talking about when he took over in Tennessee: they’ll hit hard on the ground and the air. With Eric Decker joining this power forward receiving corps, they get that much better.