Can Eric Decker Be a Team's Top Receiver?

Will Eric Decker be able to produce without Peyton Manning?

The wide receiver position is always a funky one to analyze, as so many things can help dictate success. Quarterback play, for instance, is important to remember when looking at wide receiver metrics – would Marvin Harrison be Marvin Harrison if not for Peyton Manning?

Offensive scheme is imperative to keep in mind, too. After all, if a wide receiver doesn’t have the opportunity to shine in a run-first offense, are we really able to see what that pass-catcher is capable of?

It’s for this very reason that free agent Eric Decker has been one of the most highly talked about players this offseason. It has nothing to do with his reality show – at least to football lovers – but rather the impact he can make on the gridiron without Number 18.

No one disputes the fact that Decker had a great 2013 campaign, and that his 2012 season was productive as well. The argument is money-driven, and more importantly, number one wide receiver focused.

Decker’s never fully been the guy in an NFL offense. Right when he started seeing significant snaps, the Broncos had other wide receivers that the fierce Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton platoon were throwing to. But even if Decker was the top target in his offense for a significant time, those passers weren’t really going to get the ball to him anyway. Not only were the Broncos a run-first squad with a pass-to-run ratio of 0.87 at the time, but the quarterback play was about as effective as the D-Pad on a Nintendo 64 controller.

The main reason Eric Decker has been so polarizing is because his situation in Denver has been as well. When you go from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning, it’s difficult to really judge, based on production, what type of receiver you are.

But it’s important to dissect both circumstances, perhaps finding some sort of middle ground.

Decker in 2011

There are three main metrics we look at with wide receivers here at numberFire. The first is Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), or the number of points – real ones – added by a wide receiver on receptions only. The second is Target Net Expected Points – how many points did the pass-catcher contribute on all targets? And the last one is Reception Net Expected Points per target, which looks at efficiency, as not all wide receivers see the same type of volume.

Let’s begin by looking at Decker’s performance in 2011 with the horrific quarterback play of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton. That year, Denver ranked fourth to last in Adjusted Passing NEP (passing offense adjusted for strength of schedule), as Tim Tebow lost roughly 55 points for the Broncos offense. Had Tarvaris Jackson been under center that year, for example, Denver would have seen a 55-point swing over the course of the season.

With such poor quarterback play, you’d expect Decker’s numbers to suffer. And they did. Below is a chart depicting his NEP numbers in 2011, along with his rankings among the 106 wide receivers who caught at least 10 passes.

YearReception NEPRankTarget NEPRankReception NEP per TargetRank

While Decker’s Reception NEP total was better than teammate Demaryius Thomas’ that year, much of that had to do with the fact that Decker saw more targets (94 vs. 70). And the reason for that was due to Thomas starting his season on October 23rd.

Decker’s production on receptions was average, but you’d expect more from a guy with 94 targets. After all, more targets leads to more receptions, and more receptions leads to a higher Reception NEP score.

Of the seasons where a wide receiver saw at least 90 targets since 2000 (626 of them), Eric Decker’s 2011 campaign in terms of Reception NEP ranked 589th. And while you may think that’s due to the minimum requirement being so close to Eric Decker’s target number, among the 127 receiver seasons with 90 to 100 targets since 2000, Decker’s 2011 campaign ranks 109th.

It only gets worse, too. Of the 106 receivers analyzed in 2011, Decker’s Target NEP – the number of points added on all targets – came in as the sixth-worst total. While much of that is, of course, due to erratic throwing an interceptions going the other way for touchdowns, it should be noted that Demaryius Thomas ranked 42nd.

It’s the same deal with regards to overall efficiency (Reception NEP per target) as well. While Decker ranked 78th within the metric in 2011, Demaryuis Thomas ranked 43rd.

I know it’s a little unfair to compare him to Thomas like this, but one thing is clear when it comes to Decker: he wasn’t very effective with bottom five quarterback play. While Thomas was still able to analytically look like a top wide receiver in an offense, Eric Decker looked more like Jerry Porter or Peerless Price.

Peyton Manning to the Rescue

The jump in terms of numbers we’ve seen with Eric Decker over the last two seasons compared to his 2011 campaign was a bit Randy Moss-like, but Decker didn’t need a change of scenery. He just needed Peyton Manning.

I’ve shown you what Decker’s numbers looked like in 2011 with Ortebow (creative, I know), but take a look at what his metrics have been with Peyton Manning under center over the last two seasons:

YearReception NEPRankTarget NEPRankReception NEP per TargetRank

By no surprise, from 2011 to 2012, Decker jumped 43 spots in Reception NEP, a ridiculous 97 in Target NEP, and 66 in Reception NEP. And his numbers, for the most part, were similar in 2013.

Demaryius Thomas continued to perform at a higher rate than Decker in every single category outside of Reception NEP per target in 2012. Again though, it’s not exactly fair to compare Decker to one of the best in the game. However, we should take note of what a top receiver should be able to do.

Clearly Eric Decker isn’t a top 10 wide receiver in football, as his numbers with Manning tend to dictate. However, I think it’d be excessive for us to assume that, with any other quarterback in any other situation, Eric Decker would be as unproductive as he was with Tebow and Orton.

Is there a middle ground?

Who Is Eric Decker?

There are both pros and cons to this Eric Decker situation. On the good side, Decker has shown that he can play at a high level (as long as you ignore what's beyond his numbers), has great size, and can be a red zone threat (even with the horrible quarterback play in 2011, Decker was able to haul in eight touchdowns). On the flip side, Decker showed us extreme inefficiencies when his quarterback wasn't Peyton Manning, even when you compare his metrics to wide receivers in a similar situation. However, we should give him a little wiggle room considering his inefficient season came during Year 2 of his career.

Eric Decker is not elite. If he was elite, he would've performed even remotely close to Demaryius Thomas' rates when Tim Tebow was quarterbacking the Broncos. If he was elite, he would have posted better metrics throughout his brief NFL career.

But Eric Decker isn't bad, nor is he unusable. His 2012 Target NEP season ranks 36th since 2000, and the players listed ahead of him were all perennial Pro Bowlers. His season, too, comes in ahead of many of Reggie Wayne's campaigns with Manning, as well as a few of Marvin Harrison's. That doesn't just happen without a skill set. It's not as though he has one arm. Eric Decker is a very solid wide receiver.

If he finds the right spot (I'm rooting for Indianapolis), I think things can work out just fine - he could not only be helpful for a franchise, but fantasy teams as well. All of us better hope he doesn't go to a team without a quarterback foundation though (I'm not rooting for the Raiders), because he's not Josh Gordon - he's not going to be able to put up monster numbers based on volume.