Can Cody Latimer Replace Eric Decker?

With Eric Decker signing with the NY Jets in the off-season, who will step up to replace him in Denver?

Human beings love new, shiny things - cars, televisions, smart phones...the list goes on and on. When new items hit the market, people instantly become enamored. Wanting the newest thing has become embedded into our very nature.

And just like waiting in line at the Apple store, few events in football catch the attention of die hard fans more than the NFL Draft in New York City.

Leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, pundits spoke incessantly about how deep and star-studded the wide receiver position would be. Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans were the first and second receivers taken (fourth and seventh overall, respectively) as many predicted they would be. Both played their college football at big-time programs, and both have outstanding physical skills that should help them become dominant at the next level.

Very few NFL players become stars during their rookie campaigns. Even fewer rookie wide receivers achieve at a high level. Since 2000, only four rookie wide receivers have eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards, and only five have hauled in 70 or more catches. This isn't to say that Watkins, Evans or another prospect can't break through this imaginary barrier and join this group, but that history says it’s unlikely.

In order to succeed at the highest level, it takes more than just physical skill - talent combined with opportunity is the recipe for success. It’s all about the situation you land in mixed with your ability. And one player who seems to have found a soft landing spot where his talent can be put on display is Cody Latimer.

Hailing from Indiana University, Latimer flew under the pre-draft radar, possibly for good reason. Playing in the Big Ten Conference, he didn't face the level of competition other prospects did. He also didn't fully compete at the NFL Scouting Combine due to a foot injury. The only drill he did take part in was the bench press where he posted 23 reps, the most by any receiver at the combine.

At 6’2” 215 pounds, Latimer exhibits prototypical size to be a high-end NFL receiver. Game-tape analysis shows that he high points the ball, is tough to tackle, and has above-average blocking skills – an area where many rookies struggle. His size-speed combo is impressive as evidenced by a 40-yard dash clocked at 4.39 at his Indiana Pro Day, too.

And not to be overshadowed by his physical traits, Latimer also landed in a pretty good situation.

The Dearly Departed Decker

During the off-season, Eric Decker - who played his first four NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos - signed a new five-year, $36.25 million deal with the New York Jets, immediately becoming their best playmaker on offense.

Last year with the Broncos, Decker notched a 112.59 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) score, a number that tells us the number of points Decker added for the Broncos on catches only. That score ranked 11th among receivers with at least 80 receptions, slightly above the qualifying average of 108.38. Other receivers with similar Reception NEP results were Jordy Nelson, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

With Decker's departure, the Broncos have a clear void to fill. Two obvious benefactors will be Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, both of whom have been very productive during the past two seasons. Tight end Julius Thomas is also expected to see more targets in 2014. The ultimate answer, however, may come from one of two new additions; Latimer being one, Emmanuel Sanders being the other.

According to Denver’s Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase, Sanders is just the guy he's been looking for, making it seem as though Sanders will steal many of Decker's looks. However, when we look at Sanders' NEP data, the results tell a slightly different story.

Playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013, Sanders tallied a 54.15 Reception NEP. This ranked him dead last among wide receivers with between 60 and 80 receptions, and well below the average of 79.54 among this group. Going a step further, Sanders notched a 0.48 Reception NEP per target, a statistic showing efficiency on a per target basis within the Reception NEP numbers. To put that number into context, the average Reception NEP per target for players with at least 100 targets was 0.70. Out of 44 players with at least 100 targets, only Stevie Johnson had a lower score than Sanders.

The sum of all this information doesn't exactly equal a ringing endorsement. If the coaching staff in Denver used our metrics to make decisions, their confidence in Sanders may not be as high.

That's where Cody Latimer comes in. If he's healthy and has a firm grasp of the playbook, he could be given an opportunity to fill the big body, outside receiver role that Decker occupied last season. He’s got the measurables to do so. If the Broncos choose to go with Sanders instead, it would mean a tactical change from their 2013 philosophy (a big receiver opposite of Demaryius Thomas), which yielded tremendous results. It would also mean giving playing time to an inefficient player.

I'm in no way forecasting a monster season for Latimer in 2014. I think, like any rookie receiver, he'll have his ups-and-downs. But when you look at the potential opportunity he has in the Broncos offense, it’s easy to see how he could have a decent impact for the Broncos in 2014.