Scouting the 2012 Broncos: Deeps and drops

From CBS writer Pat Kirwan:

No team in 2012 had a more radical makeover on offense than the Denver Broncos. Gone is the Tebow wildcat offense and in is the pure NFL no-huddle passing attack led by Peyton Manning. As John Fox said to me, "We are eager to learn from Peyton." The Broncos haven't had a winning record in five years and they are on their third head coach in that same period. Now Peyton is the coach on the field and young wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are about to explode. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two guys who caught 76 passes between them last year combine for 150 receptions this year.”

After a recent reader comment, I was drawn to looking at the drop rates of Denver receivers. Eric Decker, for example, had nine drops over the course of the regular season, and one in the WC game against Pittsburgh. It struck me that this was a high number for him. I didn’t know the background of Demaryius Thomas in terms of this stat, but I knew Decker had a very low drop rate in college. Since Peyton Manning doesn’t suffer mistakes kindly, drop rates would be one area that would matter over the 2012 season. Manning has also been consistent about his criteria over the years - if you get open, you get the ball. If you drop it, you might not be as open as you thought next time around. I decided to look.

I took a while to look over the receiving stats for both Thomas and Decker over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. I wanted to find out what their drop rate had been previously and what they were last year, and I was also interested in their outcomes with the deep pass. The ability to create explosive plays - 12+ yards on the ground, 18+ through the air - is one of the essential aspects of creating a winner and there’s nothing more explosive than a long touchdown. Drops, on the other hand, can deflate a drive in a moment.

While the sample size would be somewhat small, I knew that Thomas had played in an option offense at Georgia Tech, and a great deal of what he did for that offense was to get free deep. He wasn’t really taught the whole route tree, although he became a very good blocker as part of his role in that style of offense.

Thomas commented in a recent radio interview:

You’re gonna have to run the whole route tree now. I was excited at the same time, but I was kind of nervous, because from watching him I felt like he — I ain’t gonna say he was demanding — but the receivers did the right things and he got the ball to them in the right spots. So to get to play with a future Hall of Famer, I knew I had to step my game up and get in my book more, run routes more, because I never really ran routes much. So I thought it was gonna be a challenge, and it has been so far. But it’s been good, too.

This is a wonderful chance for both Decker and Thomas to learn receiving from one of the most knowledgeable quarterbacks in the history of the game. It’s true for both receivers in the weight room, the film room and on the field - Decker and Thomas have a chance to expand their knowledge of the game exponentially. When a team has multiple weapons that are effective deep vertically, it puts a larger weight on the defense. That’s currently true of Denver, a team that obtained two of its starting receivers in the 2010 Draft, when both Thomas and Decker came to the Broncos.

Both players had pre-existing lower limb injuries when Denver drafted them, and have dealt with additional injuries since then; both appear to be fine going into training camp. This is the first year they are both healthy going into camp, and the quarterback situation is also finally settled. It doesn’t hurt that Denver now boasts one of the finest throwers in NFL history.

Eric Decker

In terms of drop rate, Eric Decker was ranked by PFF as the 86th-best WR in the league in terms of drop rate, among 95 players with at least 25% of their team's snaps.  Here are his numbers for the year (regular season only):

Targets: 91
Catchable: 53
Caught: 44
Drops: 9

Three of Decker's nine drops came during the first five games of the year with Kyle Orton as the quarterback, with the other six occurring with Tim Tebow at the helm. Another drop came during the postseason. That’s not the kind of performance that I expected from Decker, who has a history of Velcro hands. It’s not news that the receivers had trouble with Tebow’s passes, though. I started to explore more.

But on deep passes, Decker became more reliable according to PFF's accounting; he was targeted deep (20 or more yards) seven times, and three of those balls were considered catchable. He caught all three of them. In 2010, he was only targeted eight times overall, with six catches and drop. Of those eight, he caught two of three passes in the deep middle, for 66 yards and no drops. His deep ball skills do stand out in a positive way, despite the fact that the sample size is small. He has turned his catches into touchdowns at a high rate so far, with one TD among those eight receptions in 2010 and eight scores out of 44 receptions in 2011.

What’s interesting to me is that his college production while starting for three seasons at the University of Minnesota included eleven career 100-yard receiving games and he was targeted 354 times, dropping only three passes (0.8%) over that span. That’s a rare performance. Decker also set Gophers career records with 227 total receptions and 3,119 receiving yards. Those stats also rank sixth and eighth, respectively, in Big Ten Conference history, with only three drops over that time period. He’s obviously got a very high upside in this respect.

What does that suggest with Peyton Manning as the quarterback? Manning reads defenses like some folks read manga - quickly, easily and with considerable interest. His verbal adjustments are one of his many strengths, due to years of intense study of the tendencies of teams, defensive coordinators, and specific defenders. If Decker gets open, Manning’s legendary accuracy is likely to find him with catchable passes on a very regular basis. According to PFF, Manning was accurate on 39.9% of his deep passes from 2008-2010, a major upgrade over the 31.7% figure posted by Tebow last season. I believe that Manning can do even better with these two receivers.

Since backup Adam Weber was Decker’s QB at Minnesota, it’s probably fair to assume that Manning’s accuracy is better than that of Decker’s college compatriot. Manning also tends to have a very catchable pass - some quarterbacks do, some don’t. John Elway has commented that learning to take a little off his own passes led to fewer broken and dislocated fingers by his receivers, which they appreciated. Given that Manning has good touch and generally has exceptional accuracy on his passes, Decker’s and Thomas’s skill at catching the long pass should be greatly appreciated - and used.

Demaryius Thomas

Of that same group of 95 receivers, Thomas ranked 78th-best in terms of drop rate:

Targets 153
Catchable 65
Caught 37
Drops 5

Demaryius started out his career in 2010 with 22 receptions on 37 targets for a 59.5% completion rate, along with two touchdowns; he had two dropped passes over that span. He was targeted for deep (20+ yards) six times and had two catches with zero drops.

In 2011, he was targeted 65 times and had 32 receptions (regular season), a 49.2% completion rate. 10 more receptions on 16 targets came in the two postseason games, with four against Pittsburgh and six against New England. He had been targeted for the deep ball 22 times in total for 2011 (regular and postseason) and caught 12 of them with only a single drop, which is an unusually high percentage of catches for the deep reception. He brought in catches of 25 yards or more in seven of his final eleven games of the year.

Since about a 1-3 to 1-4 receptions to target rate is about normal for the deep pass, Demaryius has somewhat better than average numbers for deep receptions. Thomas also has the power and balance to turn a medium reception into a long one, as you can see from this pair of completions that took place in the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh:

Wild Receiving

I thought that this shows off Bey Bey’s game pretty well: at the beginning of the second quarter, Denver gets the ball back after holding the Steelers to their second field goal. On third and 12, Tebow takes the ball from the shotgun in a pro set, with two running backs, one on either side of him. There are three WRs, so the front five of the offensive line has to be strong.

Thomas is in the X receiver’s role. It takes all seven protectors (five OL and two RB) on that play to keep Tebow off the turf. Tebow tries to find an open receiver more than once, but his protectors are stout. Thomas runs a simple route, just a hitch and go into off coverage. Ike Taylor, in coverage, loses him for a moment, and in trying to recover, he turns back toward the sideline and bounces off of Thomas, who uses that and takes away the inside on the route. Thomas uses the chance to cut into a slant - Taylor’s move to recover puts him out of position, and now he’s chasing Thomas. The pass is slightly inside and behind Thomas, but he uses his hands well and pulls in the ball.

Taylor’s momentum takes him upfield, and Thomas see that and slants in behind Taylor as he runs, keeping Taylor from finding him. Taylor once more tries to cut Thomas off, and Thomas cuts behind him again. They dance back and forth that way until Taylor gets closer. Thomas stiff-arms him and keeps running...

...but Taylor holds on grimly, dragging Thomas to the ground as help arrives a few moments late. Perfect technique by Demaryius. It shows how well DT tracks the ball over his shoulder, his form on the catch, and how hard it is to bring him down one on one.

Thomas’s size, strength and skill at yards after the catch turn a nice 30-yard gain into a key 57-yarder that leads to a TD. This is a player who achieved 25-yard gains in seven of his last eleven games in 2011 and caught deep balls in 12 of 22 opportunities. In the Wild Card game alone, he gained 204 yards including the single play in overtime, an 80-yard TD snatch out of a simple slant, on which he used that big stiff arm again to deadly effectiveness. It created the space for Thomas to burst free from his defenders and to fly to the end zone:

Between Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the combination of size, speed, and good hands should provide Manning with some easy opportunities, and the Broncos with substantially more than the average of 19.3 points per game that 2011 brought them. I’d expect both players, plus tight end Jacob Tamme and whoever else Denver decides to keep out of the excellent WR and TE corps that’s available, to be successful. Manning will be throwing it short, medium and long: he’ll have no shortage of targets.

Finally, training camp!

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