Scouting the 2012 Broncos: Eric Decker

Picking up from where we left off on Monday, let's take a closer look at the play of Eric Decker.

I found a good article by Matt Waldman about Decker from last July, in which he compares the wideout's skill set with that of teammate and fellow 2009 draftee Demaryius Thomas, along with a highlight film breakdown of the strengths of Decker’s game. I liked it, even though it's from a year ago, when people still had some understandable concerns about Thomas’s Achilles injury and his overall health.

I don’t see much value in comparing the two to each other, beyond the sheer fun of perhaps passing an afternoon at a sunny table in the bar area of your friendly local brewpub, while sampling the offerings of the season. Much like those beers themselves, Decker and Thomas each have strengths and weaknesses. Broncos fans have yet to see both of them healthy and receiving passes from a top NFL quarterback.

Like most of us, I’m looking forward to the experience.

In his article, Waldman writes,

Most people during the 2010 NFL Draft were enamored with Decker’s classmate Demaryius Thomas. Personally, I have always thought Decker was the better player. Thomas’ Achilles injury may prevent us from truly seeing how this comparison would have turned out, but I believed Thomas’ skills at the position were not nearly as refined as they should be for a player drafted ahead of a Dez Bryant.

I understand that character was a motivating factor, but if you remove character from the equation and focus solely on skill, Dez Bryant wins easily. I think Decker does, too, despite the fact that Thomas was a more eye-catching athlete in terms of size and speed. However, I still believe NFL teams frequently make mistakes with how they scout receivers because they pick athletes still learning a lot about playing wide receiver over athletic wide receivers.

There’s a difference. Eric Decker is a good example of such.

Thomas began to show last season why he was a high draft pick and should be a major target in 2012. I like the video Waldman posted just fine: I don’t really buy the ‘better athlete equals higher pick’ theory that Waldman holds on Dez Bryant. But give me a comfortable seat and a Broncos highlight video that’s halfway well done, and I’m happy. But I also liked that he used it to identify specific skills on Decker’s part - Eric has a lot of things to like in his game.

Decker had earned the kudos by the time this article went up. He continued to earn them in 2011, when his first NFL start resulted in five receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati, and he played well all of last season. I thought that Deck was underrated prior to the 2010 Draft, and have continued to believe that since then; I was very happy that he fell to Denver.

It's been an eventful year for Decker, who scored five touchdowns (four receiving, one via punt return) in four weeks to start the 2011 season, but saw just 38 targets over the last ten games with Tim Tebow at QB. His season ended prematurely by a sprained MCL suffered during the WC game versus Pittsburgh.

Upon Peyton Manning's arrival, Decker has embraced the scheme change, and the level of leadership that he’s shown in getting together with Manning has been in line with what I’ve expected to see from him. I’m also very impressed with his work physically, where he’s shown a wide variety of skills.

I’d argue the point with Matt of Dez Bryant being a superior NFL player than either Decker or Thomas, although for different reasons. There’s really nothing that would prejudice me against Thomas as far as being a better choice as a receiver over Bryant. Thomas was chosen in great part for his upside and potential rather than for what he’d done to date - you can teach him to run better routes, but you can’t teach his combination of speed, power and size. A talent for and a willingness to block, 4.4 speed, and good hands on a man of his mass and strength aren’t small reasons to draft a player, either. I’m fine with having Thomas over Bryant, since I wasn’t interested in Bryant at the time.

But there’s an equally important quality to athleticism about a certain kind of player, and in this case I’d say that Eric Decker personifies it. It’s character. He’s not the natural athlete on the level of Thomas or Bryant, but that’s only one aspect of playing that position. You can’t coach character any more than you can speed. You get the benefits - or detriments - of character in your locker room. You get them in the meeting rooms, the weight room. You get them on the field, both during the season and when some guys are soaking up rays and mojitos. The players who have it improve the players around them. The ones who don’t have been shown to detract from the performance of some of the players around them, and any first-year business student can probably cite some current  research on it. You have to take that ability into account when you rate players because it’s as much a part of a player as are their slant routes against press coverage. It’s not a substitute for skill, but when innate skill is combined with it, you have a superior player. That’s Decker.

Thomas and Decker are about to see what their skills can do with a quarterback they’ll tell their grandchildren about. For all the things that they didn’t do right, I think that former head coach Josh McDaniels and ex-GM Brian Xanders nailed down the central look of the Broncos receiving corp for the next 10 years with this pair of receivers. Size, speed, the ability to beat press, yards after the catch, hands, blocking, and performance under stress have all been demonstrated by both young men. They will only get better. Decker in particular has impressed me with his ‘go get it’ attitude about connecting with Manning and developing an atmosphere of learning.

As Thomas noted recently, blocking is 95% want-to and 5% technique. It’s an inherently unnatural action, giving up your own body to get in someone else’s way. Demaryius learned about blocking in Georgia Tech's option offense, and he’s a willing blocker. Decker’s just basically mean - on-field, tenacious mean - and he also gets the job done effectively. He’s 6-3 and about 220 lb of very athletic muscle. He also has the extra something in his attitude that lets him get first down yardage going over the middle. The fact that he called Eddie McCaffery and asked if it was okay to request his number should tell you volumes. The truth is that he’s following in those big hoofprints.

Both Decker and Thomas have particularly good deep pass skills. I thought that Decker showed last season that he has the chops to put up plenty of big plays, both as long catches and as touchdowns. His eight receiving scores tied for 11th-best in the NFL.

It’s not enough to just be fast on the long routes. You also have to be capable of faking a break or cutting one at nearly full speed. You have to have an understanding of leverage, a recognition of how to create space, and of how to use it as a tool against defenders. It’s knowing how to beat your defender off the line, to reach for and snatch the ball against a defender fighting with you, and to gather a pass in over either shoulder without breaking stride.

I’ve been impressed with the abilities of both young men in those capacities:  having those abilities in both of them means that the deep route is constantly an option for the offense that the defenses just cannot ignore. They’re going to have to either scheme for it or pay for it. The D has to be predictable or vulnerable - either outcome will do just fine.

I chose that Week 2 game versus Cincinnati to highlight Decker's play; Eric started in place of the injured Brandon Lloyd, and Kyle Orton was in at quarterback. Near the end of the first quarter, Decker missed a play call and was dunned for pass interference. He’d been doing a nice job of blocking out Nate Clements, but the called play was a pass to Decker, which he never turned to look for. Deck started to click late in the second quarter, though. From that point on, he was consistently eating Clements’s lunch:

3:25, 2nd Q. 3rd and short: Decker catches a quick slant over the middle for the first down. Cincy blitzes and Orton throws a strike off his back foot. Decker doesn’t flinch going across the middle. He skids on the top of his helmet on this catch, hit by two defenders, but he locks it in.

11:04 3rd Q. It’s first and 10 from the Cincy 25, and in a bit of irony, the announcers are choosing to talk about Tebow while Orton throws a strike to Decker for the TD. It’s another simple slant over the middle out of 122 personnel, with both TEs on the closed end. Decker, coming out of the Z receiver slot, blows by Clements off the line again, just as he had for his first reception. There's a flag - Decker was also horse-collared as he crossed the goal line. It didn’t seem to affect him.

3:00 3rd Q. Decker comes back for the bubble screen and picks up three yards

13:42 4th Q. The Broncos are in a weak I split with Decker as the Z again. TE Daniel Fells goes in motion weakside to offensive right:

Orton takes the snap from under center and does his usual nice job on play action, freezing the rush. He’s faking the handoff to his left and continuing to turn his body into a nice little bootleg from the left, coming back to the right:

Decker has outrun Clements again - Nate just can’t handle his speed. Decker and Orton team up for a veteran move, though - Orton notices that Clements’s back is to him, and Decker is looking back, so Orton throws it behind Decker, who comes back easily to the ball:

Clements is confused; before he can recover, safety Chris Crocker commits a capital offense for a safety and flies in out of control, trying to knock the ball away from Decker, but only taking out Clements en route. Decker trots it in for a score.

What did we see? Credit Orton, who made a nice play, and a nice throw. On the other hand, Decker blew Clements away off the line (as he did all day), stayed aware, and quickly noticed that Clements wasn’t turned to look at the ball. Deck planted and came back too quickly for Clements to respond. He was also benefited by terrible safety play which took both defenders out. Even so - it would have either been a long gain or a TD regardless. Orton’s comprehension led to the throw. Decker’s play made it work.

Gosh, do you think Manning can manage a play action and catch the mistake by the CB? Yeah, me too. While Manning may take a while to learn all of his receivers, Decker was smart enough to link up with Peyton immediately, and began to both develop a relationship with his future QB and to learn the kind of professionalism and work ethic that Manning requires of those around him. You don’t have to ask Decker to work hard. It’s in his genetic makeup. Now it’s time to see what he, Thomas, Peyton, and friends can do together in training camp and beyond.

Bring it on!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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