Although my takes on the players in the next series of posts might be useful to fantasy owners, this isn’t a fantasy football article. I’m not projecting stats. I’m writing about talented players whose portfolio of work reveal techniques and behaviors that I think translate well to the NFL game. At the end of the year, you might look at the stat-lines and conclude that the quantity of the production wasn’t eye-catching for each of these emerging talents, but the quality of work they did was impressive enough for opposing teams, fans, and more astute fantasy owners to take notice.
WR Eric Decker, Denver Broncos
One of my favorite receivers from the 2010 draft class, Decker’s game is well-suited to the NFL because he consistently demonstrated skills at the University of Minnesota that are commonplace requirements for a successful NFL receiver. What you’re going to see repeatedly from Decker in this highlight package is the following:
- Good initial set up of breaks
- Defeating press with use of hands and shoulders
- Winning real estate early in the route
- Maintaining real estate later in the route
- Receptions after contact
- A “my ball mentality”
- Functional strength
- Functional speed
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. See for yourself.
Setting up breaks and catching an under-thrown ball (0:08) – Note the stem with the jab step to the inside against the CB in off-man coverage to set up break to the sideline on the short out. Then just as Paul Coffman and Larry Fitzgerald demonstrated in the instructional videos from a previous post, Decker uses his arms well in conjunction with his torso to twist towards the under-thrown football. Decker makes this catch look easy. The reason is spot-on technique. We’ll see more of this in this highlight package.
Defeating press, winning and maintaining real estate against defender, and reception after contact (0:14) – Decker is decent-sized receiver. His pre-draft height-weight was 6’3″, 217 lbs., which is almost identical to Dez Bryant’s dimensions. Rams draft pick Austin Pettis is also 6’3″, but where Pettis struggled to get under the jam on a consistent basis at the Senior Bowl practices, Decker demonstrates the ability to dip his outside shoulder as he drives off the line of scrimmage to get just enough of his body in front of the defensive back playing press. Decker then quickly turns inside to get his back to the defender just as Sterling Sharpe explained in his YouTube coaching session.
At this point, Decker has all the separation he needs to make a catch. However, we also see that Decker intentionally slows down on this deep post. Based on the placement of the throw, I believe Decker knew his quarterback’s arm strength and didn’t want to outrun the throw. With the DB trailing, Decker knew that an under-thrown pass could make it easy for the defender to undercut the route and make a play.
So Decker does the smart thing by slowing down and using his back to block the path of the DB. This adjustment allows Decker to make the catch and force the defender to wrap the receiver from behind rather than make a play on the ball. This adjustment on a deep route is the behavior of a smart wide receiver who understands where he is, where he needs to be, and who he’s working with to make the play.
It’s also worth noting that on this play, and the next, that Decker knows how to use his hands to get separation without drawing a penalty. He also shows enough burst to get behind a defender early. As I have mentioned in the past week, it is more important to get position behind the defender early in a route than it is to show remarkable vertical speed. Decker does this with decent burst, awareness of his body relative to the defender, and good functional strength.
Hands technique, hand-eye coordination, and a “my ball mentality” (1:03) – Decker makes an excellent catch between the cornerback and the safety where he has to leap into a small gap between two defenders. What stands out at the beginning of this route is the placement of his hands on the cornerback playing press. Decker’s hands are consistently on the hands or forearm of the defender throughout much of the route.
As Paul Coffman and Calvin Johnson demonstrated in their instructional videos, hand placement in this area prevents the defender from getting his hands into the body of the receiver. Decker’s perfect execution of this technique allows him to focus on the trajectory of the football and time his leap because he has control of the defender to gain position when he’s ready. The actual break inside and catch is good athleticism and attitude. Decker is aggressive to the ball and not shy about dealing with contact from two defenders to get it.
This might be seen as an intangible, but to me there is nothing intangible about it. It is a behavior that we just saw happen. You’re going to see it happen consistently in this highlight package.
Route adjustment, sideline awareness, “my ball mentality,” and toughness (1:44) – On this 3rd and 6 from a shotgun set with three receivers (1×2) in 11 personnel (1 RB and 1 TE), Decker motions inside the nearside slot receiver and uses his teammate to run a quick flat route as his quarterback rolls to that side. The DB assigned to Decker does a good job of jamming and riding the receiver out of his break, but Decker quickly turns the play up the sideline adjusting the flat route to a sideline fade underneath the safety. This is a great play by Decker because his quarterback committed to the right side with his roll and Decker works to find a second opening.
Another reason the play is so great is how quickly Decker makes the decision to turn up field; there is little to no hesitation and it almost looks like he meant to run an out and up. However, the down and distance situation and attempt to rub free of the CB on the flat is an indication Minnesota was going for a high-percentage play.
The next part of the play is what is going to make him a valuable NFL receiver. Decker gets down the sideline, turns to the ball in the air, and makes the grab with full extension of his body inside the boundary with a safety bearing down on him. In any job, the first thing that tends to break down in human performance when that human being feels pressure is technique. Decker’s hand positioning to catch the ball, his awareness of the sideline, and his position to the trailing cornerback are all first-rate on this play despite the fact he knows the safety his going to hit him in the chops. This is an NFL-caliber play.
Setting up breaks and maintaining focus (2:21) – Although it is obvious that the Cal defensive back is looking into the backfield on this play and he bites hard on the quarterback’s shoulder fake, Decker does his part with the route by executing a fluid jab step inside in conjunction with a good head fake. One of the more underrated things about this play is that Decker doesn’t have a lapse in technique despite clearly beating the defender. He does a good job continuing to track the ball, get his body in front of it, and use sound hands technique to make the catch.
How many times have we seen good NFL receivers drop wide-open touchdown passes like this? I remember Randy Moss doing it a couple of years ago. The reason is a lapse of technique that occurs when a player encounters and easier than anticipated play. There’s a psychological tendency to lose focus and intensity in these situations. Decker maintains it here.
Setting up combo route and reception after contact (3:22) – This is an empty backfield set (2×2) with Decker at the top of the screen working a corner route with his teammate in the slot running a short flat route. Decker’s initial dip inside from the line of scrimmage accomplishes several things for the offense. First, he cuts in front of the cornerback in the shallow zone of the flat and this gives the slot receiver time to make his break. It also forces the linebacker to continue dropping to a depth to account for Decker’s initial release. This opens the field for the quarterback.
Second, Decker’s inside release sets up his break on the corner route because it forces the corner and safety to account for the inside and gives Decker room to break outside. This also makes the quarterback’s throw easier. If Decker’s inside release weren’t effective, this throw would have had to been made in much tighter coverage. Although Decker takes a hit from the corner after making the grab, it was a significantly easier play to execute because of the route.
Set up of break (3:31) – From the slot, Decker executes this fundamental technique of the jab step and head fake to force the defender to account for the outside. Decker’s recognizes that the defender has to play the outside and the execution is fluid and believable. Note how Decker initially drives the defender backwards because he puts his head down to sell a deep route before his break. Every route we see Decker shows something different and valuable: hand positioning, a shoulder dip, head fakes, etc. And all of them are done as if they were second nature.
Buying back real estate late (3:48) – Decker’s touchdown reception on the corner fade is a great example of waiting until the very last moment to turn his back to the defender to set up the back shoulder throw. Waiting until the ball almost arrives is so important in tight coverage, because there is such little distance between the receiver and the defender that making the break too early would give the defender more time to reaction. The greater amount of time a receiver gives a defender to react in tight space, the more distance he can cover. In a situation like this, a split second and a few inches might as well be a yard of separation.
There are two consistent behaviors I see from Decker both in games I studied and on this highlight package hat deserve some criticism. The first is the tendency to allow the ball into his body. There are plays where Decker either catches the ball against his body, or he uses his hands but he allows the ball to travel to the last available window to make the catch. In both of these situations, Decker creates opportunities for defenders to jar the ball loose.
The second issue is that Decker didn’t gain a lot of yardage after the catch at Minnesota. I’m not convinced Decker lacks the athleticism to make these plays because you will see that, at least in this highlight package, Decker is targeted on routes where he’s dealing with multiple defenders or making adjustments to the football that would naturally limit a receiver’s opportunity to run after the catch. At the same time, Decker didn’t appear dynamic in the open field on the targets where he had room to run.
Overall, this lack of big-play ability after the catch for a receiver with Decker’s consistent skills to get open and make plays in traffic is like complaining about the design of the tasty icing on an even better tasting cake. Chad Ochocinco has a 3.3 yards after catch average for his career. Calvin Johnson had a 4.4 ypc last year – 36th overall in total yards after the catch – a few spots ahead of Mike Williams (TB) and Andre Johnson. All four players are prized for their route skills and/or athleticism to win the ball in the air. They are just four examples of players who demonstrate that YAC is not nearly as important a part of receiving as getting open and making the catch down the field.
Give me a player who makes the play as drawn up rather than the player who might get me extra IF he makes the play at all. I foresee Decker as an excellent complement to a big play receiver like Brandon Lloyd. If Jabar Gaffney or Eddie Royal can produce in the slot or the Broncos get a tight end to develop as a threat down the seam, Decker’s stats could complement his emergence as a viable NFL starter.