Any time a key fantasy asset hits free agency in the NFL we have to hold our breath. Not since the draft prior to their rookie year have we had this much uncertainty. After all, their current team and situation contributed to what made them the coveted fantasy asset we are proud to own. What happens when a wide receiver goes from a pass heavy team to a conservative run heavy team, or vice versa? What if they go from a situation with an elite quarterback to a rookie signal caller? If you’re Eric Decker, could you possibly go to a better situation than a team with Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas?
There seems to be a lot of debate whether Decker was a product of Peyton Manning’s record setting seasons in Denver or if he has the ability to be a WR1. People also wonder if he can thrive without a strong presence like Demaryius Thomas across from him. He’s been considered more of a “WR1b” than a game changer who can succeed versus team’s top corners.
Let’s take a look at Decker’s career. His rookie season was basically a redshirt season due to the team’s depth at the receiver position at the time. Brandon Lloyd, who led the league in receiving, was a having a career resurgence while Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal rounded out the top three in the receiver rotation. Even Demaryius Thomas failed to see significant action. Decker finished his rookie year with six receptions for 106 yards and one touchdown. Coach Josh McDaniels did not make it to the end of the season.
The following season brought a new head coach, John Fox, and the infamous “Tebow Experiment” in Denver. Fox wanted nothing to do with Tim Tebow and seemed to only play him to show the fans how awful he was. Somehow the team not only made the playoffs, but won a playoff game. It is very difficult to take much away from this season because Tim Tebow was such an awful example of an NFL quarterback. Decker was the team’s leading receiver on the season because of his ability to use his 6’3” frame to box out corners and fight for extra yards. He led the team in targets, receptions, yards, touchdowns, 20+ yard receptions and first downs. Even though the numbers weren’t eye popping from a fantasy perspective, they were right on target with his Peyton Manning numbers from a percentage aspect.
Regardless of the improbable playoff victory, John Elway and John Fox had absolutely no intentions of entering the 2012 season with Tim Tebow on the roster. The Broncos landed perhaps the biggest free agent in NFL history when they signed Manning to lead the team. It was a night and day difference going from a 1956 style offense to a fast paced aerial assault. Decker and Thomas both easily set career highs across the board. Decker’s reception total went from 44 catches on 95 targets to 85 catches on 123 targets. This is obviously due to the erratic Tebow to the mechanical Manning accuracy. In PPR leagues he finished the season as the WR13 while teammate Demaryius Thomas finished as the WR8.
Last off-season, dynasty owners were panicking because Wes Welker was signed as a free agent and was viewed as a threat to the PPR stud. Obviously that didn’t happen because Manning went on to have the greatest season ever put together by a quarterback and everyone was successful. Thomas finished as the WR1, Decker finished as the WR11, Welker finished as the WR21, and Julius Thomas broke out to finish as the TE3.
When you look at those stats, the most telling stat was Decker tying Thomas for the team lead in 20+ yard receptions with 19 and finishing just behind him in receptions, targets, yards and first downs. Even though Wes Welker was added, Decker maintained his percentage of the team’s offensive production. You could definitely argue there were too many mouths to feed and he will benefit by not having to compete with quite so many pass catchers if and when he moves on. In short, it’s his turn to enter free agency as the premier player at his position and he’s already stated he has no intention to offer the Broncos a “home team discount.” It’s expected he will receive up to $10 million per season on the open market.
So where would he fit?
The teams with the most salary cap space are Oakland, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Miami. It’s difficult to see any key free agents choosing to go to Oakland or Miami unless they ridiculously overpay, which they’ve never been afraid to do. Early rumors are Cleveland and Indianapolis will be in pursuit – both would be great destinations from a fantasy perspective. In Cleveland he would undoubtedly be the “1b” to the ascending superstar Josh Gordon. The Browns also have a legitimate receiving threat at the tight end position with Jordan Cameron to draw defensive attention. In Indianapolis he would join an incredibly talented young group of Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen. His situation would be very similar to what he dealt with in Denver. He would be fighting for targets with the aforementioned group, plus Reggie Wayne and Trent Richardson.
A dark horse candidate in my opinion is the Baltimore Ravens. They desperately need to give Joe Flacco a security blanket type of receiver he sorely misses last year when Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers and Dennis Pitta went down with a hip injury. He would form an imposing duo with downfield threat Torrey Smith.
Even though I don’t think they can afford him, the Carolina Panthers have to eventually surround Cam Newton with legitimate pass catchers. Steve Smith is nearing the end and running on fumes, Ted Ginn Jr. performed over his head as a free agent last year and Greg Olsen should not be a contender’s top receiving threat. Unfortunately, the Panthers are going to have to rebuild their offensive line this off-season so free agent wide receivers are going to have to wait as they continue living with the “ghosts of GM’s past.”
In my opinion, Eric Decker is dynasty “buy” right now. I believe he will succeed regardless of destination. In fact, playing on a team without so many mouths to feed will benefit him greatly. He has the size, skill and proven production to continue being a high end fantasy WR2 or low end WR1. His price is probably the lowest it will be all off-season right now. Don’t wait for him to land in a great situation before kicking the tires on a potential trade.
Eric is on Twitter @OlingerIDP.