Usually, though not always, a guy has to disappoint before he becomes a fantasy football whipping boy.
The position doesn’t matter. Any quarterback, running back, wide receiver, or tight end who fails to live up to preseason expectations is inevitably and (sometimes) rightfully written off by fantasy owners who will look elsewhere for their production next summer, thank you very much.
That’s why I can’t quite figure out why my Twitter timeline is overflowing with 140-character analysis writing off Eric Decker in 2014, as teams prepare to court him in free agency. The fifth-year pass catcher finished 2013 as fantasy’s ninth highest scoring receiver, precisely one year after he finished, once more, as fantasy’s ninth highest scoring receiver.
Decker has provided a heaping helping of equity for re-draft fantasy players who invested in him. There were 24 and 21 receivers taken before Decker in 2012 and 2013, respectively. A better draft day value you could hardly find.
Decker had a fairly cold streak in 2013 that stretched from late October through the end of November. Could that be it, even though Decker went nuclear in three of his last five regular season games?
I don’t think that’s the source of that overriding skepticism about Decker’s 2014 prospects. I think, plainly and simply, it stems from the belief that without Peyton Manning throwing him the ball, Decker won’t (can’t) be anything close to a high-end fantasy option.
The sentiment is that anyone with a pulse and two functioning legs could’ve posted top-10 fantasy numbers with Manning at the helm. Decker is a product of Peyton’s Perfect Machine, the thinking goes. Nothing more or less.
I think an important part of off-season analysis is trying to deconstruct long-held notions of certain players. If you can do just that, then you were wrong. If you can’t, you were right, or something close to it. I pored over the numbers in an attempt to shake my view that Decker will be a strong fantasy producer in almost any offense.
Here’s what I found.
Volume and efficiency
We’ve seen it before: a player thrives on a glut of targets in an offense centered around force feeding him the pigskin, he leaves in free agency for another team a little less concerned with throwing every other pass his way, and he flames out.
It’s vitally important to know who gets by on volume at any position, and who posts solid efficiency numbers.
Does Decker fit that bill?
The short answer: no.
Decker barely cracked the top-20 in targets during his first year with Manning, though neither targets total is skimpy. How many second or third receiving options average 8.4 targets a game? Not many. Not many at all.
RotoViz’s fantasy points over par (FPOP) — a great measure of efficiency — also tells a hopeful story about Decker’s production. Decker posted a hefty .31 FPOP per target during the 2013 season, right in line with his career FPOP of .30. Calvin Johnson’s 2013 FPOP was .33, though that has a lot to do with the massive amount of defensive attention Megatron sees without any viable receivers in Detroit, while Decker often gets single coverage.
Dez Bryant finished 2013 with an FPOP per target of .16. Larry Fitzgerald posted an FPOP of .08. Andre Johnson finished at -0.01.
Was Decker in any way a drag on Manning’s stellar quarterback rating? Let’s see: Decker’s wide receiver rating — measuring a quarterback’s rating when throwing in that guy’s direction — was 113.4 in 2013, fifth best in the NFL.
Was that an anomaly? Decker’s 2012 wide receiver rating of 123.7 — second best in the league — says no.
Decker’s targets are also what would undoubtedly be described as high-quality targets, coming from the game’s premiere signal caller. That quarterback quality is going to drop off dramatically wherever Decker lands this off-season.
Perhaps being the No. 1 receiving option with counterbalance the potentially severe drop off in quality targets. Maybe it won’t. I think that should be at the crux of the argument.
Whatever happens, it’s reassuring to know that Decker didn’t put up back-to-back top-10 fantasy receiver numbers thanks to an unsustainable amount of targets that compensated for inefficiency.
He’s a red zone freak
Decker’s efficiency can’t be discussed without an examination of his red zone dominance. The guy is 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, after all. He’s just what we look for in a receiver who, you know, actually scores touchdowns.
Here’s how Decker stacked up in 2013 against some of the best red zone producers in the NFL (thanks to fellow XN Sports fantasy scribe Rich Hribar for collecting this data).
|Player||Red zone targets||Red zone receptions||Red zone yardage||Red zone touchdowns|
Decker hasn’t only excelled near the paint in the NFL. He dominated the red zone in college too, finishing his collegiate days with a 35 percent red zone touchdown rate. That’s not all that abnormal for a big body with soft hands and a penchant for precise route running, as the scouting folks are known to point out.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the team that signs Decker next month — it almost certainly won’t be the Broncos — to take note of Decker’s red zone excellence and use him accordingly.
What about 2011?
Here’s what Decker had working against him during his second season: the two-headed quarterback of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, and an offense that all but threw out of the passing game under the worst throwing signal caller of a generation.
Decker caught 44 passes for 612 yards and eight scores that season on 91 targets. More than 30 wide receivers saw more footballs come their way.
It’s tough to accurately judge Decker’s 2011 season, which saw him post an abysmal catch rate of 48 percent. Again though: Tebow. It’s noteworthy, I think that Decker averaged more yards per reception and more touchdowns per catch in that hellhole of an offense. Probably that’s better trivia than it is a predictive measure.
Your feelings on Decker’s 2011 campaign likely have a lot to do with your predisposition to loving or hating him. I think, at best, an examination of his pre-Manning numbers is inconclusive.
The verdict (for now)
I’m looking forward to once again drafting Decker as a arbitrage play this summer, unless his average draft position inexplicably spikes once he leaves Peyton’s Perfect Machine (it won’t).
Decker is exactly what we look for in a fantasy football producer: a guy who makes a lot of his opportunities and is relevant — and occasionally dominant — inside the 20-yard line. I suppose he could sign in a barren offensive wasteland this spring, which would make me re-think my position, but for now, I can’t find a reason to dislike Decker.
Especially with that square jawline and four-day scruff.