He’s not fast enough. He drops too many passes. He’s a product of the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning. He’s overpaid. He’s overrated. He’s not tough. It’s amazing how much people criticized New York Jets wide receiver Eric Decker coming into the season, and it’s amazing that it took a ridiculous 221-yard outburst in the season finale for him to earn some respect, because he’s been good all season long in what has been a rough situation with the Jets. John Idzik made him the lone big offseason signing, and he was tasked with being Geno Smith‘s top wideout to start the season. Given that Idzik invested so much in Smith and, as we saw with the Percy Harvin trade and the decision to start Geno over Michael Vick, did whatever he could to start him, it’s safe to say that Decker came in with huge expectations.
Despite a hamstring injury and inconsistent quarterback play, I’d say that Decker lived up to those expectations, and he was arguably a top-20 receiver this season. Sure, most of his stats came from yesterday’s outburst against the Miami Dolphins, but he deserved to benefit from a big performance from Smith, who had let him down for most of the season. Depending on whether you prefer the box score stats or the stats on Pro Football Focus, Decker caught ten of 11 or ten of ten targets for 221 yards and a monster touchdown in what was one of the best wide receiver performances of the season. Prior to that, he had just one 100-yard game, and it was against the lowly Tennessee Titans.
Decker isn’t overrated, and I’d argue that he’s actually underrated. Despite playing with quarterbacks who collectively completed just 57.6% of their passes with an unsightly 6.4 yards per attempt, the star wideout was still 14th in the league in catch rate at WR (he hauled in 64.9% of everything thrown at him) and 21st among wideouts with 8.4 yards per target. Yes, that means his quarterbacks averaged a full two yards per attempt more when throwing it to Decker than they did for their season average, which includes the throws to Decker.
Per Advanced Football Analytics, he was 14th in the league in WPA per game and 18th in EPA per game, meaning that he was among the top 20 receivers when it came to adding win probability or expected points to his team. That sort of value can also be seen in the quarterback ratings of the Jets QBs when targeting Decker, as his WR Rating, per PFF, was 23rd in the league at 94.6. Compare that to Geno Smith’s 77.5 QB Rating and Vick’s 68.3 mark, and the numbers show that Decker effectively carried a passing attack with very little help around him.
To show you just how valuable Decker was to the Jets passing offense, let’s take a look at the yards per game averages of the three top receivers on the Jets. Decker led the team in receptions with 72, while Jeremy Kerley and rookie TE Jace Amaro were both second with 38. Neither player averaged half of the yards per game that Decker did. As for Percy Harvin, the in-season acquisition was hardy a reliable No. 2 receiver, as he caught just 55.8% of everything thrown at him. In fact, Decker and Amaro, who had a catch rate over 70%, were the only players with catch rates above 60% on the Jets, but Amaro also averaged just 9.1 yards per reception as a total safety valve. Harvin, Kerley, and Amaro are three talented pass-catchers, but they were all hurt by the poor play of the QBs; it’s telling that the former Bronco wasn’t.
Decker had to earn his near-65% catch rate on 13 yards per target as one of the league’s better players on deep passes, per PFF’s catch rate, which made his task all the more difficult. He had the team’s highest yards per target, and it’s telling and troubling that nobody else with at least 30 targets went over seven yards per target (Harvin was at 6.7).
All these numbers show you that Eric Decker pretty much carried a horrific pass defense on his back, because he wasn’t in an ideal situation from a quarterback standpoint or a weapons standpoint; defenses could basically cut off Decker downfield. He was the team’s leader in yards per reception at 13, and Harvin’s 12.1 total was second-best on the squad. The Jets barely attacked defenses deep, and they mainly went to Decker in order to achieve that. Considering the circumstances, you could call Decker’s season a brilliant first year with the Jets, and his ability to get to 70 catches despite injuries and a lack of help show that he’s more than just the product of Manning.
Were there negative points to his debut season in New York? Of course. He still drops too many passes, as he let eight go in-and-out of his hands. However, he did post a better drop rate than the likes of Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, Julian Edelman, and Anquan Boldin, and that also goes to show you that drops are only one part of the game. He’ll need to work on his hands in the offseason, but it’s honestly not a big issue, especially since he was one of the top 20 receivers in PFF’s yards per route run. Why do I mention this? Both his catch rate, yards per target, and yards per route run show that he was efficient last season (especially in comparison to the stats of his QBs and fellow pass-catchers), therefore the drops don’t detract much from his overall play.
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Going forward, Decker has shown that he is a building block for the next coaching staff, GM, and quarterback. Maybe the next regime gives Geno a shot to compete, but it’s more likely that they tab their own guy- and potentially stopgap- to start. If that’s the case, then Decker could boom in the near future, because he managed to post credible numbers and underrated “rate statistics” despite a disaster of a situation. We’ve seen quarterbacks, such as Joe Flacco last season, severely impacted by the performance of players around them, so it should be re-assuring for Woody Johnson and the subsequent regime to see that Decker managed to succeed in a rough situation.
It shows that he can live up to his contract, and it shows that, perchance, he’s more than even a high-end WR2. I’m not ready to say it, but there’s a chance he is truly a No. 1 wideout. That said, we won’t know until he has a true franchise quarterback to test his value as the No. 1 guy in the offense. Until then, he can hold his head high knowing that he made the best of a difficult situation- and a nagging hamstring injury- on a rebuilding team, and he can definitely feel happy about his 221-yard finale.