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How Have Previous Eric Deckers Fared?

Decker learns how to run a Papa Johns franchise

Decker learns how to run a Papa John's franchise.

Just a few minutes before press time, the Jets signed Eric Decker, generally considered the best wide receiver available in free agency. But for weeks, the #hotsportstake on Eric Decker has been pretty clear: he’s a product of playing with Peyton Manning and alongside Demaryius Thomas (and Wes Welker and Julius Thomas). It would take you awhile to find a discussion of Decker’s free agent candidacy without hearing the phrase “he’s not a number one wide receiver.” This sort of analysis is obviously lazy, but it’s also a fascinating counter to an unmade argument. In the same way that Joe Namath is now an underrated quarterback, it’s fair to wonder: if so many people are calling Decker overrated, how can he be overrated?

In today’s post, I want to look at how the previous ten Eric Deckers have fared. What’s an Eric Decker? A gritty hard working player who runs great routes receiver who met each of the following criteria:

  • Finished as a top-20 fantasy wide receiver (with 1 point per 10 yards, 6 points per touchdown, 0.5 points per reception as the scoring system) in Year N
  • Was not his team’s top fantasy wide receiver in Year N
  • Played for a different team in Year N+1

Laurent Robinson, 2011, Cowboys to Jaguars (54-858-11, WR20)

In some ways, Robinson is a good example of why teams should be careful when analyzing a mediocre wide receiver who played in a great passing offense. With the Cowboys, Robinson was the third target for Tony Romo after Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, and Robinson was able to take advantage of single coverage to have a career year. In Jacksonville, Robinson was a complete bust, and soon fell behind both Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts on the depth chart.

On the other hand, this isn’t a fair comparison for a couple of reasons. Concussion issues torpedoed Robinson’s Jaguars career as much as anything else, as he suffered four concussions during his one season in Jacksonville. Even putting injuries aside, Robinson was a one-year wonder: in the three years prior to 2011, he had just 563 total receiving yards. In that light, his 2011 performance is easier to see as a fluke; meanwhile, Decker gained 1,782 yards from 2010 to 2012, playing the first two of those years with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow (and then he went over 1,000 yards in 2012).

Santonio Holmes, 2009, Steelers to Jets (79-1248-5, WR16)

Holmes led Pittsburgh in receiving yards in 2009, but he was the number two fantasy wide receiver as Hines Ward led the way with 95 catches for 1,167 yards and 6 touchdowns. Holmes faced some of the same questions as Decker — he was playing alongside an entrenched number one receiver and benefited from catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, five years ago, Pittsburgh not wanting a player was A Huge Red Flag.

Of course, Holmes turned into a nightmare for the Jets.  But before Holmes torpedoed the team, he was a very productive receiver in 2010. He missed the first four games of the season due to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, but he was a very valuable receiver during the season’s final twelve games. He finished with a stat line of 52-746-6 for the run-first Jets, and caught a number of critical passes (he finished 8th among wide receivers in Win Probability Added). Random Holmes fact: did you know he’s tied with Reggie Wayne for 2nd on the all-time list of game-winning touchdown catches?

In the end, the Jets decision to reward Holmes with a new contract was a terrible one. But he didn’t bust in New York because he wasn’t capable of succeeding without a wide receiver opposite him to relieve the pressure of opposing defenses.

Anquan Boldin, 2009, Cardinals to Ravens (85-1029-5, WR19)

In some ways, Boldin feels like a good parallel to Decker: the former Arizona star was able to put up great numbers playing with Kurt Warner and alongside Larry Fitzgerald. On the other hand, Boldin was also a star in the pre-Warner/Fitzgerald days in Arizona.

Boldin produced a stat line of 64-837-7 his first year in Baltimore, although remember the Ravens were a run-first team and Joe Flacco was not yet imbued with a touch of clutch. Boldin had three good seasons in Baltimore, dominated in the playoffs in 2012, and then had a magnificent season in San Francisco last year.

Derrick Mason, 2004, Titans to Ravens (96-1168-7, WR12)

Mason doesn’t fit the spirit of this query. In 2004, Drew Bennett had a monster season and led the Titans in yards and touchdowns, but in reality, it was Bennett who was the team’s number two wide receiver. Mason had a strong track record of production, with four straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2001 to 2004; in ’05, he joined the Ravens, and continued that trend.

Peerless Price, 2002, Bills to Falcons (94-1252-9, WR6)

If not for Alvin Harper (who was only WR27 in his final year in Dallas under this system — in fact, Harper never topped 36 receptions with the Cowboys), Price would be the go-to example of what happens when a number two wide receiver is treated like a number one. After steadily improving each year, Price broke out in ’02 playing with Drew Bledsoe and Eric Moulds. After the season, he was traded to Atlanta for a first round pick.

Price caught 64 passes for 838 yards and 3 touchdowns in Atlanta in 2003, although that’s not too bad considering that Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner led the Falcons in attempts that season. In 2004, Michael Vick was back and the Falcons operated a very run-heavy offense; Alge Crumpler led the team in receiving yards, and Price was released after the season. Price was never great — the Bills ranked 3rd in pass attempts in ’02, so Price’s numbers were in some ways a reflection of volume — but he remains one of the premier examples of a receiver who excelled as a #2 but struggled as a number one. Of course, Price didn’t return to being a strong complementary weapon after his time in Atlanta, either: he gained 566 yards in three seasons with the Cowboys and Bills before retiring.

Keenan McCardell, 2001, Jaguars to Bucs (93-1110-6, WR16)

For years, McCardell played second fiddle to stealth HOFer Jimmy Smith in Jacksonville. McCardell moved south to Tampa in ’02, although his situation did not change much. Instead of Mark Brunell, he had Brad Johnson; instead of Smith, he played next to Keyshawn Johnson. McCardell had an unimpressive stat line of 61-670-6 in 2002, but remember, the 2002 Bucs had a pretty good defense. In 2003, at the age of 33, McCardell had an outstanding 84-1174-8 season as the team’s top weapon.

Tony Martin, 1998, Falcons to Dolphins (66-1181-6, WR17)

The 1998 Falcons had an absurdly vertical offense behind Chris Chandler, whose 16.6 yards per completion average remains the highest of the last 30 years. His top weapons were Tony Martin and Terance Mathis, who put up almost identical receptions and yards numbers, although Mathis led the team with 11 touchdowns. But Martin is another player who doesn’t fit the spirit of this rule: he was a number one receiver with the Chargers, played in Atlanta for only one season, and was 34 when he moved on to Miami in 1999 (where he caught 67 passes for 1,037 yards and five scores).

Brett Perriman, 1996, Lions to Chiefs (94-1021-5, WR16)

Perriman was a 5’9 wide receiver who had several solid seasons playing alongside Barry Sanders and Herman Moore in Detroit. Then, in ’95 and ’96, he exploded with 202 catches for 2,509 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was signed by the Chiefs in 1997, but couldn’t find targets behind Andre Rison, Tony Gonzalez, Kimble Anders, and Lake Dawson. Perriman wasn’t asked to be the savior in Kansas City, so I don’t think he serves as an example of the “don’t sign a #2 to be a #1″ rule, but he was so clearly a bust that the Chiefs released him in midseason. Perriman, who was 32 at the time, then signed with the Dolphins in midseason, before retiring after the year.

Jeff Graham, 1995, Bears to Jets (82-1301-4, WR19)

Graham is another one who probably fails to meet the spirit of this query: he led the Bears in receptions and receiving yards, but Curtis Conway scored more fantasy points thanks to an additional eight touchdown catches. The Jets signed Graham and drafted Keyshawn Johnson as a one-two punch to revive the team’s receiving corps. Both players had solid, if unspectacular seasons with New York, but it was undrafted rookie free agent Wayne Chrebet who led the team in receptions and receiving yards. Graham was a bust to anyone expecting a 1300-yard season, but he’s better used as an example of “don’t buy a player coming off a career year and expect a repeat.” And also of the “all wide receiver stats from 1995 are really funky” rule.

Andre Rison, 1994, Falcons to Browns (81-1088-8, WR12)

Again, Rison doesn’t fit the spirit of this rule: he was a number one wide receiver in Atlanta, just not in 1994, when Terance Mathis had a career year. Rison was a bit of a disappointment with the Browns, but well, so was everything associated with Cleveland in 1995.  And again, his 47-701-3 stat line wasn’t a reflection of his inability to be a number one wide receiver: if anything, those Browns (well, at least the ’94 version) are famous for the amount of wide receiver talent on the team (Michael Jackson, McCardell, Rison, Derrick Alexander).

Conclusion

It’s easy to think of Peerless Price or Alvin Harper when arguing that a number two wide receiver on a good passing offense is going to bust with a new team.  But in reality, there are very few examples — positively or negatively — of players who are legitimate comps to Decker.  Only 10 examples met the criteria since 1994, and a handful of them are clunky fits, at best. There’s no reason Decker can’t follow the career paths of Boldin or McCardell; in fact, other than Price, there really are no examples of receivers with comparable numbers to Decker who busted because they couldn’t handle being a number one wideout.

And remember, when analyzing wide receivers who change teams, the switch usually occurs after a good season, which means general regression to the mean principles apply. And, of course, lots of wide receivers who switch teams bust for lots of other reasons, too. There’s risk in signing any wide receiver (or any player, for that matter), but I don’t see specific risk unique to Decker.

With Geno Smith and the Jets, no one will expect him to repeat his 87-1288-11 stat line from a year ago. He shouldn’t be expected to salvage any offense, but he’s not being paid like that, either. Adam Schefter reported that the deal was for five years and $36.25M, with only $15M guaranteed. That makes it only slightly more pricey than the deal signed by Golden Tate to be the number two wide receiver in Detroit.

The best way to think of the Decker signing is that it’s the wide receiver version of Branden Albert to the Dolphins. As is often the case, Mike Tanier had a great line about that signing:

Free-agent acquisitions often cost a little too much and don’t fit quite right, like an off-the-rack suit jacket. But when you are walking around naked the way the Dolphins line was, an off-the-rack suit jacket can save you from both hypothermia and embarrassment.

The 2013 Jets wide receiver group was every bit as bad as the Dolphins line; as a group, they caught just 7 touchdowns, and Jeremy Kerley led the team with 523 yards. Frankly, I don’t even think the Jets overpaid for Decker; he may not fit quite right, but he represents an enormous upgrade at the position for New York. Which is a good thing, in light of some much less inspiring news from Wednesday.

{ 11 comments }
  • Keith March 13, 2014, 7:29 am

    This is fantastic work! I was wondering this exact same thing after reading the news this morning. Glad I found this. I still think he should have signed elsewhere.

    Reply
  • James March 13, 2014, 8:03 am

    I really hope McCardell had more than 67 receiving yards on 61 catches in 2002. (Looks like you dropped a zero)

    I’m surprised there aren’t more comps for Decked, but perhaps the reason is simply because there aren’t many teams that have two Top 20 fantasy receivers, and when they do they don’t let them leave easily!

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart March 13, 2014, 8:54 am

      Fixed. And yes, this situation doesn’t happen often for the reasons you stated, which is why it’s important to actually do the research.

      Reply
  • Shattenjager March 13, 2014, 3:58 pm

    It’s Erics Decker, not Eric Deckers. (In case I need to say it, j/k.)

    I always found it interesting that people only ever seemed to bring up Price and Harper as examples of why this type of player is supposedly dangerous. I’m not really surprised to see it’s because they are so rare.

    I will be curious to see how Decker works out for the Jets, because he’s a player with such clear and extreme strengths and weaknesses, and I can make up reasons why he would either be a great fit with Geno Smith or an atrocious one (which probably means he is neither).

    Reply
  • james March 13, 2014, 6:51 pm

    Horrible move by Decker. It’s one thing to try being a number one after being a number two, but he is the ONLY weapon on the jets. The peerless price comparison is excellent. Drew Bledsoe to Michael Vick; Peyton manning to geno smith. If the Broncos or Colts were offering half the money, he should have taken it.

    Reply
    • Nate March 13, 2014, 9:15 pm

      It seems the opportunity to be the #1 target in an offense, even mediocre, is a lucrative deal for some wide receivers in this league. Obviously there are guys like Wes Welker who want to play for a winning team, but don’t forget about Greg Jennings who opted to play for the Vikings over a team with a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Jennings was barely a top 40 WR last year, yet in 2011 was easily top 20 (missed time in 2012 with injury). I think Jennings is a far more fair comparison than most of these guys.

      Reply
  • John Stevens March 14, 2014, 10:34 am

    New York was his first choice due to his reality show with his wife. It was about the money, not winning, and that’s one of the reasons Broncos didn’t make him an offer. Football wasn’t his top priority. We fans in the stands never knew who would show up: “Good Decker” who would catch 4 TDs or “Bad Decker” who would have one catch and then fumble it out of bounds. He dropped too many passes he should have caught. I wish him well in NYC, but he will be a cap casualty in 3 years after the guaranteed money runs out.

    Reply

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