Buyers beware: Decker's not elite

Eric Decker

Someday, maybe even years after he has signed his first fat contract as an NFL free agent, Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker will know exactly what Super Bowl XLVIII meant to his life.

There were several things that went wrong for Denver in that 43-8 blowout loss to Seattle, with Decker's disappearance ranking right near the top. Before that contest, he was primed to benefit from being the top receiver available on the open market. When it ended, the entire world could see that the expectations placed upon Decker in future years should be lowered quite a bit.

Decker didn't just hurt his stock by catching one pass for 6 yards in that game. He reminded everybody who witnessed that performance of why football evaluators make distinctions between No. 1 and No. 2 receivers.

The players who fall into the former category can dominate under a variety of circumstances. Those who wind up in the latter group look phenomenal until better cornerbacks and more focused defensive schemes expose them for who they really are.

Once Super Bowl XLVIII ended, we knew exactly where Decker stood in this discussion. Despite all his favorable qualities -- a 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame, respectable speed, dependable hands and eye-catching statistics (87 receptions, 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season) -- he's better off going to a team that knows exactly what it's getting once free agency begins.

Any franchise that thinks the Super Bowl performance wasn't a huge red flag is kidding itself. The minute Decker signs the biggest contract of his life in the coming weeks, it will be Exhibit A as to why he needs more help around him to thrive at this level.

The NFL Network already has reported that the Broncos don't view Decker as a No. 1 receiver (and it helps that they already have a point of reference in their top target, Demaryius Thomas). If the asking price for Decker runs too high, it's almost a given that Broncos general manager John Elway will wish him the best and let him walk.

There's a strong case to be made that Denver quarterback Peyton Manning helped elevate Decker's game over the past two seasons. The Broncos also have 14 other unrestricted free agents to consider, some of whom were just as critical to their success as Decker.

That isn't to say the 26-year-old Decker doesn't have his strengths. He has caught 172 passes over the past two seasons and scored 32 touchdowns since the 2011 season began. He's basically gone from being an unheralded third-round pick in the 2010 draft to a player who has improved with every season he's spent in Denver. There's something to be said for that type of development.

It's just that we've seen this movie before and it rarely ends well. The poster child for overrated free-agent wide receivers is former Dallas Cowboys star Alvin Harper, who signed a huge deal with Tampa Bay in 1995 and caught all of 67 passes for the remainder of his NFL career.

There's an infamous list of pretenders who've followed him as well: Peerless Price, Deion Branch, Javon Walker, Bert Emanuel, Jerry Porter, Yancey Thigpen and, most recently, Miami's Mike Wallace. All were players who cashed in on their success with one team. They subsequently struggled with more money in the bank and more pressure on their backs.

Decker is likely to attract a deal in the area of $10 million per year, given the money that's been paid to free-agent wide receivers in recent years. The leverage he'll wield might even push that price tag even higher. The Indianapolis Colts already have been suggested as a possible landing spot, with the New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs desperately needing help at receiver as well. The Chiefs saw firsthand what Decker can do when he's really on, as he scored four touchdowns and gained 174 receiving yards against them in a Broncos' win last December.

That game should've been the most memorable moment of Decker's 2014 season. Instead, the image of him locked up by Seattle's secondary in the Super Bowl is what should endure. Decker was a nonfactor in the biggest game of his career, a receiver who couldn't escape tight coverage on play after play in that contest.

With Thomas working against Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman on the other side of the field, the Broncos needed Decker to win consistently against Seattle's lesser defenders. He never did.

The question everybody should've been asking after that performance was obvious: If that's how Decker plays when he's not facing a team's best cover man, how is he going to live up to a huge deal over the course of an entire season?

It's important to note here that Decker wound up with one reception in that game largely because Manning stopped looking in his direction. The Broncos spent the entire second half feeding Thomas to the point that he set a Super Bowl record with 13 receptions.

So it will be interesting to see exactly how teams approach Decker in negotiations. He clearly is talented enough to help another franchise win games, but it's not as if he's bringing rare ability to the table.

As disappointing as Wallace was in Miami this past season, at least his breathtaking speed set him apart from everybody else in that free-agent class. You could at least understand why the Dolphins were so fascinated by his potential.

Decker, on the other hand, will need just as much talent around him at his next stop if he's going to deliver on his own promise. The mistake here is to think he's similar to Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, a player with similar size, speed and productivity. He's not. We've seen Nelson, who's one of the most underrated receivers in the league, display more big-play ability throughout his career, particularly in clutch moments. With a deal that averages about $5 million a season, Nelson also is one of the best bargains in the league.

Decker probably won't be able to make that claim once this offseason ends. He's going to get paid extremely well, and he's going to be asked to do things under much tougher circumstances.

The good news is that he's had a chance to learn from one of the game's greatest quarterbacks. The bad news is that Manning won't be with him once Decker finally has to prove just how good he really is.

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