The Patriots’ interest in wide receiver Eric Decker goes all the way back to the 2010 NFL Draft.
As ESPN’s Mike Reiss detailed after Decker officially inked a one-year deal with the Pats, the team was prepared to take the former University of Minnesota star in the third round before he was scooped up by Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos three picks earlier.
Eight years later, Decker is in Patriots camp, on a one-year deal that by no means guarantees him a roster spot in New England.
So what could the 31-year-old theoretically bring to the Patriots’ offense?
Well, for starters, let’s look at the numbers: Decker ran 51% of his 484 routes out of the slot in Tennessee last season. 317 of his 563 receiving yards came from inside the numbers and 32 of his 54 catches, according to Pro Football Focus.
For much of his career, Decker has been a highly productive player working out of the slot, as he provides a unique combination of size (6-3, 215 pounds) and route running ability for a player of his stature.
Now nobody expects Decker to regain his form from his younger days when he was piling up 1,000-yard seasons with double-digit touchdowns, and he doesn’t have the same juice in his legs that he had back then, but one thing remains clear from his 2017 season with the Titans: he still knows how to run routes.
Decker’s speed and quickness aren’t what they used to be, but his attention to detail and understanding of how to beat coverages has allowed him to remain on an NFL roster.
Below, I’ll take you through a few plays from last season that illustrate Deckers’ savvy route running abilities and highlight what his role might look like in the Patriots offense:
This route was downright filthy and perfectly exemplifies Decker’s next-level understanding of route running. Decker is lined up as the “X” receiver on the weak side of the formation at the top of the screen, which gives him space to operate one-on-one on the outside. He’s going to start the route by closing the gap between him and the defensive back playing off-coverage with a stem that aims right at the outside shoulder of the corner. He then opens his hips to towards the sideline indicating to the defense that he’s running an out route. That gets the corner to commit in that direction. Decker then cuts on a dime to what appears to be an out-and-up, a classic double-move, and pushes vertical long enough to get the corner to flip his hips upfield before stopping on the deep curl route. That’s an incredibly complex route that Decker runs perfectly while selling each stage without taking any shortcuts. He puts the corner in a blender for a 21-yard gain.
We saw Decker working on the outside above but here’s where I think he can carve out a role with the Patriots inside the numbers. He sets up the route with a terrific stem ending right on the toes of the defensive back while using his size and strength to push an inside release putting his body between the defender and the quarterback. Once he gains that leverage with inside position on the corners inside shoulder, there’s not much Rams corner Troy Hill can do to stop it. However, notice where his eyes go once he has won the position battle with Hill. The Titans are running a mesh concept over the middle with tight end Delanie Walker crossing underneath. Decker pushes vertically while delaying his route to create that slight rub with Hill and the outside corner running across the field to stick with Walker. That creates even more separation and gives him the opportunity to run after the catch. Again, this isn’t an overly explosive route from Decker. But the little nuances in his route running allow him to gain 25 yards on the play.
Here he is again working out of the slot in Week 11 against the Steelers. Decker initially has an inside release on the play giving corner Mike Hilton the illusion that he’s in perfect position to jump an in-breaking route. But then Decker seamlessly transitions his body positioning to Hilton’s outside shoulder causing the Steelers’ cornerback to flip his hips in that direction. Decker then uses his 6-3 frame once again to run through the contact at the top of the route to run a deep-out towards the sideline. Hilton attempts to slide underneath the route to pick off the pass but Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota intelligently throws the ball high, and Decker climbs the ladder to haul it in. Hilton recovers nicely on the play, but the ball placement and Decker’s ability to catch the ball outside of his frame leads to a completion.
At first glance, Decker’s box score statistics from a year ago don’t scream big-time signing (54 receptions, 563 yards, 1 TD).
And his $75,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year deal is “peanuts” as cap guru Miguel Benzan told me this week (aka @PatsCap), meaning he’ll have to earn a roster spot.
However, there are two elements to Decker’s game that suggest he has a good chance to make the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster: size and route running ability.
In the past, the Patriots’ wide receiver corps has been among the league’s shortest, with the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and others coming in at under six-foot.
But in the past calendar year, the Patriots have made a point to add some size to the position with additions such as Kenny Britt (6-3), Cordarrelle Patterson (6-2) and now Decker, who’s replacing Jordan Matthews (6-3) on the 90-man roster.
Decker also brings a savviness to the Patriots’ wide receiver corps that was missing at times last season without Julian Edelman.
The Pats relied heavily on receivers Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett, who both leave something to be desired in the route running department, but not Decker.
Decker is a seasoned veteran. That knows how to get open without being blessed with game-breaking speed and athleticism like Cooks and Dorsett.
That kind of smarts always bodes well for receivers that are trying to work their way into the Patriots’ complex offense, and into Tom Brady’s circle of trust.
Decker is far from a roster lock at this point. But we’ve seen receivers of his ilk succeed in New England more often than not.