Potentially Better or Inevitable Debtor – Is Eric Decker a fit for the Tennessee Titans?
By Ha Kung Wong
In case you missed it as you were thinking about the importance of mid-season baseball (i.e. close to nil but for the worst of the worst teams … I’m looking at you Philadelphia), focusing on where Lonzo Ball and his crazy dad might be off to in the NBA Draft (spoiler alert: They’re staying in LA) or running back to the theater to watch Wonder Woman for the 10th time (OK, for me, perhaps that’s more like the 20th time…), Eric Decker, the much celebrated WR from the Denver Broncos, and more recently the much less celebrated WR from the ailing New York Jets, signed with the Tennessee Titans.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) June 19, 2017
It was only a one-year deal with a $1.35 million base salary, $2.5 million signing bonus and another $1.5 million available via incentives, which is quite the pay cut from the $6.5 million salary he was set to earn from the Jets, but Decker was still pretty psyched about it.
— Eric Decker (@EricDecker87) June 19, 2017
Of course, the REAL question is whether Titans fans should be psyched about it.
Decker in the Big Apple
Eric Decker has taken a ton of flack since leaving the Denver Broncos to play for the New York Jets in 2014, but part of the problem was the drop in QB play.
Although Peyton Manning wasn’t what he once was, going from that to the likes of Geno Smith, post-Falcons and post-Eagles Michael Vick, and Ryan “I’m really smart but can’t figure out which team to throw to” Fitzpatrick isn’t going to make anyone better.
In 2014, Geno Smith had a 77.5 passer rating, good for 29th among starting QBs, behind the likes of Kyle Orton, Austin Davis and Drew Stanton. In fact, Smith’s completion percentage of 59.7 might sound alright, but ranked him 27th among starting QBs, and was ranked “below average” in every single advanced passing metric on Pro Football Reference. In other words, he wasn’t good.
Sure, there was a little bit of Fitz-magic in 2015, until it actually counted in the end, and Decker did better that year, but poor QB play in 2014 and hip and shoulder injuries in 2016 essentially made Decker’s time in New York relatively unremarkable.
But was it any more unremarkable than when he was in Denver?
Let’s take a look at his stats during his 4 years in Denver as compared to his 3 years in New York.
If you look carefully, you’ll see that, for the most part, he wasn’t really better in Denver than he was in New York. His receptions per game and yards per game were actually up, and he had significantly less fumbles. Sure, he ultimately had a slightly higher “Approximate Value” (AV) (which attempts to place a single numerical value on the player where higher is better) in Denver, but the difference is pretty insignificant in comparison to other WRs (for instance, Terrell Owens had an AV of 165).
Decker in the Volunteer State
So now that we see that Decker really isn’t too different from when he was the hot free agent target leaving Denver in 2014, the next part of the equation is how he’ll fit in with the Titans. And what better place to start than at QB with Marcus Mariota.
Interestingly, although the Titans improved dramatically from a 3-win team in 2015 to a team with a winning record in 2016, it’s unclear how much of that was directly due to Mariota.
Clearly, TD to INT ratio improved dramatically leading to a modest upswing in passer rating from 91.5 to 95.6. But QBR, which takes into account QB scrambles and a QB’s ability to keep the play alive, increased more notably from 51.6 to 64.9. This might imply that Mariota’s most significant improvement was in his ability to run with the ball, which might help explain why the Titans went from having the 25th most rush yards at 4 yards per attempt in 2015 to having the 3rd most rush yards with 4.6 yards per attempt in 2016. I’m not saying Mariota’s rush yards were specifically the reason why the Titans’ ground game improved, clearly signing DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry were in large part responsible for that. But forcing defenses to respect the RB in the backfield as well as QB scrambles certainly has a synergistic impact on the overall ground game. Another impact of having a solid ground game is forcing linebackers to creep up, leaving more room for receiving routes. Unfortunately, the Titans didn’t have much to take advantage of that at the time.
In 2016, the Titans took steps to improve their WR core by snagging Rishard Matthews in free agency, but did little else to help then top-receiving stalwart Delanie Walker get more room to roam, other than take a flyer on Tajae Sharpe in the 5th round of the Draft. As a result, they still had the 8th least receiving yards per game through the regular season.
Drafting Corey Davis in 2017 in the first round at 5th overall was a bit of a reach, but it was clear that the Titans’ first priority was to avoid leaving Mariota high-and-dry again no matter what, so it made sense. Adding Decker is a good move as a low risk veteran presence with upside, as we’ve seen how Decker originally flourished as the second option in Denver with back-to-back 1000+ yard and 10+ TD seasons paired with Demaryius Thomas. Being the 3rd/4th option in Tennessee takes the pressure off with defenses being forced to key on Matthews, Walker and potentially Davis. Plus, it’s clear that the Titans value a veteran presence in the locker room, as after two uninspiring seasons on the team (totaling just 210 yards with no TDs in 2016), the Titans still decided to keep Harry Douglas around for 2017, albeit at less than half his original salary. Decker adds that presence plus a much higher ceiling on the field.
So, What’s the Answer?
In my opinion, signing Decker to a 1-year deal this late in the offseason was a savvy move by the Titans that improves the outlook of the entire Titans offense with very little risk. Heck, they’re paying Decker essentially the same amount they paid Douglas last year, which is only a fraction of what similarly position Jeremy Maclin was just paid by the Baltimore Ravens (i.e. a 2-year deal worth $11 million).
Whether this amounts to anything will depend primarily on how draft picks Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor fit in, as rookie WRs don’t always mesh immediately. If Davis is a quick study, though, I could envision 3-WR sets with Matthews, Decker and Davis alongside Walker being an effective upgrade for Mariota, perhaps elevating the pass game to match what was done for the ground game in 2016.
In the meantime, at least we know T-Rac, one of the most popular mascots in all of sports according to Wikipedia, will be there. That’s got to be worth something. Because nothing says “Titan” like a raccoon doing stunts on a motorcycle.