Free agents love numbers, not the truth - The Buffalo News

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Free agents love numbers, not the truth

Eric Decker’s agent is almost certain to point toward a pile of statistics to state his case today when the free-agent wide receiver hits the open market. It makes sense. Decker had a terrific year with 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Broncos, validating one good year with another.

Decker proved his previous season, when he had 85 catches for 1,064 yards and 13 scores, wasn’t a fluke. It marked tremendous improvement over 2011, when he had 44 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs. Any general manager could see him trending in the right direction going into the prime of his career.

The numbers don’t lie, but they do bend the truth.

Decker played the last two seasons with Peyton Manning, who last year had the best season for a quarterback in history. He played opposite Demaryius Thomas, a true star who required double-coverage. The Broncos also had one of the NFL’s top slot receivers in Wes Welker. We shouldn’t forget tight end Julius Thomas, either.

To review, each of the Broncos’ top four receivers had at least 65 catches, at least 778 yards and at least 10 touchdowns. It’s what happens when the quarterback throws for 5,477 yards and 55 TDs. Somebody needs to be on the other end, but almost any other starting receiver would have put up big numbers with Manning.

This isn’t to trivialize Decker’s season but to keep it in perspective. He was the second-leading receiver on a good team. No. 2 receivers these days reportedly will command somewhere between $6.5 million and $8.5 million per season on a contract that’s certain to include a massive signing bonus and $15 million guaranteed.

All he needs for a monster payday is one desperate general manager who convinces himself that Manning was given too much credit and Decker not enough.

Decker made $1.323 million last season, good money by most standards but pocket change when stacked against his production. He could be looking at a 600 percent raise, which would take him to about $7.9 million per season or roughly the same money Mike Williams pocketed last season in Tampa Bay.

Williams has never had more than 65 catches, more than 1,000 yards or more than nine touchdowns in a season. Last year, he signed a six-year contract worth $40.25 million that included $15 million guaranteed. Injuries wiped out all but six games last season, and now there’s talk the Bucs will release him for financial reasons.

If it happens, the Broncos would be wise to sign Williams. He was productive in his first three seasons with mediocre quarterbacks. Imagine what he would accomplish if he were the second receiver on a loaded Denver team with one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. His stock would soar, and Decker would become an afterthought.

At least that’s the thinking. Nobody knows for sure how one player will perform for another. Even with Manning, one could argue that he had a career year because he had great players around him. Making it work is difficult enough, but figuring out how and why it works is even tougher.

And that makes for risky business. It’s why there have been so many busts in free agency and even more in the draft.

Decker’s timing couldn’t be better. The salary cap is $133 million, giving teams $10 million more to spend and players more money to make than they had last year. But it also gives GMs more room to make mistakes in their attempt to make a big splash. Decker makes for an easy sell for any team, particularly weaker ones.

New England for years has refused to spend big money on receivers because Tom Brady can work with anyone. Yes, the Patriots suffered without a top wideout last season. Their biggest problem in the passing game was losing Rob Gronkowski. Their success was tied to his health. Great tight ends are hard to find. Receivers can be easily replaced.

Decker would arouse the fan base in Buffalo. The eternal optimists would conveniently ignore the variables, focus on his statistics and hope for the best. That’s the way it usually works. I would imagine it would be a popular move between now and, say, October, when fans get a dose of reality.

The reality is that Decker is more likely to fall short of expectations than justify the contract he’s about to sign. He’s almost certain to play for a team with a weaker receiving corps and an inferior quarterback. Nobody should be surprised if he fades away in a few years, joining a long list of wealthy underachievers.

Bills quarterback EJ Manuel needs all the help he can get after struggling through his rookie season.

Decker is capable of instilling confidence in a young offense and giving Manuel another option underneath. It doesn’t mean he would make Buffalo a better team, or a playoff team, partly because Manuel isn’t good enough to make the best use of him.

Decker isn’t worth the risk. It’s something to keep in mind when he signs with another team.


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