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Reception Perception: Saints should enter Eric Decker Sweepstakes

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Brandin Cooks is gone, and Ted Ginn Jr doesn’t inspire much confidence. Fortunately, the New York Jets’ gross incompetence has made a game-changing wideout available.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - New York Jets wide receiver Eric Decker (87) celebrates a first down conversion caught against Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick (27) at MetLife Stadium.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - New York Jets wide receiver Eric Decker (87) celebrates a first down conversion caught against Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick (27) at MetLife Stadium.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has done a great job of making the rest of the NFL better this offseason. With no viable quarterback on the roster between Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg, and Bryce Petty and a lost year looming, Maccagnan appears to have already thrown in the towel for 2017 and released a number of talented veterans.

Those names aren’t typically seen on the waiver wire. The starters released from the Jets include center Nick Mangold, receiver Brandon Marshall, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, kicker Nick Folk, offensive tackle Breno Giacomini, cornerback Darrelle Revis, safety Marcus Gilchrist, and linebacker David Harris.

Interestingly, receiver Eric Decker recently joined that list.

Decker signed a big contract a few years ago, leaving Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos to build his brand in New York City. Decker was productive despite sketchy-at-best quarterback play and a couple of unlucky injuries to his shoulder and hip. Now released to save $7.2-million in salary cap space, the 30-year old receiver is finished with surgery rehab and fully cleared to practice.

Are the Saints interested? Nothing has been reported besides NFL Network analyst Heath Evans (a well-connected former Saints fullback) suggesting Decker as a good fit. Yesterday Decker observed Tennessee Titans practice and went through a physical, though he left without a contract. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey cautioned against speculation:

“We brought him in and I talked to him this morning for about 25 minutes and got a chance to meet him. I never met him. Similar to our draft, when you do the top 30 visits. Similar situation. Get a chance to meet him and do a physical.”

So as far as anyone knows, Decker is still on the free agent market. This is a great opportunity for the Saints to get better late in the offseason, similar to fullback John Kuhn joining up just before training camp last summer.

Decker was productive in New York despite playing in a bad offense, scoring 19 touchdowns in three years and averaged 66.2-yards per game. He only played in three games last year before going down with a hip injury, and struggled with a more-erratic-than-usual Fitzpatrick at quarterback but still averaged 21.6-yards per catch.

It’s too much to wonder if he can return to the level of production he enjoyed with Manning in Denver (scoring 24 touchdowns and averaging 72.5-yards per game in two years), but Decker can still play. He wouldn’t be the first older receiver to see a late-career resurgence when paired with Drew Brees.

But there’s more to a player’s quality than touchdowns scored and yards gained (yes, really). What first tipped me off to Decker being a great fit in New Orleans is the deep dive done by NFL.com fantasy football analyst/editor Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception project. As I’ve written about before, Harmon charts every route run by receivers in an eight-game sampling to find their strengths and weaknesses. It’s the most-comprehensive look at wide receiver play you’ll find. You can purchase access to his findings here.

So what did Decker’s Reception Perception profile reveal? The 6-foot-3, 214-pound receiver is built to succeed off of Marques Colston’s blueprint as a “big slot” option: 65.1-percent of Decker’s routes came from the slot, and he lined up behind the line of scrimmage (LOS) on 80.4-percent of his attempts.

For context, former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks started behind the LOS on 69.4-percent of his attempts (leading the Saints’ receiver corps). Neither Willie Snead IV (behind the LOS at 59-percent) nor Michael Thomas (30.9-percent) have much experience filling in at flanker on the outside, and while Decker was used in the slot more in New York he does fit better as that off-line “space” player.

With Cooks now catching passes from New England Patriots superhero Tom Brady, Decker can fill in outside and keep pressure off of Ted Ginn Jr to be the only guy as a deep threat. Thomas was pigeonholed by many as the big slot player to replace Colston but he’s much more of an on-the-line receiving threat. Tight end Coby Fleener had a rough first year as a vertical option on seam targets, so Decker could possibly be an answer there too.

Decker is not going to replace Cooks, and honestly neither is Ginn. But he can do some of the same things Cooks did at an even more-efficient level, as seen in his Reception Perception results. Cooks graded out as an average or below-average route runner on each of the vertical routes - the nine, post, and corner - but Decker scored higher success rates on each.

On intermediate-range routes like the curl, out, and dig, Decker saw a significant gap between his ratings and Cooks’ mediocre scores. He can run a fuller route tree than Cooks and get more consistent separation on a greater variety of routes.

Decker is better against different types of coverage, too. Cooks infamously struggled against man coverage, carrying a league-worst 51.4-percent success rate. Decker on the other hand, perhaps due to his greater size, scored 71.9-percent to rank 13th out of 50 receivers charted.

Cooks was, again, ineffective versus zone coverage (74.5-percent success rate) while Decker showed a knack for combating it (82-percent). Finding the holes in zones is an important skill for receivers to own in the Saints’ offense, and Cooks’ struggle to master it may help explain why he went for stretches during games without targets. He just wasn’t open.

And against press coverage? Cooks graded out as the worst in the NFL with a 31.7-percent success rate. In the grand scheme of things Decker’s rating was middle-of-the-road, but he more than doubled Cooks’ efficiency at 68.2-percent.

This might read like a hit piece on Cooks, but that wasn’t my intention. He was a highly productive weapon in New Orleans’ offense despite not refining his route-running. But the chance to add a receiver with Eric Decker’s skills set this late in the offseason can’t be undersold, and comparing him to Cooks is illustrative. I don’t know if the Saints have him on their radar, but they should absolutely consider his services.