Everyone expected Eric Decker’s departure from the Denver Broncos in free agency. Given the numbers Decker put up over the last two years (172 catches, 2,352 receiving yards), the Broncos couldn’t sign him and make significant roster upgrades on defense.
Decker’s asking price was apparently too high for the Broncos, who viewed him as a No. 2 receiver, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. Decker’s five-year, $36.25 million contract with $15 million in guarantees from the New York Jets is pay commensurate with a low-end No. 1 receiver.
The Broncos filled Decker’s void by agreeing to a deal with former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on Saturday evening, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The move has caused a dust-up because Sanders’ agent allegedly backed out of a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, per Rapoport.
"There was no handshake," Sanders said. "There was no kind of agreement in terms of -- you know -- we were close to a deal, but it wasn't anything official just yet."
It’s tough to expect the Broncos to match their historic 2013 offensive production, but if they don’t repeat that performance next season, it won't be Sanders' fault. He may have backed out of the deal with the Chiefs because he couldn't pass up the opportunity to put up big numbers playing with a great quarterback.
One of the main reasons receivers tend to stand out statistically with quarterback Peyton Manning throwing them the ball is the sheer number of targets. Over the last two years, Decker has averaged 141 targets a season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). By comparison, Sanders was targeted an average of 89 times per season over the same span.
|Sanders' Performance Adjusted For Opportunity|
|Decker 2012-2013 Avg.||141||93||66.0%||1274||13.7||375||4.0||12||10.5|
|Sanders 2012-2013 Avg.||89||56||62.7%||680||12.2||259||4.7||4||4|
|Sanders Target Adj.||141||88||62.7%||1073||12.2||414||4.7||6||6|
By giving more opportunities to Sanders, his production jumps up roughly 60 percent across the board. This includes receptions, yards, yards after catch and touchdowns. Adjusting Sanders’ average performance over the past two years yields similar stats as Decker.
Using averages and adjusting for opportunities, the Broncos lose roughly seven receptions for 201 yards and five touchdowns with the switch from Decker to Sanders. This is without accounting for how Manning might affect Sanders’ statistics in other ways. For example, Manning’s passes may be more accurate, thus making it easier for Sanders to turn them into more yards after the catch.
The perception will be that Sanders isn’t as good in the red zone as Decker. It’s quite easy to point to Decker’s height (6’3”) and past touchdown performance as a major advantage over the 5’11” Sanders.
Height does matter in the red zone, but pointing out the touchdown difference ignores the fact that the Broncos were in the red zone a lot more than the Steelers. Using data from teamrankings.com, the Broncos had about 30 percent more red-zone opportunities than the Steelers over the past two years.
Assuming these opportunities are distributed equally, Sanders still wouldn’t catch as many touchdowns as Decker, but the difference is only about three scores over the course of a season if we assume touchdown rates don’t change.
Touchdowns can be a bit random, but given the available data, it's unlikely the Broncos will need to adjust much for the difference.
Just like Decker, Sanders has the ability to line up in the slot and can field a kick or punt in a pinch. In 2012, Sanders ran 282 routes out of the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Sanders also hasn’t ever had Decker’s propensity for drops, making him more of a weapon on third down.
The return ability is also notable because the Broncos haven't re-signed return man Trindon Holliday this offseason. Sanders returned 10 kicks last season—the most since his rookie year in 2010, when he had 25. Sanders could be a candidate to return kicks if the Broncos are comfortable risking his injury.
Sanders was one of the few free agents left on the market coveted by many teams. He visited with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars and the Chiefs, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com. He also had a visit scheduled with the San Francisco 49ers before agreeing to terms with the Broncos. Other teams were likely interested in Sanders, such as the New England Patriots, who quickly moved to sign Brandon LaFell once Sanders landed with the Broncos, as reported by Schefter.
According to Brown, teams were wary of signing Sanders to a long-term deal because he has a screw in each foot. It’s an odd report because Sanders played all 32 games over the past two years and improved. It could mean that Sanders will sign a shorter deal—the terms of the contract have not been released—and have to prove he is healthy before a team extends him a long-term offer.
With Sanders in tow, the Broncos shouldn’t miss a beat on offense. Along with an upgraded defense and more depth in 2014, they are poised to challenge for another Super Bowl title.
Broncos general manager John Elway is not holding anything back in his attempt to win, perhaps realizing the window is closing on the great Manning. Sanders is just the latest example of Elway making every move he can within the limits of the salary cap.