Free-agency spotlight: Eric Decker

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
7:00
AM ET
The Denver Broncos and Eric Decker have done the obligatory opening moves to the free-agency dance.

Decker approaches the open market as an unrestricted free agent and Broncos head coach John Fox and executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway have each said they would like Decker back.

Decker has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as the Broncos' No. 2 guy at the position. He knows their offense and understands what needs to be done at the line of scrimmage during the pre-snap. He had 11 drops in 2012 and seven this past season to go along with 24 touchdown catches during that span. Of course Fox and Elway want him back.

Decker has said he wants to be back. With Peyton Manning as the team’s quarterback, the Broncos -- even with an increased commitment to the running game in 2014 -- will throw a lot. And the team expects to be in the Super Bowl hunt again. Of course Decker wants that.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliEric Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season with the Broncos.
But the Broncos have a price and Decker has a price, and the two aren’t expected to be the same unless there is a substantial change of heart on either side.

Fox has called free agency “like going shopping without price tags."

“You need to get price tags before you start buying stuff," he said. "... That's what we're in the process of doing now."

The Broncos have two of the four wide receivers they carried on the 53-player roster this past season up for free agency -- Decker and Andre Caldwell. But Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker had 93.7 percent of the team’s receptions at wide receiver.

The offense was a three-man show at the position with tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno options No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. Caldwell had 16 catches and three touchdowns.

Much of the issue for Decker's potential return to the Broncos is simply bad timing. The Broncos -- even with the salary cap at an all-time high of $133 million per team this season with $150 million per team on the not-so-distant horizon -- are already looking at their free-agency docket a year from now.

Demaryius Thomas will be poised for the open market after the 2014 season, as will Julius Thomas, Welker and linebacker Von Miller. Demaryius Thomas is the team’s No. 1 wide receiver and will have to be a top priority. Julius Thomas, if he has another stellar season in 2014, won’t be far behind.

Welker will take some consideration depending on how things go in 2014. Miller, too, has some questions to answer. How Miller conducts himself, as well as how well he recovers from recent ACL surgery, will factor into whether or not the Broncos roll up the wheelbarrow to make him one of the team's highest paid players four or five seasons into the future.

Then there is the matter of what every team just saw in Indianapolis at the league’s scouting combine. Personnel evaluators saw a group of big, physical and blindingly fast receivers. There is both depth and impact to be found.

Now, showing up and producing at wide receiver has consistently been a difficult affair for NFL rookies. They are not used to the physical play from the defensive backs, not used to working when the definition of "open" is a step instead of yards.

And any potential rookie receiver won’t be used to what’s being asked of them in the playbook. On the Broncos they have to be ready to think fast, work on the fly with most of the calls made at the line of scrimmage and do it for a future Hall of Fame quarterback whose career clock is winding down. Patience and hand-holding will be in short supply.

Not many rookie receivers are going to be built for all that.

The Broncos will have to use some draft capital at the position because Decker will be able to get more money elsewhere. This figures to be his best chance at getting a big contract and it is a fairly shallow class of wide receivers in free agency. Unless he wants to leave money on the table, or the Broncos are unexpectedly willing to put more on the table, he’ll be in somebody else’s uniform next season.

The Broncos will take a look at the rest of the players available, but injury concerns trail many of the more prominent names at the position. There are a handful of slot receivers, but that's a job title already filled in Denver's huddle. It’s why the healthy and likely undervalued Golden Tate is worth a long look, especially given his special-teams abilities.

The Broncos figure to dive into the draft at wideout, but must not only find an athlete ready to contribute as a rookie, but a player mentally ready for what they will ask.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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