Who will have the better fantasy season: Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker?
The Denver Broncos have a pair of third-year wide receivers poised to make a major impact this season in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. They were already trending in the right direction based on their development last season, and their outlooks became even sunnier when the Broncos added Peyton Manning in the offseason.
If the combination of Thomas and Decker could have their moments with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at quarterback, just imagine what they could do with a healthy Manning running the show. Broncos fans are having flashbacks of Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, who each had 1,000-yard seasons from 1998-2000.
Decker led the Broncos in 2011 with 44 catches, 612 yards and eight touchdowns. He was tied for 34th among receivers in fantasy scoring (ESPN standard settings), matching more established receivers such as Malcom Floyd and Santonio Holmes. Decker's numbers faded badly after a nice start, as he had just seven catches for 85 yards and zero touchdowns from Weeks 13-17. Consistency was also an issue, as he had eight games with two or fewer fantasy points.
His drop-off was somewhat tied to Tebow replacing Orton at quarterback in Week 7. While Decker had a stretch of three straight games with a touchdown with Tebow at the helm, he also had seven of those two-point-or-fewer fantasy performances.
Thomas didn't make his 2011 debut until Week 7 as he recovered from a torn Achilles tendon. He finished with 32 catches for 551 yards (a whopping 17.2 yards per catch) and four touchdowns during the regular season. He made even more waves in the playoffs when he went for 204 yards and the 80-yard touchdown in overtime to upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, Thomas didn't make much of a fantasy impact until a 144-yard, two-touchdown outburst against the Vikings in Week 13. That effort spurred a strong finish, as Thomas had 25 catches for 448 yards and three scores in the final five weeks of the regular season. Thomas and Decker essentially swapped fantasy value at that point.
While Thomas emerged as the big-play wideout late last season (nine catches of 20-plus yards), Decker had the ability for big plays as well, with five of his eight touchdowns being 25 yards or more in length.
In terms of physical tools, Thomas has the upper hand. He was a first-round draft pick in 2010 (ahead of Tebow, no less) in large part because of his size and speed. But Thomas' receiving skills are relatively raw, as he has played just 21 regular-season NFL games in two seasons and came from a run-heavy offense at Georgia Tech. Thomas even said in a radio interview in June that he'll have to get used to running the full route tree with Manning at the helm. He didn't have to be as precise with his route-running in college or early in his NFL career, with the erratic Tebow throwing him the ball. It will take far more than pure physical ability for Thomas to succeed with Manning, who can be very particular with his receivers.
Decker came into the league as a far more polished receiver. While he is not the physical specimen Thomas is, he has plenty of size (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) and speed, being used as a punt returner. Plus he got a leg up during the offseason, as he had extra workout time with Manning after he joined the Broncos while Thomas was recovering from offseason surgery to remove pins from his thumb. The extra time together looks to be apparent from training camp, where Decker has starred in early practices.
There's lots of time for Manning to click with both receivers, but Decker looks to be the one to get more looks at least early on. He might be the more consistent and safer option of the two. Thomas has plenty of upside and could have his share of big games, especially since there should be lots of passes to go around with a healthy Manning running the show. For now, Decker will also serve as the team's primary punt returner, which could mean extra points from a special teams touchdown or return yards (if your league counts that).
In early live draft results, Thomas is being taken approximately in the seventh round and Decker in the eighth. They both have lots of upside and the differences could be slight in the long run, but Decker appears to be the better value.