FA Duel: Decker vs. Rodgers-Cromartie
As you’ll have seen from the debate about whether or not the Cleveland Browns should be looking to retain Alex Mack or T.J. Ward this offseason, our Free Agent Duels are back, with analysts Gordon McGuinness and Pete Damilatis going back and forth over the decisions that will be keeping many a general manager up at night over the next month.
In this edition their attention turns to the team who came up just short in 2013, losing out to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos head into the offseason with eight players who played 500 or more snaps for them in 2013 potentially on their way out of town as unrestricted free agents. The two most notable are wide receiver Eric Decker and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. So, will the Broncos top priority be keeping one of Peyton Manning’s top targets, or locking down a player who arrived on a one year “prove-it” deal and had his best season since 2009?
The Case for Decker
By Gordon McGuinness
Back in Week 1, in the Thursday night opener against the Baltimore Ravens, Decker dropped three passes on seven targets, earning every bit of his -5.5 grade on the night. Fast forward to the end of the year however and he dropped just six of the next 145 passes thrown his way, racking up 95 receptions for 1,399 yards and 11 touchdowns in 19 games this season. Are his numbers inflated by the fact that he has Manning, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, throwing him the ball? Absolutely, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in a season where his quarterback broke the single-season record for yards and touchdowns, Decker was a key part of the offense.
This was Decker’s fourth year in the league, and second with Manning as his QB, with his production rising each year so far. What impresses me the most about Decker is his versatility in terms of how many of his yards have come from different routes, with no route resulting in more than 265 yards in the regular season. Six different routes saw Decker pick up over 100 yards too, as Decker showed that he can pick up yards in a range of ways.
His best game of the 2013 season as a receiver came against the Oakland Raiders in Week 3, as Decker forced five missed tackles while putting up 133 yards. That pushed his missed tackles forced up to eight for the season, another high water mark in his young career. That’s perhaps the most important thing about Decker, he’ll only be 27 when next season begins and, as good as he has been the past two seasons, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the best is yet to come for him in 2014 and beyond.
The Case Against Decker
By Pete Damilatis
Decker could not have had a worse final audition for free agency, as the Seahawks secondary held him to just one catch and six yards on four targets in the Super Bowl. It’s not fair to overreact to one game, but it’s hard to ignore how ineffective he was as the Denver offense imploded. It again raises the question of how much of Decker’s success comes from Manning, and the numbers are concerning:
|Yards Per Route Run||PFF Receiving Grade|
|With Manning (2012-2013)||1.82||+19.2|
|Without Manning (2010-2011)||1.30||-8.4|
As Gordon pointed out, Decker’s raw stats are impressive and trending upward. But he also plays in a pass-heavy offense that saw him run more routes than all but six receivers this season. He tied for the second-most deep receptions in the league, but also plays with the league’s best deep passer.
And though he was more reliable after a rough Week 1, Decker’s 22 drops in his previous two seasons still call his hands into question.
Moving from Tim Tebow to Manning would obviously help any receiver, but Demaryius Thomas still averaged 2.72 Yards Per Route Run before Peyton’s arrival. Unlike Thomas, Decker has never been exceptional without his Hall of Fame quarterback. The 27-year-old receiver will demand a long-term investment, while Manning may only be around for another year or two. With Thomas himself entering a contract year, the Broncos are better off saving their cap space for the receiver who can produce regardless of who is under center.
The Case For Rodgers-Cromartie
By Pete Damilatis
This will be Rodgers-Cromartie’s second straight offseason as a free agent, after last year’s venture did not go so well. Having earned our third-highest coverage grade in his second season back in 2009, “DRC” was once one of the NFL’s most promising young cornerbacks. But a poor follow-up season was followed by an ill-fated trade to Philadelphia. The Eagles miscast him as a nickel slot cornerback, and the 2.68 yards he allowed per coverage snap in the slot in 2011 was the worst rate by any cornerback that season. By the time he hit free agency for the first time last year, the best offer he could find was a one-year, $5 million “prove it” deal from the Broncos.
However, based on how Rodgers-Cromartie played this season, his next contract should be much longer and larger. With Champ Bailey missing most of the season, the new Bronco stepped into the starting lineup and rediscovered that promise he showed years ago. DRC finished the regular season with our fourth-highest coverage grade and was named to our Pro Bowl team. He earned only two “red” coverage grades all season, and saved some of his best football for later in the season. He allowed just one touchdown in his last 13 games, and didn’t surrender a single deep pass in the playoffs. His 15.7 coverage snaps per reception was the third-best rate for a cornerback this season (minimum 100 coverage snaps). Just 25% of the targets he faced were completed for first downs, making him a huge asset for Denver’s secondary.
Bailey will carry a $10 million cap number and could be released this offseason given his age and recent health. Even if he renegotiates to stay in Denver, the Broncos will need a plan in place for when he inevitably retires. That could have fallen to young standout Chris Harris, but his torn ACL in the playoffs makes him another question mark this offseason. Rodgers-Cromartie is a good investment for the immediate and long-term future. Manning’s immense talent can compensate for losing a solid wide receiver like Decker, but he can do nothing to replace Denver’s top cornerback.
The Case Against Rodgers-Cromartie
By Gordon McGuinness
Rodgers-Cromartie is coming off the second best year of his career and there’s no denying he was very impressive in 2013. There are, however, still plenty of concerns about how good he can be down the road. How comfortable can you be signing a player who graded out at (-25.7) from 2010-2012 to a long-term deal? Injury concerns about Harris are valid, but these days players are coming back from ACL injuries well enough that realistically the biggest question about him might whether or not he’s ready to go in time for the start of the 2014 season.
It’s harsh to attribute too much of Decker’s success to Manning and, while it’s true that he has had his two best years when Manning has been throwing him the ball, those were his third and fourth years in the league, so it’s not unrealistic to suggest that he was just finding his feet in the first two years – and he didn’t exactly have an ideal quarterback situation before that. Without Decker the Broncos would lack a true outside receiver opposite Thomas and, with the window for the Broncos closing the closer we get to the end of Manning’s career, it’s important for them to keep plenty of weapons around him.
If you were the Broncos general manager and could keep only one, would you opt for Decker or Rodgers-Cromartie? Make your case in the comments section.