In today's passing league, wide receivers are marquee players in free agency. Teams are willing to pay top dollar for pass catchers with blue-chip characteristics -- guys who can help maximize a franchise quarterback. Perusing the 2014 free-agent class, Eric Decker and Hakeem Nicks unquestionably are the top two receivers on the market.
Decker, who has scored 33 touchdowns in four NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos, truly blossomed over the past two years with Peyton Manning at quarterback. Decker has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns, finishing with at least 85 receptions and 11 touchdowns in each.
Nicks, who entered the NFL one year before Decker, has been hampered by injuries over the past two seasons with the New York Giants. When healthy, though, Nicks has been one of the NFL's toughest covers. In addition to topping the 1,000-yard mark in 2010 and 2011, Nicks helped carry Big Blue to a Super Bowl title, catching 28 balls for 444 yards and four touchdowns in the 2011 postseason.
With several teams in desperate need of an experienced playmaker in the passing game, I popped in the tape to see which of these two free-agent receivers is the superior talent. Here's what I found:
Decker is one of the most consistent pass catchers in the game, exhibiting outstanding hand-eye coordination and upper-body strength while snatching balls outside of the strike zone. He routinely wrestles the ball away from defenders on 50-50 plays and also displays the balance and body control to adjust to throws tossed slightly off the mark. Decker's uncanny knack for coming down with contested throws makes him a dangerous weapon in critical situations, particularly in the red zone, as his prodigious touchdown totals demonstrate.
Nicks is a terrific pass catcher with strong hands and ball skills. He swallows up the ball with his big mitts (Nicks sports 10 1/2-inch hands and wears XXXXL gloves), routinely corralling 50-50 balls on the perimeter. On deep throws, Nicks easily tracks the ball and adjusts to off-target throws. He shows tremendous body control in making over-the-shoulder catches down the sideline, perfectly executing the toe-tap to stay inbounds. Now, I must point out that Nicks lacked his typical consistency in 2013, but some of the drops could be attributed to a middle-finger injury that hindered his ability snatch the ball with his hands.
Decker is a crafty route runner with a terrific understanding of pace and tempo. He effectively uses a combination of head-and-shoulder fakes and physicality to create separation at the top of routes. Against press coverage, Decker effortlessly works free from defenders, using his size and strength to create space. As the video clip to the right shows, Decker's willingness to engage in a physical battle at the line of scrimmage allows him to work free in the red zone. He has mastered this tactic over the past few years.
Nicks is a polished route runner with impeccable timing. He understands where he fits in the route progression, patiently setting up his routes to ensure he is open when the quarterback is ready to throw. In addition, Nicks will use every trick in the book to create separation. He discreetly snatches at defenders at the top of the route to get free on curls and digs, but also is crafty enough to use various stems and releases to get open on vertical routes. During Nicks' college days at North Carolina, coach Butch Davis likened the wideout's physicality to that of Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. I certainly see those traits when I watch him work as a pro.
The top receivers in the NFL have the ability to make plays with the ball in their hands. Decker is underrated as a catch-and-run player on the perimeter. He's a hard-nosed runner who also has enough speed and quickness to run away from defenders in traffic. Part of Decker's success can be attributed to his background as a punt returner, where he routinely displayed the ability to run through contact and weave through defenders in the open field. Although he lacks true home-run speed, Decker certainly has the ability to turn short passes into big gains.
Nicks is a deceptive playmaker in the open field, a powerful runner adept at shedding tacklers in tight areas with an aggressive stiff-arm. Additionally, he will rip through arm tackles to turn a curl or dig into a gain of 20-plus yards. Yards after the catch are coveted at a premium; Nicks' running skills and toughness make him an ideal fit in an offense predicated on receivers busting big gains.
Observers typically associate explosiveness with speed and quickness, but offensive coordinators use the term to refer to big-play ability. To win in the NFL with a pass-first approach, offenses must generate gains of 20-plus yards and touchdowns through the air. Decker quietly has become one of the league's top big-play weapons over the past three seasons, tallying 39 receptions of 20-plus yards in that span. (In 2013 alone, Decker finished with 19 grabs of 20-plus yards, including six of 40-plus.) Decker is adept at making plays on deep routes, particularly against press coverage. He will use an assortment of double moves and/or clever physical maneuvers to work free from coverage on vertical throws. With teams intent on taking away the Broncos' dangerous short game, Decker's ability to win down the field added an explosive element to the offense.
Stepping into the league as a first-round pick in 2009, Nicks immediately became a top weapon for the Giants. When healthy, he's a classic No. 1 receiver who excels at the short and intermediate game, but some observers overlook his ability to win on vertical throws. He has a knack for slipping past defenders on deep balls and is a legitimate big-play threat when left in one-on-one situations. (Even though his 2013 campaign was uneven, Nicks finished with 14 receptions of 20-plus yards and four of 40-plus.) Now, Nicks' touchdown totals have steadily declined over the past four seasons, with the Giants receiver failing to hit paydirt a single time last year. But astute evaluators recognize that the dip in production is a byproduct of the Giants' overall red-zone woes, not a reflection of shortcomings in Nicks' game.
Big-time receivers are expected to come through in the game's critical moments. Top targets must deliver in third-down, red-zone and two-minute-drill situations, when quarterbacks count on their guys to make plays. Decker has been solid in these situations throughout his career. He excels at moving the chains on third down and he has also emerged as a legitimate threat in the red zone. Of course, I have to point out that he was never seen as the most dangerous player in the Broncos' passing attack -- defenses largely focused on Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and, at times, tight end Julius Thomas -- so he rarely faced double coverage or received special attention in those situations. That doesn't necessarily mean Decker is incapable of carrying an offense, but he wasn't asked to do so in his time with the Broncos.
Nicks has been the Giants' No. 1 receiver throughout his career. He is the focal point of the defensive game plan; opponents routinely use bracket or cloud coverage to neutralize his ability to make plays down the field. Although Victor Cruz is a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his own right, Nicks is the guy who keeps opposing coaches up at night. Looking at the Giants' title run a few seasons ago, it was Nicks who put the team on his back during the postseason. He tallied three 100-yard games during the 2011 playoffs, including a 10-catch, 109-yard effort against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Given the significance of performing well on the biggest and brightest stage, I believe Nicks deserves great credit as a clutch player.
I've been penning these "Who's Better?" columns for a couple years now, and this is the closest debate I've encountered. Decker and Nicks are big-time talents with the potential to enhance any team's aerial attack. However, I believe Nicks is a true No. 1 receiver with the ability to anchor a passing game. Although his production has declined a bit in recent years due to injuries, Nicks is a star player with the talent and upside teams covet in a top dog. Both can be effective, but if I needed to build around one, I'd take Nicks.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.