Decker Signing a Plus for Mariota, Not Great for Decker

Over the weekend, the Tennessee Titans signed free agent wide receiver Eric Decker to a one-year deal. Decker, recently released from the Jets, is coming off severe hip and shoulder injuries that caused him to miss all but the first three games of the 2016 season.

Even prior to signing Decker, the Titans were among the most active teams in the league at bolstering their receiving corps this offseason. Along with selecting former Western Michigan star Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick in 2017 NFL draft, they also added both a receiving tight end (FIU’s Jonnu Smith) and traded up to select former Western Kentucky speedster Taywan Taylor in the third.

All of these improvements come on the heels of a remarkably efficient season for Marcus Mariota. On his way to 26 touchdowns, Mariota rattled off a stretch of eight consecutive games with two or more passing touchdowns in the middle of last season.

One cause has been his oft-discussed red zone efficiency.

Mariota RZ

This would seem to be a perfect fit for Decker, for whom “touchdown machine” is probably the only association more recognizable than his endowment. In six of his seven career seasons, Decker has posted a TD rate (measured as a percentage of targets) north of eight percent.

From the Projection Machine, here’s a visual of an eight percent TD rate (the dashed line) relative to the league average (green bar) as well as the 25th and 75th percentile (red bars) rates for league-wide WR1s.1 To summarize, Decker has posted a TD rate well above the 75th percentile in six of seven seasons.

Decker TD rate

The gray histogram behind the horizontal bars is the TD rate of Titans’ WR1s over the last several seasons. This is part of the problem.

Last season, underrated veteran Rishard Matthews was the biggest beneficiary of Mariota’s efficiency, riding a 9-TD season to the WR19 finish in PPR leagues, and a perhaps shocking WR11 season in standard leagues. Meanwhile, Delanie Walker also scored at a high clip, tying for the third most receiving TDs by a tight end (7) and finishing as the TE5 (in both scoring systems).

Not to be outdone, the aforementioned top-five pick and presumed future WR1 Davis was also a prodigious scorer in college. Over four collegiate seasons, Davis accounted for a minimum of 40 percent of his team’s passing TDs, and three times caught at least half of them. In 50 career games, he amassed 52 touchdowns.

Corey Davis

All of which brings us back to Mariota. His career red zone efficiency suggests touchdown regression, if only because sustaining that level of success is unheard of. Meanwhile, the team’s commitment to bolstering his receiving options can only be taken as a much-needed positive sign for his passing volume. Last season, while employing the oft-discussed Exotic-Smashmouth system, the Titans were something of a ball control offense. They registered the fourth-most rushing attempts but just the 22nd-most offensive plays and 28th-most pass attempts in the NFL. Of the 27 quarterbacks who started 12 games or more, Mariota threw 30 or more passes in the third-fewest games (7, out of 15 starts).

The team still employs the impressive running back tandem of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, but signs point to more passing for Mariota in his third season. Increased volume and a vastly improved set of pass catchers should mitigate the effect on his overall touchdown numbers. Meanwhile, a bump in passing yardage should probably be expected. He’s not necessarily someone to reach for, as the team could still lean run heavy, but it’s hard not to have a promising outlook for Mariota in 2017.

As for Decker, the great pairing with such an efficient touchdown thrower might not yield as promising returns as most expect. It’s a great fit for real football reasons, but in fantasy, we have to consider he’s coming off major injuries and playing alongside two established touchdown threats in Matthews and Walker, as well as the rookie Davis. Unless Decker writes perhaps the most impressive chapter in his long history of touchdown production, the safe bet is that both the touchdowns and overall targets are spread around. That isn’t a recipe for individual success in an offense that needs a volume boost to even be league average.

Obviously, the cost comes into consideration, and it remains to be seen where the ADPs of Tennessee’s passing weapons settle in. Whether any of them becomes a value is relative, and it will be important to keep an eye on training camp to track Davis’s development or any potential injuries. But as it stands, Mariota looks like the big winner of the Decker signing, not Decker himself.

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  1. For reference, the 75th percentile for WR2s and WR3s  comes in at about 6 percent, as opposed to the roughly 6.5 percent for WR1s.  (back)
By Ben Gretch | @YardsPerGretch | Archive

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