FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At least once every practice during New England Patriots training camp, when the focus turns to special teams, wide receiver Eric Decker will relocate to the second field with quarterback Tom Brady and a few others.
Decker’s presence in that group -- which often includes tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jacob Hollister and receivers Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett -- highlights how the Patriots are investing in Decker with the hopes that he is a significant part of their plans.
Whether that ultimately happens remains a question, with Decker himself calling things “a work in progress.”
On Monday, for example, there were notable ups and downs for the nine-year veteran.
Decker, 31, was visibly frustrated as he dropped three passes early in the session held in wet conditions, and later he appeared to either not finish his route or run the wrong one on a play over the middle in which Brady fired the ball over his head.
But Decker finished strong, making one of the plays of the day by flashing late hands as cornerback Jonathan Jones followed him closely on a deep fade route along the right sideline on a beautiful delivery from Brady. Decker also had a few other grabs in the 11-on-11 work.
“There’s no excuses for it. It’s something you obviously have to address and that’s something you work through. My job is to catch the football. I have to do better,” Decker said of the drops, which were an issue at times last season with the Tennessee Titans. “That’s why we work on the side – to see how he throws, get into certain routes and get that rhythm where you’re still building confidence.
“It’s part of the game; we’re all human and going to make mistakes. But don’t let it become a habit and happen over and over again. This game is about mental toughness. You have to bounce back. They’re going to ask you to respond. It’s not really what you do in that moment; it’s how you react to it. I’ve played a lot of football. I’ve had a few drops in my days. I’ve had many catches, as well. I know how to bounce back and get back to it.”
Decker's potential emergence would be a boost to a group of receivers that will be without Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season. The Patriots are making a transition without Brandin Cooks (Rams) and Danny Amendola (Dolphins), and they have already moved on from Jordan Matthews (released on Aug. 1).
While admittedly not as fast as he was earlier in his career, Decker said he prides himself on precise route-running, versatility, being physical at the top of his route and earning the trust of the quarterback, especially in pressure situations.
After signing a one-year deal with the Patriots on Aug. 3 and playing six snaps with no receptions in Thursday's preseason opener, Decker said his comfort with the playbook has grown and “things are slowing down mentally.” He sees that as helping him execute without overthinking things, which can be hard to do because, he said, “This is a complex offense. There is a lot asked of you as a skill player, as a football player.”
Several receivers in the past have had similar experiences.
From experience, adjusting to the Patriots system has you thinking about what to do SO MUCH, that you lose concentration on routine things.— Andrew Hawkins (@Hawk) August 13, 2018
They (Coaches/Players) actually warned me about it ahead of time & told me when it happens "just keep pushing, it happens to everyone" https://t.co/ESr9O75Zd9
Reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the Broncos' head coach when Decker was drafted by Denver in 2010, the familiarity has helped, but not as much as he had anticipated.
“There’s a little carryover. I thought it might be more, but they’ve changed things over the years,” he said. “It’s a learning curve, so it’s been a lot of studying.”