Trust your eyes.
It's an old scouting axiom, one that came into play when the New York Jets evaluated Eric Decker in preparation for free agency. They had to trust their eyes because too often in professional football -- other sports, too, for that matter -- teams fall in love with players for the wrong reasons. In Decker's case, the wrong reason would've been last season's numbers -- 87 receptions for 1,288 yards. They jump off the page, but as Jets receivers coach Sanjay Lal said, "You're not signing the stats."
Decker played in the most prolific passing offense in history, directed by one of the greatest quarterbacks in history, Peyton Manning. An average receiver could've posted decent numbers in that situation, and the Jets most definitely didn't want to sign an average receiver -- not for $36.25 million over five years. So they went to the tape, conducting an in-depth study on Decker's game.
Lal said he evaluated Decker in three primary areas: How he separated at the top of his routes, his ability to beat press coverage and whether he was able to put vertical pressure on defensive backs.
"Eric did all of those things," Lal said. "You take those things, with a lot of weapons around you and a great quarterback, then you get 80 catches for 1,200 yards. But you're signing the ability to get open. He might have less than 80 catches this year and still be as productive for our offense."
In his tape study of Decker, Lal noticed the subtle strengths in his game, the stuff the average fan wouldn't detect. For instance, he was impressed by the different ways he was able to shed a cornerback on his hip. Sometimes, he did it by leaning on the defender, sometimes he did it by changing his pace.
"He always had something in his back pocket to get loose," Lal said.
Decker wasn't a born receiver. In fact, he played running back until his sophomore year in high school. His coach put him on the outside and he fell in love with the nuances of the position, the challenge of trying to outsmart a defensive back who has studied his every move on tape -- and vice versa. He calls it a chess game. In a way, it's like poker. A good receiver, like a card player, has no "tells" -- a head bob, a shoulder dip, any small movement that will tip his route.
"I feel like it's one of my best qualities, route-running ability," Decker said. "I've always tried to work on making sure everything looks the same, so I don't tip off DBs as far as what routes I'm going to run."
Decker is a perfectionist that way, and his approach was reinforced during his two seasons with Manning. Maybe you've heard, Manning is obsessive and demanding when it comes to preparation. Blow an assignment, and you'll hear about it. His style isn't for everyone, but he connected with Decker, and they became fast friends.
Before every home game, they car pooled to the stadium, along with tight end Jacob Tamme, listening to SiriusXM The Coffee House, which features acoustic singers and song writers. A long time ago, the Broncos had the "Three Amigos." These guys were the Three Nerds. It was a way to relax and clear their minds after a long, intense week of X's and O's.
"The way Peyton worked, it was unlike anything I've ever seen," Decker said. "He knew every team, every coordinator like the back of his hand, and he was putting us in positions to be successful."
Decker attacked free agency with the same attitude, researching the Jets on every level, from owner Woody Johnson to general manager John Idzik to quarterback Geno Smith. Initially, he was surprised by the Jets' interest -- he had no previous connections with any coaches -- but he immediately started studying tapes and calling friends around the league for intel.
It was so Decker, a master route runner carefully plotting his course.
The Jets did the same. Idzik is a big believer in knowing the person, not just the player, so they dug into Decker's background, talking to people as far back as his college career. During the free-agent visit, they made sure he met with as many people in the building as possible, each one reporting back to Idzik on their impressions. They gave him a DVD, highlighting the team, its history and the Florham Park, New Jersey, area.
"We're not just rolling out the red carpet and feeding him steaks -- the old recruiting ways," Idzik said. "We try to get to know the person. Meeting Eric confirmed what our research told us. We thought, 'This guy, it feels like he should be a Jet.'"
Let's not be naive: They also had a huge need at receiver, and Decker was regarded as the top free agent at the position. They guaranteed $15 million of the contract, prompting him to cancel a visit with the Jacksonville Jaguars and sign on the dotted line.
Decker and Smith connected by phone, discussing everything from his favorite routes to life in suburban New Jersey. He sees potential in Smith, and he hopes to bring some of the Manning professionalism to their relationship.
"For sure," Decker said. "I've had multiple conversations with Geno as far as preparation. That's really what I think separates players in this league. What are you doing Monday to Saturday to get yourself ready for your opponent?"
Smith is no Manning, and the Jets aren't the Broncos. Everything is different here, from the football philosophy to the local culture. Decker is convinced he made the right move. He's not accustomed to taking false steps.