ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When all was said and done as the Denver Broncos’ football decision-makers worked through their offseason plan earlier this year, the team essentially traded one wide receiver for another when they re-tooled parts of the roster.
And back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons or not, the Broncos never made Eric Decker an offer last March, so Decker moved on to sign a five-year, $36.5 million deal with the New York Jets that included $15 million in guaranteed money.
Instead the Broncos looked around, then reeled in Emmanuel Sanders, whom they considered a more versatile receiver for their offense, with a three-year, $15 million deal that included $6 million guaranteed.
Both players will be on the same field this Sunday at MetLife Stadium as Decker is slated to return to the lineup for the Jets after missing last week’s game in San Diego with a hamstring injury.
"When I was drafted out there, I felt like it was a place I could play a lot of my career," Decker said Wednesday. "I understand the business side of it -- it’s a two-way street. … I knew I wasn’t going to get signed back before that time, I kind of knew what direction they wanted to go in. I’ve got all the respect in the world for John Elway and that organization and what they’re doing. Obviously they made good choices and I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated or mad that they didn’t [re-sign him], but I would say I definitely enjoyed my time out there."
"I was sorry to see him go," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "The business part of the NFL is the worst side of it. You like to keep every single player or play with every single teammate your entire career but it’s not like college. There is a small window and guys move on. I was happy for him with how he was rewarded by the Jets."
Decker’s hamstring has been a lingering problem and couple that with the Jets’ issues at quarterback as well as on offense as a whole – New York is 28th in the league in passing yards – Decker has 14 catches, no plays longer than 29 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Sanders is sixth in the league in both receptions and yards receiving -- he’s played one fewer game than the five players with more in each of those categories. Sanders has often said the Broncos' offense is "wide receiver heaven."
"Obviously he’s having a lot of success and I assumed he would," Decker said. "It’s hard not to with a quarterback like Peyton Manning."
Like Demaryius Thomas, who was one of the Broncos’ first-round picks in the 2010 draft, the same year the Broncos selected Decker in the third round, Decker flourished with Manning’s arrival in 2012. Decker had 24 touchdown receptions combined in the 2012 and ’13 seasons.
But even with all of that production there were times when the Broncos believed Decker was stymied at the line of scrimmage by the more aggressive defensive backs the team faced, particularly in a one-catch performance during a 35-point loss in the Super Bowl this past February. One of Sanders’ chief attractions for the Broncos was his ability to consistently get a free release at the snap.
Sanders also plays both in the slot and outside, while the Broncos primarily saw the bigger Decker in exclusively an outside role.
"I knew making the change was going to be different," Decker said. "We weren’t going to be, or all of a sudden become, a power-passing team. I knew what the philosophy was here, I knew the challenges we have. Right now we haven’t played consistently, we haven’t done enough to win ballgames."