Fourteen players caught a pass for the Denver Broncos during the 2010 season.
Half of those players once were, or went on to be, members of the New England Patriots.
That group of familiar names included Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Daniel Graham, Dan Gronkowski, Spencer Larsen and Laurence Maroney. It also included a wide receiver out of Minnesota named Eric Decker, who’d undergone surgery on a Lisfranc sprain to end his senior year with the Golden Gophers after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior.
Decker was selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft by Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels’ war room, 65 spots after Denver traded up with New England to take fellow wideout Demaryius Thomas in the first round out of Georgia Tech.
McDaniels may not have known the two would go on to accumulate eight 1,000-yard seasons and six with double-digit touchdowns in their careers. But the second-youngest head coach in the league at the time, at 34, liked their early acclimation on the heels of Brandon Marshall being traded to the Miami Dolphins.
“I think we have a lot of depth,” McDaniels said on a conference call that May, per the Broncos’ transcript archives. “I think there are a lot of young players, there is no question about that. We’ll see what Eric and Demaryius can do when they get out there, but they’re doing well in terms of their learning in the classroom and their ability to pick things up quickly.”
Decker continued to work back from his pre-draft procedure during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, but began participating in a more complete capacity once training camp opened.
“I wanted to be able to get some good work in,” Decker told reporters as the first practice of camp got under his belt in July. “And Coach McDaniels told me that this is a crucial time for me to understand the philosophy, run through it and feel comfortable like I was saying before, to get in there with the veterans and to be able to help out whenever I can.”
McDaniels had his scouting report.
“Yeah, I think certainly he’s a talented player and he’s got really solid hands and he’s a big kid, runs good routes,” McDaniels said of Decker. “We’re going to see, really the test for Eric is going to be he’s going to get in there with a lot of other players that have played in these spots, and we’re going to see how competitive he can be moving around and doing different things. I think there are some different skills that he possesses that we’ll see grow as we go throughout camp.
“… I think every day that he’s out there, again, that’s part of this time of year – bring him in and try to get him some confidence and I think each day that he goes out there, hopefully he’ll get more and more confident with what he’s doing and he’ll play fast by the time we get to pads.”
The pads would come. But Decker would not play in Denver’s first preseason game that August due to a sprained ankle. He would, however, tally 16 receptions for 183 yards and one touchdown through the next three – including a 10-catch, 114-yard performance in the finale against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 2, 2010.
Still, the receiving corps ahead of Decker included Thomas, slot-slash-returner Eddie Royal, and well-traveled outside starters in Gaffney and Lloyd.
Gaffney, who was in New England during McDaniels’ first go-round as offensive coordinator from 2006 through 2008, followed him to Denver and went on to catch 65 passes for 875 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. As for Lloyd, who’d proceed to the St. Louis Rams during McDaniels’ lone year as St. Louis’ offensive coordinator, then ultimately the Patriots in 2012, he’d acrobatically lead the league with 1,448 receiving yards.
That left little reason for Decker, who returned a team-high 22 kickoffs for 556 yards in 2010, to see much work on offense during his formative months.
He didn’t catch a pass through his first eight regular-season appearances for Denver, either.
Things changed when an ankle injury sidelined the emerging Thomas, an eventual five-time Pro Bowl and two-time first-team All-Pro, towards the end of November. An expanded role beyond special teams was something McDaniels acknowledged.
“I think Eric has a very bright future,” McDaniels said of Decker’s progress three days before the 6-foot-3, 214-pound target caught the first two passes of his career for 48 yards in a 36-33 loss to the Rams. “I know that his health and his ability to stay out there was kind of similar to Demaryius’ in training camp and then when he had his opportunities, he made the most of them and did a good job of playing multiple spots.
“He’s really done a good job for us in the kicking game,” added McDaniels. “There aren’t many rookies that you would give the responsibility of being the personal protector on the punt team – we’ve done that with him. We’ve also made him a wing on the punt team, which is not an easy position to play. He’s on the kickoff team, he’s on the kickoff-return team and he’s learning multiple spots at receiver. So, Eric contributes in every way that he possibly can. He’s ready to go every day in practice. He gets plenty of reps out there and he does a good job with them. He hasn’t let us down in a game, which is a big thing for a rookie, when he has all that responsibility on his plate. I think Eric is just going to continue to go up and we’re excited to have him.”
Two weeks after that press conference, the Broncos would fire McDaniels. The news surfaced a day after Denver lost to the Kansas City Chiefs to fall to 3-9 on the season.
Decker caught one 28-yard pass in that 10-6 defeat. He would finish the year having caught six passes from quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow for 106 yards in 14 games. And he’d get into the end zone for what’d be the first and only touchdown of his rookie year in Week 17.
Though Decker, now 31, has since returned for 52 more trips. Entering 2018, he has a chance to do so with McDaniels calling the plays once again.
The Patriots signed Decker to a one-year deal last week. He finds himself vying for a roster spot in the company of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, Devin Lucien and Paul Turner.
His distant-yet-relevant history with McDaniels’ schemes should expedite the learning curve.
“I’m sure it will,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during his press conference Tuesday morning, via Patriots.com. “He’s a smart guy. I’m sure – I know he has recall from some of the things that we do that Josh did at Denver that are carryover. There’s a lot of differences, but there’s certainly a lot of carryover.”
Decker spent a total of four years in Denver, three with the New York Jets and 2017 with the Tennessee Titans. The journey isn’t full circle, but it’s a close consolation eight seasons later.
“Josh drafted me in Denver, gave me an opportunity,” Decker told reporters after practice Tuesday. “Obviously, got all the respect for him. Probably the smartest football coach I think I’ve had in my career. Guy knows his Xs and Os, and he’s good with relationships, good as far as getting things going offensively, so it’s been fun being back with him.”