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Roaming centerfield and catching over the middle too

by Tim Rohan on Apr. 12, 2010
Minnesota Senior wide receiver Eric Decker had more than 1100 people drafted in front of him in 2008. And in 2009, more than 800 players were selected before the Cold Spring, Minnesota native was chosen. This April, when the NFL draft rolls around, Decker will probably improve on those numbers dramatically.

Decker lettered in both varsity football and baseball as a Golden Gopher and in the 2008 and 2009 MLB player entry drafts he was picked in the 39th and 27th rounds respectively.

The sure-handed wide receiver roamed centerfield for Minnesota for two seasons — his sophomore and junior years.

On the football field, Decker made the All-Big Ten first team as a junior and led the conference in catches and receiving yards per game. He finished the campaign with 84 catches, 1074 yards and seven touchdowns — and it earned him an All-American honorable mention from SI.com.

In the spring after his junior season, the 6-foot-2 inch 215 pounder hit for a .319 batting average, four homeruns and 25 RBI’s in 56 games. The season before, Decker had a .329 batting average, with three homeruns and 28 RBI’s in 54 games.

Hitting in the middle of lineup and chasing down fly balls in centerfield proved to be a good way for Decker to play a game that would also help him on the gridiron.

“I got the opportunity to play two years of baseball in college and I think a lot of it transitions over,” Decker said. “The biggest thing for me, I think, was the mental aspect. Baseball being that rollercoaster game, when you fail [seven] out of 10 times you’re still a hall of famer. So, understanding how to control your emotions and being consistent with that.

“And also I think the physical attributes [transfer over], hand-eye coordination at the plate, centerfield being able to track a ball over the shoulder and track a ball in the gaps. And just the basic of running, stealing bases.”

With nearly 2,000 receiving yards in his sophomore and junior seasons combined, there were high expectations surrounding Decker as he entered his senior season — especially after he caught eight passes for 149 yards in Minnesota’s Insight Bowl victory over Kansas.

And Decker didn’t disappoint to start the season. He had more than eight catches for 127 yards per game through the Golden Gophers first five contests. But then he was held to less than 40 yards per game against Purdue, Penn State and Ohio State before suffering a Lisfranc sprain and ending his season.

Even though Decker missed Minnesota’s final four Big Ten games and its bowl game, he was named to the All-conference team yet again. He was on pace for 81 catches, 1231 yards, and eight touchdowns before the injury.

Decker is projected this week to be drafted in the fourth round by DraftSite analysts and DraftSite NFL analyst Matt Marino thinks he has redeeming qualities as a wide receiver at the next level.

“[He has] excellent hands, catches the ball away from his body, nice height, goes up in traffic to get the ball, can play in the slot or out wide, gets off the line quick, [and is] a smart receiver,” Marino said.

But also added that Decker, “does not have get away speed, [and is an] inconsistent route runner.”

Decker wasn’t able to work out at the NFL combine because of his injury and just recently got the screws that were put in place, taken out of his foot.

This is one of the first setbacks for Decker, who has enjoyed success on the baseball diamond and the football field. Before the injury Decker could’ve been projected higher in the draft.

He said at the combine that he won’t be able to run for teams before the Draft next week and that he should be back with no restrictions sometime in June.

“It seems like every week, every day I’ve been doing more activities from here on out,” Decker said.

As for his take on his own game, he feels his route running will certainly be an asset at the next level.

“I feel like I can get down the field and stretch the field,” Decker said. “And also, my strength is route running. Being able to find open holes, set defensive backs up and get open underneath too.”

Decker is a self-proclaimed physical receiver who isn’t afraid to block in the running game either. He was also quick to point out that he can adapt to offensive systems very quickly and see that as another strength of his at the next level.

Another physical receiver, and also a fellow Minnesota native, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, is one NFL receiver Decker would like to be compared to.

“He’s a Minnesota kid, comparable in size,” Decker said of Fitzgerald who’s hometown of Minneapolis is less than 90 minutes from his hometown in Cold Spring. “His work ethic is unbelievable. … The way he handles himself on the field and prepares; it’s unbelievable. And he’s definitely a guy I’m trying to work to emulate and try and be like.”

If NFL teams feel Decker can follow Fitzgerald’s lead, then the two-sport athlete could be waiting around much less than he did as a baseball prospect the past two years — he’s probably hoping so too.