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Snagging the Spotlight

Posted Sep 3, 2010

Three of the team's youngest receivers put forth their most productive games of the preseason Thursday night at Mall of America Field. Led by Minnesota native Eric Decker, the receivers made a strong statement before final roster cuts on Saturday.


MINNEAPOLIS -- More than 60,000 fans jeered every Bronco but one when the team ran out of the visitor's tunnel on Thursday night. The booing echoes that filled the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome were not meant for Eric Decker.
 
When Decker -- a former All-Big Ten receiver at Minnesota -- caught a 12-yard pass from Tim Tebow in the first quarter, the purple-clad crowd cheered in spite of its defense's failure to cover the rookie wide receiver.
 
The Cold Spring, Minn., native treated his audience to the finest performance of his first four games, leading all receivers with 10 receptions and eclipsing the century mark in receiving yards in Denver's 31-24 loss to Minnesota.
 
"I had 50 family members (there)," Decker said. "I had kind of the whole community of Cold Spring out there, so it was pretty neat to be able to play in front of them and be able to have them share the experience with me."
 
Decker's friends, family and fans are used to cheering for him at Mall of America Field, but they're more accustomed to seeing him in at the dome in a Golden Gophers uniform.
 
"I played there for three years," Decker said. "It's home away from home for me a little bit."
 
Supporters of the homegrown pass catcher who cheered in the first quarter could have easily cheered themselves hoarse in the fourth, when Decker caught eight of his 10 receptions for 94 of his 114 yards. Brady Quinn utilized Decker's prowess working underneath routes in the middle of the field to set up a 14-yard fade pass for a touchdown to another rookie wideout, Alric Arnett.
 
The West Virginia product speared both feet down in the end zone just before falling out of bounds to score his first NFL touchdown.
 
"It's a little overwhelming right now trying to soak it all in and embrace the moment," Arnett said.
 
While he was emotional about his first score, the receiver said he couldn't see Decker affected by any pressure to play up to his home crowd.
 
"He was the same Decker, calm and laughing," Arnett said. "He had a great game. Where else to have a great game than in your hometown?"
 
Another up-and-coming wide receiver might have stolen the show in Decker's homecoming. With five receptions, Matthew Willis caught half as many passes as Decker, but the former UCLA hurdler surpassed the rookie with a game-high 122 receiving yards, including a 39-yard touchdown from Tebow, who connected with Willis on deep throws last week as well.
 
"Matt's a great receiver and he makes me look a lot better than I am," Tebow said. "I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to throw to him."
 
Head Coach Josh McDaniels said he wasn't surprised by the performance of his young receivers because they performed so well in camp.
 
Willis spent last season on the practice squad, and he said he used training camp to work toward his goal of becoming "a complete receiver," contributing all over the field and doing whatever it takes to survive the final roster cuts on Saturday.
 
"I mean everything I can (do), special teams, running down on kickoffs, returning kickoffs, catching the deep balls and catching underneath (routes)," Willis said. "I was doing everything I could and just working to get the coaches' attention."
 
This preseason, Decker leads the team in receptions, Willis leads the team in receiving yards, and Arnett is one of seven players who have caught a touchdown. That comes in addition to the combined 25 receptions, 290 yards and two touchdowns caught by the top three receivers on the depth chart, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal.
 
"We've got a lot of guys that have played well for us all preseason at that position," Orton said. "They fought hard. We'll see what happens at the position. It's certainly one of our deepest that we've got."
 
The day the roster goes down to 53 players can be the cruelest for young players on the fringe, but the final cuts could go easy on a deep crop of wide receivers.
 
"There might be more spots than you think," McDaniels said. "We're going to keep the best players on the team, and if that means we go heavy at receiver or corner or somewhere else because we feel like we have better depth there, then that's the decision that we'll make."
 
"We feel like we've got a lot of guys at that position that can help us."