EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in the Week 13 Gameday program, when the Broncos defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23.
With five games left in his third NFL season, wide receiver Eric Decker has already had a career year.
Through 12 games, Decker has established new career highs in catches and yards receiving, and his eight touchdowns also tie his previous career-best.
That success, the receiver said, has been hard-earned.
"For a year, you're sweating and grinding with all these guys and we really push one another and get the best out of one another," Decker said. "That attitude of bring your lunch pail and your helmet to work, just grinding one day at a time and enjoying the ride is what I attribute my success to."
After two full seasons in the NFL, Decker had gone through the lows of a 4-12 season and the highs of an AFC West title and playoff victory a year ago. He had caught passes from two different quarterbacks and played for two different head coaches.
"Every year brings different experiences and different lessons," Decker said. "I wouldn't have it any other way because I think I learned a lot from a losing season, from just kind of how this team has molded into a championship-minded team, with (Head) Coach (John) Fox, the front office and the players he's got here."
During Decker's rookie season, he made most of his contributions on special teams. The time and effort it has taken to develop into a focal point of the offense has given him perspective to go along with his on-field accomplishments.
"It really has made me earn my way," Decker said. "It's not like anything's ever given to you in this league. You have to really work at it and earn it. And I think going through all these seasons, all these steps, has made it more enjoyable because you feel like, obviously we have a long way to go in the season, but the hard work is starting to pay off."
Until 2012, he had still never experienced a full, healthy offseason, as a foot injury limited him prior to his rookie season, and the lockout kept him off the field leading up to the 2011 campaign.
This year, for the first time in his career, Decker took advantage of participating in the full complement of organized practices and workouts throughout the team's OTAs and minicamp leading up to training camp. Those efforts have paid dividends, as Decker is currently tied for third in the NFL with eight touchdown receptions.
"That was big," Decker said. "Finally a full offseason to just work on my craft as a receiver and in the weight room to get bigger and stronger. It was something that I think has made me have a more successful season so far and keep my weight on and be a lot healthier."
In addition to honing his route-running and other skills as a wide receiver, Decker also looked to bulk up this offseason. He was able to do just that, and more importantly, maintain that weight, increasing his durability.
"I feel like I run a lot better routes," Decker said. "Like I was saying, at this point of the year (last year), I was nine pounds lighter. Just my strength and my endurance have been a lot better this year."
With two full seasons under his belt, Decker has improved as much mentally as physically.
"Just reading coverages, especially knowing the system," Decker said. "Knowing the play calls has made me go from thinking on the field to just reacting, being more comfortable, which in turn makes you a lot better as far as confidence and just physical ability."
The progress Decker has made through his first three seasons has been both steady and substantial. As a rookie, he caught just six passes and did not start in 14 games played at wide receiver, making his mark on special teams, where he picked up 556 yards on 22 kickoff returns and tied for third on the team with nine special-teams stops.
In 2011, his second season with the team, Decker started 13 games and recorded 44 receptions before coming into his own with 56 receptions through 13 weeks this year. With 17 career receiving touchdowns, Decker already has found the end zone more times through three seasons than any player in Broncos history. His second consecutive season with eight touchdowns also makes him one of just three players in franchise history with eight or more receiving scores in consecutive seasons.
His comfort level, which has grown throughout his career, spiked with the Broncos' offseason additions of wide receiver Brandon Stokley and quarterback Peyton Manning.
"Since my first year here, I've progressively gotten a lot more comfortable," Decker said. "And this year particularly, just having Peyton here and having Brandon here, some veteran guys that have played a lot of football has made me make my game better and just be more comfortable and confident in what I do. Every week it just feels like that continues to grow."
Stokley arrived back in Denver with 13 seasons of NFL experience, including four seasons with Manning in Indianapolis and three in Denver. In that time, Stokley has learned the game's ins and outs and become as savvy as any receiver in the league. The veteran's knowledge has rubbed off on Decker in a big way.
"I think just being around him makes me enjoy the game a lot more and have fun with it through the good times and even through some of the struggles," Decker said. "His experience and knowledge of the game, just sitting by him in meetings and picking his brain, understanding how he runs routes has made me a better younger receiver just because of the information he's been giving me and just watching him at practice and in games."
Decker is not the only third-year Broncos wideout enjoying a career season. He has combined with fellow 2010 draft pick Demaryius Thomas to form the NFL's fifth-ranked receiving duo with 1,816 combined yards receiving through Week 13. The duo has also combined to lead the team in receiving in all but one of the Broncos' games this season. Considering the relationship between the former roommates, it's no surprise that Thomas and Decker are both enjoying the best seasons of their career at the same time.
"Coming in together and building a friendship before we got here, and just I think our personalities in general, we both want to be great," Decker said. "It allows us to have that friendship and push one another but not be competitive where we fight and stuff. It's a good competitive, where we push each other to be better. If he scores a touchdown, I want to score a touchdown. If I score a touchdown, he wants to score a touchdown. I think that translates from in the weight room to on the practice field to gamedays. We have fun with it. We joke and take jabs at one another, but again, there's a lot of respect between us. I think that relationship has made us both better receivers."
While the strides he has made have been undeniable, Decker still sees plenty of room for improvement.
"I think there are always things that looking back that I would like to take back, some certain plays or certain things I'd like to do better," Decker said. "But I think the good thing about myself and this team in general is that we're never satisfied. There's always something we get better at. That is what is building this championship team."