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'Weird' dynamic as Broncos, Eric Decker prepare to cross paths


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **Eric Decker's new normal is not yet normal to him.

In March, he exchanged a city and team with which he'd become familiar with a new set of rhythms, philosophies and expectations. And now, his past and present collide.

"I guess it's weird, just because it's the first time I've been on a different team, going against my former team where I spent four years and made a lot of memories," Decker said. "I've got a lot close friends and everything It's definitely one that did stick out, yeah, (but) as far as my mentality going into the game, I try to approach it like another game.

Unlike other one-day reunions like the Week 4 clash between Steve Smith and his former team, the Carolina Panthers, there is no bitterness, no potential for "blood and guts everywhere." The Broncos and Decker can look back on their offseason parting with few regrets. Both sides knew it was coming, dictated by the constraints of the salary cap and the need to ensure enough space to maintain a core for the long term.

"I knew I wasn't going to get signed back before that time," Decker recalled. "I kind of knew what direction they wanted to go in."

But that doesn't mean Decker's free-agent signing with the New York Jets was easy.

The Broncos were busy at work on Wednesday preparing for Sunday's game. The running backs were joined by practice squad addition Jeremy Stewart.

"I was sorry to see him go," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "The business part of the NFL is the worst side of it. You'd like to keep every single player or play with every single teammate your entire career, but it's not like college.

"There's a small window and guys move on, so I was happy with him and how he was rewarded by the Jets."

The reward was a handsome one: a five-year contract that could be worth up to $36.25 million, including $15 million guaranteed that provides him financial security. With 212 receptions for 3,270 yards and 33 touchdown receptions in four Broncos seasons -- including per-season averages of 86.0 receptions, 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns after Manning's 2012 arrival -- he earned it.

But now comes the hard part for Decker: elevating an offense that is at a different stage of its development than Denver's. Instead of being surrounded by Pro Bowl targets in Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, Decker is asked to carry the torch and lead a passing game with young, less-proven receivers and a quarterback in Geno Smith who was relieved at halftime for Michael Vick during last Sunday's 31-0 loss at San Diego.

The Jets rank 32nd in yardage per pass play (5.14), 31st in percentage of passes to gain a first down (28.0) and are one of five teams whose quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes.

"Obviously, I knew (that) making the change was going to be different," Decker said. "We weren't going to all of a sudden become a power passing team. I knew what the philosophy was here, knew what challenges we had with the opportunities.

A rushing offense that ranks sixth in yardage per game has not been enough to offset the issues in the passing game, which are exacerbated by the hamstring injury that sidelined Decker Sunday and limited him in Wednesday's practice. Nevertheless, Decker insists he is not frustrated with the situation, even though his numbers are well off his Broncos pace, and the Jets are on a four-game losing streak.

"I'm not frustrated at all with the situation. It's growing pains," he said. "Obviously, getting to know a new quarterabck takes time, takes experience, and I haven't helped myself being out with a nagging hamstring issue."

And now Decker faces the team that he knew well, a team that replaced him with free-agent pickup Emmanuel Sanders four days after the ink dried on the Jets contract.

"Obviously, there will be moments where I see teammates on the other side -- whether it's pre-game, after game, I'll share some hello's with people," Decker said. "But when the whistle blows, and it's between the lines, I've got to focus on what my job is and what I need to do to be successful and help the team."

He willl see former teammates during game action, as well. None will be more familiar with him -- and vice versa -- than cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who expects to be busy.

"I know going against Decker is going to be a tough battle," Harris said. "Especially because I know he's going to come out even more amped against us. And they might try to feed him the ball a little bit more."

Harris faced Decker on a daily basis during practice for three years. In a familiar duel like this, Harris believes that the wide receiver has the advantage, so he knows he has to bring something extra."

"I'm all reaction, so I've got to react off what Deck's doing. He knows how I play. He knows I'm going to be physical, so I'm going to switch it up on him," Harris said. "I'm not going to give him anything that he's seen a lot from when he's practicing."

And that underscores how the situation never stops changing. The Broncos are different now. Their top five defensive backs include three who joined the Broncos after Decker's departure. Sanders brings his own skill set, the Broncos offense has adapted and, after Sunday, appears back to its 2013 production.

The paths of Decker and the Broncos will continue to diverge. In time, Decker wlll become accustomed to the Jets and New York, and the sight of him in midnight green and white will become familiar. He will grow more comfortable in his new home.

But for now, "weird" is the most apt way to describe Sunday's crossing of paths.

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