ENGLEWOOD - Eric Decker spent his first year in the NFL recovering from a foot injury that ended his college career and his second season catching an average of two passes a game from Tim Tebow.
Now, he's Peyton Manning's top target, and a busy one at that.
The Denver Broncos' third-year pro leads the team with 46 receptions and seven touchdown catches, all of which have come over the last five games as the Broncos have begun revving up under their resurgent quarterback.
That's roughly the same production Decker had all of last season, when he led the team with 44 catches but scored half of his eight touchdowns before Kyle Orton lost his starting job by Week 6.
With 583 yards so far, Decker is the biggest beneficiary of Manning's arrival in Denver. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season, a stark contrast to last year, when he caught just 14 passes once the Broncos dusted off the old read-option offense to fit Tebow's unusual skill set.
Manning and Decker wasted no time hooking up at local high school football fields to begin working on their timing this spring, and they've spent countless extra hours after practice honing that synergy.
"I think in any relationship, whether it's a significant other or a teammate, the more time you get the better it always develops," Decker said. "And I think the more we get on the same page, the more we understand nonverbal cues, certain routes and how to read defenses. All of those things, you can use to your advantage offensively. We're definitely clicking more as a unit offensively."
It's not quite the chemistry Manning built up with Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis - or the comfort zone he maintains with Broncos slot receiver Brandon Stokley, a former teammate of his with the Colts, for that matter - but it's getting there.
"I see a big body, a good athlete, a good football player, a smart football player who understands what Peyton's looking for and what he's looking at," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera, whose Panthers (2-6) host the Broncos (5-3) Sunday.
Manning leads the league in passer rating and is smack dab in the middle of the conversation for another MVP trophy, and a big reason is Decker, his 6-foot-3, 218-pound wide receiver who was kept out of the end zone during the team's 1-2 start but who hasn't been denied a touchdown since the Houston Texans shut him out on Sept. 23.
Demaryius Thomas is also having a big year. His 45 catches for a team-leading 756 yards are already career highs and he's tied his career best with four TD receptions so far.
Decker, who's been targeted a team-high 69 times, and Thomas have combined for 1,339 yards receiving, most by any tandem in the NFL.
"Experience is your best teacher, so I think I do know more about my teammates and about what certain guys like, and how a guy's body moves and when he's going to come out of a break," Manning said. "The more repetitions you get, the better. I don't know them as well as I would if I would've played with a guy for five years. It's been a crash course and everybody's been cramming."
Thomas came into the league the same year as Decker, and both have hit their stride this season after dealing with injuries much of their first two years with the Broncos.
"Every day we push each other," Decker said. "That's the best thing about our relationship, is that we really respect one another. We're good friends - we used to be roommates - but we're also competitors at the same position."
Decker also is benefiting from his first full training camp this summer. Last year there was the lockout and his rookie year, he was still on the mend. He had missed the last half of his senior season at the University of Minnesota after tearing the ligament that holds the first two toes together in a game against Ohio State in October 2009.
Called a Lisfranc injury, it requires a long and arduous rehab with no guarantee of success.
His draft stock dropped after his injury, but the Broncos took him with the 87th overall pick and preached patience with him.
"It wasn't until my second year in Denver I started to feel good, feel like I had my strength, that I wasn't thinking about it and it wasn't hurting after practice," Decker said.
Decker, who only caught a half dozen passes his rookie year, when he was primarily a kick returner, received a call from Stokley right after he got hurt. Stokley had suffered the same ligament injury in 2002 and he shared his advice about rehab and adjusting to the NFL. The two became fast friends, then teamed up together in Denver in 2009 and again this season.
"Man, I've had a ton of injuries, Achilles, knee, you name it, and that was by far the worst one," Stokley said. "It made me want to know if I really wanted to keep playing football. It was a beast. They did the surgery, you're on crutches, in a boot and then once you heal up, they have to operate again to take out the screws, and you're back on crutches, in a boot.
"Then, it just hurts every day. Every morning, it's killing you. The pain is so incredible," Stokley said. "But one day, I finally turned the corner."