ENGLEWOOD • Eric Decker was the first of Peyton Manning’s workout buddies, sneaking onto high school football fields in the spring to work on his rhythm and rapport with his new quarterback.
The sessions helped Manning regain his arm strength and rediscover his form after a series of neck operations that sidelined him all of last season and led to his departure from Indianapolis.
They were just as helpful for Decker, recovering from a sprained left knee he hurt in the playoffs.
All those hours together are paying off.
Decker leads the Denver Broncos (11-3) with nine touchdown grabs and he’s 77 yards shy of joining fellow third-year receiver Demaryius Thomas with his first 1,000-yard season. No Denver duo has accomplished that feat since 2004.
Decker and Thomas both have hit their stride this season after dealing with injuries much of their first two years. And patiently playing in Tim Tebow’s option-read offense a year ago.
Thomas was recovering from left-thumb surgery when Manning signed in March, so it was up to Decker to get the four-time MVP acclimated to the Mile High City.
With 1,210 yards on 78 receptions — six more than Decker — Thomas has emerged as the Broncos’ biggest downfield threat. But Decker’s no slouch.
Decker was so productive earlier that defensive coordinators started to key on him more. The result: a monthlong lull in which he totaled just 10 catches and one TD before putting up consecutive eight-catch performances the past two weeks.
“The defense does dictate a little bit of what you do in a lot of different ways,” coach John Fox said. “I think we’ve got a quarterback where he’s going to take what the defense gives him.”
Manning doesn’t force throws to a go-to receiver. This season, he’s completed passes to 15 players, including a touchdown to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein. And with tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, he has four big targets, all 6-foot-3 or taller and packing an average of 232 pounds.
Decker has tied his career high with eight catches in each of the past two games, totaling 221 yards. His 51-yard touchdown turned Denver’s showdown at Baltimore last weekend into a rout and caused Ravens safety Ed Reed to rip off his helmet in disgust.
Decker’s team-high nine TDs, one more than Thomas, are a career best and give him 18 for his career, the most by a Bronco in his first three seasons.
“I like a lot of things. I like touchdowns. I like wins. I like catches. It’s all fun,” Decker said. “When you’re winning ballgames, it doesn’t matter how many yards you got, how many catches you got.”
Decker and Thomas have been the biggest beneficiaries of the pinpoint passing Manning brought to the Broncos. His 67.9 completion percentage is second highest in his career. Tebow, on the other hand, completed just 46 percent of his passes a year ago and 40 percent in the playoffs.
Decker also is benefiting from his first full training camp last summer. There was the lockout in 2011 and he was on the mend in 2010 after missing the last half of his senior season at Minnesota with a foot injury.
There have been some hiccups. Decker has dropped seven passes so far; Thomas has eight. It’s not quite the chemistry Manning built up with Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis — or the comfort zone he maintains with Brandon Stokley, a former Colts teammate — but it’s getting there.
Decker sees it getting better, from March to this week as they iron out wrinkles in preparing for the Browns (5-9) — and then the playoffs.
“I think in any relationship, whether it’s a significant other or a teammate,” Decker said, “the more time you get, the better it always develops.”