Eric Decker is living a charmed life these days.

The former Gophers wide receiver ranks fourth in the NFL in touchdown catches, owns a front-row seat to Tebowmania and is dating drop-dead gorgeous country and pop singer Jessie James.

The guy probably has a winning lottery ticket sitting on his dresser right now.

"Everything is going great," he said Monday.

You could hardly blame Decker for pinching himself, except his emergence as a big-play receiver in his second season with the Denver Broncos has nothing to do with luck. Patience yes, and a lot of hard work. But his success is not by accident.

Just ask his mentor.

"He is a guy that is self-motivated and is confident in his God-given ability," Larry Fitzgerald Jr. wrote in an e-mail. "He wants to be special so it comes natural to him. I know anybody that knows him and knows what he stands for is happy for him. He deserves it all."

Tim Tebow's polarizing presence and winning-ugly style has put the Broncos at the center of the NFL universe. Denver is 5-1 with Tebow as its starting quarterback and suddenly in the playoff hunt.

As the Tebow phenomenon grows by the week, Decker's development blossoms amid less hysteria and fanfare.

He has 37 catches for 527 yards and eight touchdowns entering Sunday's game against the Vikings. He also returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown against Oakland.

Decker caught a touchdown pass and added a 39-yard reception on third-and-11 on Denver's game-tying drive in Sunday's overtime victory at San Diego. He hauled in Tebow's deep heave while falling down.

"I told him, if he feels any pressure just throw it up because I'm going to either make a play for him or not let it get intercepted," Decker said.

That confidence was missing last season. A serious foot injury that ended his senior season with the Gophers continued to weigh on him as a rookie. A third-round pick, Decker caught only six passes all season and struggled to find his place as he learned three different receiver spots.

"My foot was always on my mind whether it was making a cut, getting off the line of scrimmage," he said. "I know I wasn't in the best football shape and that really set me back. You add a little pressure to yourself because you want to make an impression on the coaching staff. I was making mistakes that kind of snowballed with my confidence."

He turned a corner this past summer. His foot became a non-issue and he threw himself into workouts with Fitzgerald, an All-Pro receiver with the Arizona Cardinals and fellow Minnesota native.

"It's like he has iron lungs, he never gets tired," Fitzgerald said. "I remember when he hurt his foot a few years back and he hadn't ran in months. The first day he came back he beat everybody. I was just shaking my head in disbelief with the effort he puts forth and how he was able to pull that off. He just wants it."

Decker tries to follow Fitzgerald's lead. Both are big, physical receivers who refuse to cut corners in their preparation. They work ridiculously hard in the offseason on their conditioning, route-running and finer points of the position.

"Larry is a guy I really look up to," Decker said. "I want to be like him. I want to be as good as he is as a football player, but more as a man and what he does in the community. Just being around him, I knew my potential was great."

He's put it on display this season. Alternating between the slot and outside spots, Decker averages 14.2 yards per catch and has made several clutch grabs to help feed the Tebow craze.

"From the moment he walked into the facility, it was Tebowmania," Decker said. "He's a guy that doesn't get caught up with all of it. The team doesn't get caught up with it. Obviously we know he's a big icon. He handles himself very maturely.

"Sometimes it can be comical. You see the Tebowing thing. All of sudden, it's an international phenomenon. We're like, 'What just happened?' We do laugh about it and he does too. He knows that sometimes things get a little crazy. But the person he is, he's able to really separate himself from that."

Decker occasionally finds himself in non-football-related news, too. Such as two weeks ago when his girlfriend performed at halftime of the Broncos-New York Jets game. That was the only game this season in which Decker didn't catch a pass.

"People asked me if she was a distraction," Decker said, laughing. "I said, 'I'm just happy someone actually showed up that night and performed.' I didn't carry my weight that night and she definitely did."

Chip Scoggins •