Often overlooked, Demaryius Thomas remains an athletic marvel
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's so easy to talk about what's new, or what's old, what's fragile, what's gone. See Emmanuel Sanders, see how fast he is ... or Wes Welker, what's his role now? Sanders looks to be getting more reps. Do you miss Eric Decker? Why certainly, they all say, and oh, how strange it is to be out there practicing without him.
Funny how hard it is to see what's right there in front of them, what's been there all along. That what -- or who -- is Demaryius Thomas, all 6-foot-3, 230 pounds of him. It's almost laughable when he walks up to the box upon which Broncos' players and coaches stand for group media interviews. Thomas needs no box. He would tower without it. His shoulders defy camera lenses, peripheral vision; just try to take them in.
Sheepish off the field, Thomas is anything but on Sundays. He's always been this way, or he's always supposed to have been, and so fans who should be in awe simply nod. It's a catch-22: he looks that way, and so expectations soar, even if meeting them, if doing what Thomas has done, still only happens to one in a million men. He's the obvious choice, the biggest, the most gifted, which makes him weirdly overlooked on a Broncos offense loaded with more interesting stories, underdogs and surprises. Even so, if there's one Denver receiver to watch, one upon whom the team's hopes lie most heavily in 2014, it's Thomas.
So listen up: What Thomas does is a feat for the eyes alone, a feat of size and strength and silence.
In the NFL in 2013, only 11 players at Thomas' position weighed 225 pounds or more and stood 6-2 or taller. Thomas is in rare company among the league's mammoth receivers, and of that group, only Josh Gordon (1,646) and Calvin Johnson (1,492) logged more receiving yards than his 1,430. Just two players finished with more receptions than Thomas's 92, as well: Andre Johnson (109) and Brandon Marshall (100). As for touchdowns? No wideouts matched his 14.
And as for the argument that Peyton Manning's general greatness padded Thomas' stats, consider this: Thomas had to share looks with three other receivers who finished the season with more than 700 yards and 10 touchdowns. Plus, the Peyton Padding -- if it exists -- will be back in full force come September, like it or not.
As football gets bigger and stronger, receivers like Thomas are certainly more common but of no less value. In 2000, for instance, there were just six receivers 6-2 or taller and 225 pounds or heavier. In 1990: none. In 1980: one. In 1970: one, though he gained exactly zero yards. These impactful mega-receivers are a recent trend, and as they make their mark, the 25-year-old Bronco has a chance to be one of the best.
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who's coached his fair share of big receivers, believes he has something special in Thomas, who's due for a massive payday once his contract expires after 2014.
"What's different to me is just ... his speed and just how physical he is at the top of his routes. That was the big question on him coming out was, 'Can he run routes?' ... His route running ability is a lot more impressive than what people probably give him credit for."
Game planning against that combination of size, speed and precise footwork is the least desirable of tasks, a fact that delights every Bronco save defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and whoever's been tasked with shadowing Thomas in practice. Del Rio regards Thomas with a special kind of respect, of the "Thank your lucky stars he's on your team" variety, and new cornerback Aqib Talib admits to having been burned more than once this spring by his new teammate.
"It's a combination of size, speed, ability to do things after the catch with the ball, go track the ball," Del Rio said. "There are a lot of big talented guys, but not everybody can run precise routes and understand how to get off press and get off jams and read coverages and all those things. He's worked hard at all that and he's a really good player for us to go against every day."
When the 2013 season ended, Thomas was banged up, his bum shoulder a hindrance but not enough to stop him from setting a Super Bowl record with 13 receptions. Fueled by his team's slaughter at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, Thomas kept his offseason routine steady, taking the rest of February off just as he always does before starting the whole cycle over again on March 1. When he reported for organized team activities in May, he appeared slightly bigger, slightly stronger -- although at this point, he's competing only with himself in Denver. If he gets bigger, he will still be biggest. If he logs more yards -- or touchdowns, or receptions -- he still leads the team. There's no individual to catch, but there's a ring, and that's all the motivation Thomas needs. When Broncos receivers coach Tyke Tolbert makes a suggestion, Thomas masters it, and then he moves onto his own list of tweaks.
"I try to get better at something every year," he said. "I go outside of what stuff [Tolbert] tells me. I just try to be more explosive, be quicker, just the little things, just trying to get better and better and pushing myself, and if I mess up on something, I just make sure that I try not to do it again."
It's simple. Too simple? No. Just simple enough. It's the kind of simplicity and ease that makes Thomas a given. Taking him for granted can come naturally, and he's certainly not going to object. Instead, he lists his goals. He talks bigger, stronger, faster. It's the stuff of cliché, but what else is he supposed to say? He won the genetic jackpot, and he made the most of it, and here we are, straining to listen when watching tells the better story.