ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There was a time, when he was cocooned within an option-based, run-heavy offense, when many of the league’s talent evaluators looked at one Demaryius Thomas and tried to project what he could eventually be as a professional.
They wondered if a wide receiver with that many physical gifts, with size, speed, who was coming into the 2010 NFL draft with a fractured foot, having spent his college career running past harried defensive backs busy trying to defend Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack, would blossom into somebody’s go-to guy.
Four Denver Broncos seasons later, the answer is pretty clear.
Or as Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert now tells it: “For a big guy ... he runs really good routes. He runs routes like a smaller guy, that’s one thing that stands out about him compared to some other big guys, the fact he can run pretty good intermediate routes as well as go deep, as well as make you miss and break tackles, he’s got the total package.’’
What Thomas has got these days is back-to-back 90-catch, 1,400-yard seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback. What the Broncos got was a size-speed matchup nightmare, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound, every-down player who is a significant, get-it-done piece of the puzzle that is the Broncos' record-setting offense.
Defense coaches around the league say Wes Welker, when healthy, is the league’s best slot receiver. They say Julius Thomas is an up-and-coming tight end who has flashed the potential to be a monstrous headache in the coming seasons. And they say when he’s right and involved Eric Decker plays like an impact player.
But Demaryius Thomas, they say, is the guy who turns games, affects coverages, turns missed tackles into touchdowns. And as the Broncos prepare for the postseason, Thomas is also the player who will have to the guy who has to be ready for that kind of attention. Things routinely get physical in the passing game in the postseason, and the defenses that have slowed the Broncos even a little this season, have done it by playing the rough stuff against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt Denver’s timing overall.
So much so, it has been in recent weeks, and will be a point of emphasis, in what’s to come in the Broncos’ postseason practices.
“And [Thomas] hasn’t even missed a practice, I don’t think, since I’ve been here,’’ Tolbert said. “I really have instilled in those guys, every rep, make sure it’s a championship rep. That’s the way he goes about practice.’’
Thomas has already seen both sides of the postseason coin in his career. There was his 80-yard catch and run on a short flip from Tim Tebow in the wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers two Januarys ago, the kind of play more people than there are seats in the stadium will say they saw live. And there was last January’s double-overtime loss to the Ravens, when Thomas finished with just three receptions, just one of those in the second half.
“The main thing is you win or you go home,’’ Thomas said. “... You want to start fast, go out fast and don’t want to lose. So we’re going to do our best to -- whoever our opponent is -- do great on preparing for them, make sure we’re ready come ... January 12th and get the ‘W.’”
As the postseason routinely shows, it’s all about the matchups. And while defenses will certainly give Thomas plenty of attention, the Broncos are built with plenty of potential week-to-week, even drive-to-drive heroes on offense, including Thomas.
At 37, Manning has played with hard-earned patience and remember-when perspective in his post-surgical time with the Broncos. And when it comes to touchdowns, he has played no favorites with the Broncos finishing the season with five players – Demaryius Thomas, Welker, Decker, Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno – with at least 10 touchdowns.
To put that group's scoring output in perspective, no other team has finished any season in league history with three players with at least 10 touchdowns.
The balance has enabled the Broncos to continue to get the ball where they want it, no matter how the defense is aligned in front of them. And the receivers, Thomas said, know that any moment, on any play, Manning will decide it’s their turn for big things.
“You just know, if you get open, get to where you are supposed to be, the ball is coming,’’ Thomas said. “You might not have a catch or anything, then all of a sudden he sees something or [offensive coordinator Adam Gase] sees something and it’s on for you. I think it makes everybody ready to go all the time because you want to be ready to go when the ball comes your way.’’
“They know when Peyton Manning’s at quarterback, they have a chance to get the ball on any given play,’’ Tolbert said. “... Of all the records, in my opinion, the one that’s going to last a while is, I call it the five-10 group. I don’t think it will be broken for a while where you have five guys have at least 10 touchdowns. Anybody can score at any given time. ... They can go 18 games, the yardage record can be in jeopardy and all that stuff, but that five-10 group, that’s going to be hard to break.’’