ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- By the time his career with the Denver Broncos ended, wide receiver Rod Smith had two Super Bowl rings, 849 receptions, 68 receiving touchdowns and plenty of wisdom dispensed along the way.
“Old comes fast in the league sometimes and the guys who might have to fight it off the hardest are receivers, because once you can’t get open, they close the door on you,” Smith has often said.
Two of the most prominent in the wave of big receivers in their 30s -- the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas and the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald -- will face off Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox). They continue to adapt -- adjusting to changing times and offenses -- and their aging bodies.
“Guys are only getting younger, quicker and faster,” Thomas, 30, said. “Younger you are, the quicker you heal, so they might be fresher than you ... I think you always have to look to see if you need to change up some things to stay on point, to help your team win. You have to do that work, all the time, no exceptions, be a little lucky, a little blessed -- all of the above -- and never let up.”
Fitzgerald, 35, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2004, is now in his 15th season with the team. Thomas, a first-round pick in 2010, suddenly finds himself the longest-tenured Broncos player in the locker room.
Both are 6-foot-3, both have played north of 220 pounds at times during their respective careers, both have been to Pro Bowls, played in Super Bowls and been their team’s alpha receiver for a variety of quarterbacks.
And when they take a step back to see how they got from where they were as players to where they are now, even the path is similar. Each started as a split end -- lined up wide, much of the time, on the offensive left.
And each has had to expand his skill set and move around the formation to remain impactful.
“I prepare much more now,” Fitzgerald said this week. “Playing X is way easier than doing what I’m doing now -- all I did was play X. I’m on the backside of everything ... it was pretty easy -- I never studied, never really did much preparation, to be honest with you. But now I have to prepare a lot more. When you’re playing inside, you're responsible for a lot of the [hot routes] -- you have to relay the plays outside ... I’m the closest to the quarterback, so when there’s distress, he’s going to be looking to me first, so you have be a lot more on your P's and Q's.’’
“[Fitzgerald] is right,” Thomas said. “... At the X, you’re usually on the backside -- not much to worry about, a sight adjustment sometimes, a block here and there. You don’t have to think too much; you could go out, run your route. Now, there’s more to it.”
Fitzgerald largely plays out of the slot for the Cardinals these days -- an intersection of experience, his knowledge of the game and the fact he’s playing in a league in which 35-year-olds at his position are on the shortest of lists.
“You change in terms of what you’re asked and what your responsibilities are,” Fitzgerald said. “... You move inside -- your game kind of expands. You have to learn to do things different, be valuable when there are things you can’t do anymore or things you wish you could do and they won’t let you do anymore. You have to kind of evolve.”
For Thomas, it also has meant dealing with the physical battering he has taken along the way. He hasn’t missed a game since 2011, and rarely even a practice, but he constantly has battled hip, wrist, hand and foot injuries.
Thomas said he spends far more time on "the body work" in season and in the offseason than he ever thought he would as a 23-year-old rookie. Largely because of a troublesome hip, he also now plays at 218 pounds, down from the 238 pounds he said he weighed as recently as the team’s run to Super Bowl 50 in 2015, a season in which he had 105 catches.
“After that year we won the Super Bowl, I was real banged up coming out of that year and it took a while to get back,” Thomas said. “Noticing that, I knew I had to do more. I knew the game so much more because of Peyton [Manning] -- it helped with angles, setting up routes ... but my body had to get that kind of work too.
“But if I wouldn’t have lost the weight, [I] don’t know where I’d be. I mean, guys were noticing before I did. One guy told me in the playoffs that year, ‘You ain’t the same DT,’ and that was one of the years I was dealing [with the hip]. I’m strong as s--- still, but that hit me. Getting that weight off helped my hip. I could run the same before, but the cuts, the stops -- those are better. The thing is, if you slow down you ain’t getting the ball, you ain’t helping your team win. I want to help us win. I want to play in more of those big games.”
Josh Weinfuss contributed to this story.