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Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson redefine what it means to be 'open'

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During his final four seasons with the Denver Broncos Champ Bailey’s locker was one step away from Demaryius Thomas’.

And on more than one occasion, Bailey would point his gaze at Thomas and say, “Right there, guys like him, that’s the biggest difference in this league, guys as big a tight ends who run like they’re 100-meter guys. I came into this league as a big corner, I’ll go out covering guys like him.’’

Two of the next-gen, supersized sprinters -- Thomas and Calvin Johnson -- will be on the same field Sunday night when the Broncos and the Lions play at Ford Field. And over the last 15 years, receivers are getting bigger and the cornerbacks who cover them have stayed the same.

In 1992, the wide receivers selected for the Pro Bowl averaged 6-feet-½ inch and weighed 195.6 pounds. The cornerbacks selected to that Pro Bowl averaged 6-¼ and weighed 189.5 pounds. By 2002, the gap had widened to 6-1¼ and 204.1 pounds for the Pro Bowl receivers compared to 5-11¾ and 194.3 pounds for corners.

And by 2013, the Pro Bowl receivers averaged 6-2½, 215.8 pounds, and the corners were 5-11½, 196.4. Johnson is 6-5, listed at 237 pounds, and Thomas is 6-3, 229 pounds. At 6-1, 205 pounds, the Broncos’ Aqib Talib is the biggest cornerback either team will suit up Sunday.

What that means isn’t exactly rocket science.

“You look around guys are 6-4 plus; fast, great routes,’’ Talib said. “ … For a minute, the NFL used to be all about speed out there, but now it’s about size and speed as far as receivers are concerned. Guys like Calvin, D.T., you can’t get your hands on them because they’re so big ... and you better worry about the deep ball because they can run like short cats and go get the ball with all that size.’’

And, the bottom line: “Man, their catch radius,’’ Talib said. “They don’t really have to be open to make a play on the ball.’’

True enough, especially since the Broncos just won a game last week -- last Thursday in Kansas City -- when Thomas didn’t have to be open to make a play on the ball. On the Broncos’ game-tying drive in the final minutes, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning completed three passes to Thomas on the 80-yard drive for 53 yards, two of those on plays when Thomas likely wasn’t technically open, when he had Chiefs defensive backs draped on him like a well-fit suit jacket.

Players like Thomas and Johnson have changed the definition of what constitutes open.

“I would say so -- I know Demaryius was probably not open on that third-and-10 the other night in the two-minute drill; the guy had pretty good coverage on him. I would think that corner probably got a plus on his grade sheet for covering everything right,’’ Manning said. “But when you have a big body, you can put the ball in a place where he can use his body to kind of to get between the ball and the defender. You can only do that with a certain type of guy. With his size, with his ability to elevate, don’t underestimate that -- 6-4, but he can play much taller than that with his ability to jump. It’s hard to overthrow him on a back-shoulder because he has so much range.’’

Toss in the fact defensive backs are decidedly handcuffed by the league’s rules makers, who appear in search of more points and have constructed an environment where receivers have more room to run. It has made the big receiver a premium player in any offense.

So much so the Broncos signed Thomas to a five-year, $70 million deal just before the season. And Johnson’s seven-year, $113.45 million deal, signed in 2012, is still the biggest by any player at the position.

All because they are matchup problems who can’t always be cured by doing the right thing on defense. Bigger and faster is simply not preparation ground that can be covered Wednesday through Saturday.

“That’s the big thing,’’ Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “You roll their way, you play trail [technique] on them, you get somebody over the top, you still underthrow balls and they make plays on you. Sometimes you come out of games and you’ve got 70, 80 yards in [pass interference penalties] against players like that. They affect the game that way, too.’’