IN MARCH, DEMARYIUS THOMAS HEARD THAT PEYTON MANNING HAD NARROWED HIS LIST OF PROSPECTIVE TEAMS TO FOUR AND THAT DENVER WAS ONE OF THEM. THOMAS COULDN'T BELIEVE it. "I thought it was a joke," says the Broncos' third-year receiver. "But it got down to two [teams], and we had a chance. I got excited."
Thomas's fantasy owners will be excited too when the wideout teams with this generation's greatest fantasy quarterback. Lining up as Manning's X receiver, Thomas, 24, will serve the same role that receivers such as Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne served in Indianapolis, when they each put up huge numbers with Manning for years.
Can Manning really elevate someone who during his two NFL seasons has missed 11 games with foot, ankle, finger and Achilles injuries and who has played in rushing-heavy offenses at Georgia Tech and with the Tebowing Broncos? Based on the latter part of the 2011 season, the answer is a resounding yes. In a seven-game stretch from Dec. 1 through the Broncos' elimination from the playoffs, Thomas averaged 106.4 receiving yards—a claim only his off-season workout partner Calvin Johnson could top—even while playing with Tim Tebow, the anti-Peyton.
Full commitment is crucial to learning the intricacies of Manning's hurry-up offense, and the 6' 3", 229-pound receiver with 4.38 speed has been healthy enough for off-season team activities for the first time as an NFL player.
"Last year we ran the ball 60 to 70 percent of the time, and I was just a receiver who ran routes," says Thomas of knowing he wouldn't be involved in most offensive plays. "Now it's different. We'll still run the ball, but I have to run routes on every down. [Manning] stays on you all the time."
Also invaluable in the transition is Denver receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in Indy. "He talks a lot to the younger guys, and we ask him a lot of questions," says Thomas. "They changed the way we run routes, showing us exactly the way [Manning] wants them. I just want to be on the same page. No conflicts."
Following Thomas's 80-yard overtime catch-and-run TD against the Steelers in the AFC wild-card win, then-teammate Eddie Royal talked about Thomas's vast potential, saying, "the sky's the limit." Added Royal, who's now with the Chargers, "I can't imagine what he would do with 20 targets a game." While Thomas won't see the ball 20 times, he's teaming with a future Hall of Fame QB in an explosive system. Now we'll see how good he can be.