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Demaryius Thomas eager to embrace Coach Joseph's challenge

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Weeks before Head Coach Vance Joseph addressed his team for the first time, he issued one of his key players a challenge.

From his table at the AFC Coaches Breakfast at the Annual League Meeting in March, Joseph shared with reporters his expectations for Demaryius Thomas.

"I want '88' — that's what I call him — I want him to be a dominant player all the time," Joseph said. "I don't want him to ease into games. I want him to be [the] guy. I want him to step out and be [the] guy. It's time.

"He's a great player. He can take over a game, but I want his mindset every game to be [that in] every game we play, [he can] walk on the field and take over the game. Again, running the football will force them to load up the box and give him one-on-one opportunities. I want him to win every one-on-one. I want him to become a leader of our football team."

Thomas was listening, and he liked what he heard. By the time Thomas sat in the team room at UCHealth Training Center and listened to his new head coach, he was fully onboard Joseph's plan to make him a staple of the Broncos' offense.

"It means a lot [for Joseph to say that]," Thomas said Tuesday. "Definitely, the first thing I thought was more opportunities and chances to get the ball more, but also [that I can] be that guy to get the offense sparking. I'm excited about it and I look forward to it. I just have to step up to the plate."

If Thomas returns to his 2012-14 form, that will surely fulfill Joseph's hopes for the eighth-year wide receiver.

He was by no means average in either 2015 or 2016. He tallied at least 1,000 yards in each of those two seasons and earned a Pro Bowl selection. 

Perhaps, then, that should signal the impressiveness of his previous seasons.

He recorded at least 1,400 yards, 90 receptions and 10 touchdowns in each of the three years. His 2013 season was arguably his best, as he caught 92 passes for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns. Thomas caught the most of Peyton Manning's record-breaking 55 touchdowns that season and earned second-team All-Pro honors. 

Four years later, Thomas doesn't see a reason he can't recapture that same sort of production.

"We've got the potential now, as well, because it's the same offense and the same system," Thomas said.

"As [the offseason] goes on, we'll be sitting in a group with the receivers, running backs and quarterbacks watching those clips from those days when we broke the records and put up so many points throughout the year just so they can see it."

Much of that confidence stems from the return of Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy, who left for the Chargers' head-coaching job after the 2012 season.

With McCoy back in the fold, Thomas anticipates an offense more similar to the one from its league-leading years, rather than the one that has struggled at times over the last two seasons.

"The sky is the limit," Thomas said. "It's just going out as a group of guys on the offensive side of the ball and executing. We have playmakers and we've got good coaches to call the plays. We've got two quarterbacks that can play and you've got running backs out the backfield, offensive line. It's about going out and executing now."

Joseph, who's repeatedly said he welcomes offensive input from each of the many minds on his staff, already has some preliminary ideas about how to increase Thomas' production.

Those plans range from putting Thomas in motion to changing his alignment in different formations. With the help of those schematic elements, Joseph thinks Thomas can gain an advantage over defensive backs.

"He can play the slot and he can play outside," Joseph said. "He's a great runner with the football with wide-receiver screens. That has been his trademark for years. Catch the screen and go 60 and 70 yards."

Toward the end of the season, Thomas likely could not make those plays due to a lingering hip injury. 

As the Broncos played their final few games, Thomas had trouble stopping, running certain routes and getting off press coverage. There simply wasn't any power in his hip to help him explode off the ball, he said.

That has since changed, as he's run routes without any pain. 

When asked if he knew the specific ailment that affected his hip, Thomas stayed coy.

"Yes," he said.

What was it?

"I forgot."

Thomas did remember enough to say that the issue won't recur in 2017, as he has a plan to "be on top of it and do whatever I need to do to be 100 [percent]."

There's plenty of reason to believe Thomas will follow through on that claim. 

The former first-round pick hasn't missed a game since 2011 and has started 80-consecutive regular-season games for the Broncos.

If Joseph and Thomas have their way, start No. 80 will be the beginning of a season full of production.

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