With the Broncos and Demaryius Thomas coming together in the final hours of the franchise tag contract negotiation period, the five-year deal they agreed to represented recognition that Thomas has established himself as one of the league's top receiving threats. and progressing year over year from entering the NFL.
Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway has said that the Broncos can't always expect to draft All-Pro players, but ideally the team helps them develop into All-Pros. Thomas is a bit different in that regard as a former first-round draft pick, but the three-time Pro Bowl receiver has developed in his own right after struggling in his first two years to get through injuries his first two years.
Thomas had a great NFL debut with eight catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in his first career game against Seattle in 2010. But foot and ankle injuries would limit him considerably; he missed six weeks, including Weeks 11-15 with an ankle injury. Starting just twice behind Pro Bowler Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, Thomas finished with 22 receptions, 283 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
In his sophomore season, he almost doubled his receiving yards but missed the Broncos' first five games of 2011 due to a broken thumb suffered in practice just as he was poised to return from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in February of that year. He returned in Week 7 at Miami, but didn't get untracked until a four-catch, 144-yard day in a 35-32 win at Minnesota in Week 13 — the first 100-yard day of his career.
That started a seven-game run in which he caught 35 passes, averaged 106.4 yards per game and gave the Broncos their first postseason win in nearly seven years with an 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run to seal the wild-card upset of Pittsburgh. No Bronco had ever racked up more receiving yardage over the season's last seven games than Thomas during his breakout streak.
The brilliant flashes of talent were there. Now all Thomas had to do was put it all together for an entire season. And that's exactly what he's done for each of the past three years, totaling at least 1,400 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns in each of those seasons — a mark that only Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison have hit. In 2014 Thomas received his third consecutive Pro Bowl selection and he had his best year yet, setting the single-season franchise record with 1,619 receiving yards and the single-game franchise record with 226 receiving yards against Arizona in Week 5.
"I think that he got bit by the injury bug early in his career and he has been able to fight through that to have three solid years when he's been healthy. That's a maturation process," Elway said during a conference call Wednesday afternoon."If you look at what he has done the past three years and really what he has done since he has been in Denver, you will see he has been a tremendous player for us. He's an explosive player with big play capabilities. When you look outside and see a guy that is 6-3 and 225 pounds with the ability to score anytime he gets the ball in his hands has the ability to score, it makes you more explosive as an offense."
Take a look through Demaryius Thomas' career as a Denver Bronco, including his milestones.
The progress and production Thomas has had in conjunction with the person that he is established the benchmark that Elway and the Broncos knew they could expect for years to come, giving them great comfort in the new five-year contract.
"I don't think there's any question that D.T. is one of the top wide receivers in the league and he's being compensated that way now. It's very well deserved on D.T.'s part. We have high expectations. We think he's coming right into his prime," Elway said, "and we don't anticipate him backing up at all."
The first step to fulfilling those high expectations will come at the end of the month when training camp begins and Thomas gets his initial experience in the Broncos' new offense implemented by Head Coach Gary Kubiak and Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison.
Kubiak said in June that wide receiver has been one of the toughest positions to make the offensive adjustment because of the terminology and nomenclature changes.
"We talk a lot and [use] our verbiage. They've worked a lot at the line of scrimmage and on their verbiage," Thomas said. "There's a lot of huddle talk that [WR] Emmanuel [Sanders] and those guys have to get used to."
Watch Julius Thomas power through Charles Woodson frame by frame for his first of two touchdowns in Sunday's game against in Oakland.
Clearly confident that in Thomas' ability to learn quickly, Elway said, "He's a hard worker, studies and he's smart. He is a student of the game."
There will be an adjustment period for Thomas as he makes up for lost time in OTAs and minicamp, but there probably shouldn't be much hand-wringing over it. After all, it certainly can't hurt that Thomas has built an unmatched chemistry with Peyton Manning over the past three seasons as a top target.
Looking back at how Thomas has developed and the production he has accomplished in his career to this point in establishing himself as one of the league's best receivers, it's easy to see that he can make the necessary advancement adjustment quickly and get to addressing those high expectations.
"The expectations are going to be increased now and we just think that he has all the skills. Plus with the type of person he is, he's the type of player and guy that we want on the Denver Broncos," Elway said. "We have a tremendous amount of confidence in D.T., and it's why we're comfortable paying this kind of money."