Editor's Note: This cover story ran in the Sept. 9 Gameday program, when the Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 in the season opener. Demaryius Thomas caught five passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the contest.
DENVER --After four quarters of the Broncos' 2011 AFC Wild Card Game, Demaryius Thomas had three catches for 124 yards.
His position coach thought he could have even more.
"Earlier in the game, if you can recall, he caught a pass and kept cutting back to the sideline," Wide Receivers Coach Tyke Tolbert said. "I said, 'D.T., don't cut back again.'"
So when Thomas caught the first pass of overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he didn't.
"(Tolbert) was like, 'Just trust your speed. Trust your speed,'" Thomas said. "I remembered that. Once I got the separation I just trusted my speed and ran."
The 80-yard, catch-and-run touchdown to win the game put Thomas' speed on display, not to mention his stiff-arm, which he considers his best move.
"For him to stiff-arm (Steelers cornerback) Ike Taylor and run away from him, it showed everybody how fast D.T. really is," Tolbert said.
It's a play Thomas said he has replayed in his mind – and on YouTube – countless times. Thomas' career highlight reel will likely always feature that touchdown. But the third-year receiver hasn't looked at the play since training camp started. It's in the past. And as far as he's concerned, 2012 is almost like a brand new start to his career.
For the first time, the 2010 first-round pick was healthy for a full offseason. Last season, the receiver was rehabbing an Achilles injury during the offseason. Two years ago, it was a foot injury that kept him off the field.
But in 2012, Thomas had a full slate of offseason conditioning, OTAs, minicamps, training camp and preseason games to get him ready for what he hopes will be his "best year yet."
"It was real big," Thomas said. "I learned a lot just from being out there and being able to get the reps. It's something new to me, my first time really doing it and being able to play in the preseason. I think it's another start to my career. Now I can just build up from there."
Thomas' teammates noticed just how much the receiver used the time to his advantage.
It started before the team's official offseason conditioning program even began, when he joined a group of young NFL stars at his alma mater, Georgia Tech.
Thomas, along with players like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, all worked together to make sure they put their best foot forward in 2012.
"Being around some good receivers, as in Calvin, A.J., Massaquoi, all those guys, we'd look at each other and build off whatever everybody else was doing," he said.
From his conditioning to his quickness to his route-running, Tolbert said the 6-foot-3, 229-pound receiver did "a really good job" of improving in the offseason.
"(Route-running) was the biggest thing for him because he's a bigger guy," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Bigger guys struggle running routes most of the time. He's on top of it now. He looks like one of the best now because he's running his routes as crisp and can be and he's catching the ball."
Thomas said his timing with quarterback Peyton Manning has steadily improved "since day one," and the proof was in the preseason, when he caught five passes for 53 yards.
Manning himself predicted that Thomas "is going to play a key role for us this year," and Tolbert said he "can be a better player this year than he was last year."
It's an exciting prospect for Thomas, who tied with Johnson for the league lead with 414 yards and three touchdowns on 22 catches during the month of December last year.
Including the team's two postseason games, Thomas caught 42 passes for 848 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.
"I'm excited," he said. "First season going in healthy, that's my main focus right now, just to stay healthy the whole season. I think if I stay healthy, I can be a big part of the team and help the team out, get some wins and maybe be one of the guys that makes big plays. If I stay healthy, I think I can be a big factor."
Early in the offseason, wide receiver Brandon Stokley said he noticed a big change in Thomas – and his fellow 2010 NFL Draft pick, Eric Decker – from the last time he saw them as rookies.
Both players, he said, have taken on a leadership role at the position.
"It is their receiver group," Stokley said. "It's their chance to do something special."
Thomas and Decker, who dubbed themselves early on as "Salt and Pepper," have grown together as both enter their third NFL season.
Both had foot injuries as rookies, when they shared an apartment near the team's Dove Valley headquarters, both had breakout years in 2011 and both are looking for even more in 2012.
Thomas said he hopes they can provide a "one-two" punch on the offense, but with Manning spreading the ball around, he expects contributions across the board from a group with "sky-high" potential.
"There are a lot of great players, from tight ends to running backs to receivers," he said. "I'm looking forward to the season. I think everybody can have a good year if everybody stays healthy. Go out every week and just put it all on the line."
It's only fitting that the Broncos open the season with a rematch of Thomas' coming-out party, when his 80-yard touchdown sent the Steelers home and sent the Broncos on to the Divisional Round of the 2011 AFC Playoffs.
It's a matchup Thomas admitted he's been looking forward to for a long time, but not just because it's against Pittsburgh. It's simply a chance to get a 2012 season filled with high expectations started.
First and foremost, he's ready for the reaction the team will get from more than 76,000 screaming fans when it runs through the tunnel at Sports Authority Field at Mile High for the first time.
"It's crazy," he said. "You've got all the fans, they love their Broncos, so when you walk out you know you've got nothing but Broncos on your side. It's fun."
And if Thomas kicks off the season with another gigantic performance against the black-and-yellow, it wouldn't surprise Bailey.
"His ceiling," Bailey said, "is as high as you want to make it."