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The Route to Rod: Demaryius Thomas inching closer to Broncos' all-time marks

Demaryius Thomas is getting closer.

He's getting closer to 849, to 11,389 and to 68.

Another few seasons, and those numbers won't mean quite as much as they do now.

They'll no longer represent the most receptions, yards and touchdowns in Broncos' history.

No, after perhaps three more good seasons in Denver, Thomas could take Rod Smith's title as the Broncos' all-time leading receiver.

If and when he does, Smith will have a message for the man who's already the Broncos' most-productive wide receiver since the 1990s:

It's about time.

• • •

Let's look at the math.

Should Thomas add 3,548 yards, 292 receptions and 17 touchdowns to his career resume, he'll surpass a man he's leaned on for advice since he first entered the league.

If that seems like a lot, consider this: If Thomas can put up 1,229 yards, 102 receptions and six touchdowns over each of the next three years, he'll pass Smith's mark. He's recorded that many yards and touchdowns in a season on four occasions and has twice tallied that many receptions.

Expand the timeframe to four years, and he'd need 921 yards, 76 receptions and just over four touchdowns. Thomas has accomplished that stat line every year since he became a full-time starter in 2012.

But don't think Thomas' consistency all stems from his raw talent.

Instead, start by looking at Thomas' knack for being available. In the NFL, playing Week 1 through Week 17 is as valuable a trait as running a perfect curl route or tracking a ball in the air.

So perhaps it's no surprise Thomas is among the best in the entire league at staying on the field. If you're counting, Thomas is at 82 consecutive regular-season starts.

That's not to say Thomas hasn't faced his share of adversity. In 2016, he battled through a hip injury that plagued him for much of the season. Thomas didn't play up to his own standards, but many receivers across the league would love to switch stat lines with the eighth-year player.

That 2016 season? One in which he said he was "unable to do the things I wanted to do"?

Sixteen games. Sixteen starts. Ninety receptions, 1,083 yards and five touchdowns.

While good play is also a necessity, Thomas' constant presence is the underlying reason he's the only current NFL player with 1,000 yards during each of the previous five seasons.

"What really helped me be successful the way I am is being able to take care of my body," Thomas said. "If you look over the league, you have guys getting hurt, missing maybe two or three games, which is stopping them from getting 1,000 yards [five years in a row]. … I was talking to Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey. They told me what I've got to do to stay on the field, and I took it and ran with it. That's one of the biggest successes of my career, is taking care of my body and working on my craft at all times."

While — and because — he's improved his game, the Broncos have found plenty of success. Since Thomas began his impressive start streak, Denver has won 60 regular season games, four AFC West titles, six playoff games and a Lombardi Trophy.

In Smith's eyes, it's not hard to draw a connection between Denver's accomplishments and Thomas' individual marks.

And Smith would know — his time in Denver included two Super Bowl rings.

"We've won a lot of football games [recently] and a Super Bowl, and he's been there during that time," Smith said. "And he's been a big part of it, so records should fall. It's just that simple."

• • •

After Thomas was drafted out of Georgia Tech in 2010, Smith saw a "freakin' huge" player who was built like a defensive end. As the local media chattered about the selection of Tim Tebow, Smith wondered why the 6-foot-3 receiver was going unnoticed. Even from YouTube highlights, Smith could tell the 22nd-overall pick could be special.

So when Thomas reached out to Smith early in his career to learn more about the position, Smith jumped at the chance.

"I saw all his talent, and I [wanted] to guide him away from some of the stuff that eliminates you playing your best," Smith said. "… I'm always going to be in his ear telling him the truth. If I think he ain't playing well, I'm going to tell him. But I think he respects me enough to listen to it, too."

Much of Smith's advice helps supplement the work Wide Receivers Coach Tyke Tolbert does with Thomas inside UCHealth Training Center. In Tolbert, Thomas has a coach who is "the best I've had in my whole career." In Smith, he has something different— a peer whose advice is based on thousands of snaps of professional football.

Some of that direction came Sunday afternoon against the Cowboys. After an early reception, Thomas ended up on the Broncos' sideline and came to a stop near Smith. The two high-fived, and Thomas jogged back into the game.

"Sometimes it happens during the game, 'Hey, man. Do this. When he's doing this, do this,'" Smith said. "And it just gives him a sense of calm. He's got so much talent and skill. … It was talent when he was born. It's skill now, because he's worked at it."

Smith put in the work, too.

On his way past former Broncos receivers Lionel Taylor, Haven Moses and Steve Watson, Smith said he was far more focused on the work that led to the catches and yards, rather than the totals that would follow.

"I knew if I did what I was supposed to do, for one, I was going to keep my job," Smith said. "Two, I was going to help our football team win. That's all I focused on. If you start getting caught up in the individual stuff, then you're playing for the wrong reasons. I mean, my thing was, the records are going to fall if I do my job anyway. So just do your job, the records will fall, and we'll win."

That strategy worked well for Smith — and Thomas has essentially adopted the same in-season approach.

"I don't know [any] stats leading up to nothing until [Executive Vice President of Public and Community Relations] Patrick Smyth comes up to me or somebody during the game and says, 'You broke a record' or 'You did something.' My main focus is go into the game 100 percent, come out the game 100 percent, but give my all for teammates, my organization to go out and get a win. Don't matter how many catches [I get]. I don't care if I don't get [a] catch, as long as my grade sheet says 100 percent. If that's got to be blocking or running whatever routes, it's whatever I've got to do to help my team. It's a blessing to know you reach those goals and that's what a lot of guys work for, but I don't think about it going into games."

The offseason is a little bit different.

Especially as Thomas' years in the NFL continue to build, those just-out-of-reach records serve as fuel on the mornings when sleep seems preferable to a lift and an afternoon off beats a workout in the Georgia heat. Thomas jokes that he's excited to remind Smith and Shannon Sharpe about all the trash they've talked. Both former players have been quick to let Thomas know how they think their careers compare favorably to his.

More so, he recognizes the sort of honor it would be to pass a player of Rod Smith's caliber.

"You'll look at a Denver Bronco thing, you'll be like, 'OK, Rod Smith.' And then you'll see D.T.," Thomas said. "That's what I'm working for, because I want to retire a Bronco, hopefully. You never know, but that's what I've been working for – to be matched up to some of the greats. Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe and all those guys. "Once I'm done and coming back like [Steve] Atwater and the rest of them, I can just say, 'OK, that's me right there. Mr. Thomas, No. 1.' That's what I look toward after the season, but during the season, the main thing is taking it a game at a time and trying to get better and better every week."

• • •

Let's make one thing clear: Smith wants his records to fall.

If his marks are broken, that means the team is likely winning. And that's what Smith wants most.

"I coach D.T. to help him break mine," Smith said. "That's the way I look at it, we want the bar continually going up. [If] those records are lasting a long, long, long, long time, that means either the person who broke those records has put it so far out of reach that it's crazy, or we're not productive in that spot. And to me, [the latter is] unacceptable. I want us to be productive in that spot forever. And whatever he sets, I want to help him. And me and him will hopefully help somebody smash that one."

Thomas is already working on it. He said he's helping the younger players in the same way Smith helped him.

"And I ain't even broke it yet," Thomas joked.

He expects his effort in that area to continue, whether it's in an informal setting or as a wide receivers coach at the high school or collegiate level. Even once he's out of the game, Thomas hopes to "drop the knowledge whenever I get the chance."

Before any of that can happen, Thomas must continue to perform over the course of each individual game. For these big records to fall, Thomas must piece together a series of small outputs.

He seems convinced that's going to happen in 2017, and his performance in the first two games is only a starting place. His team-leading 11 receptions and 138 yards are the first steps in a campaign Thomas hopes pushes him closer to Smith. But to hear Thomas tell it, expectations can — and should — be higher.

"Nah," Thomas said. "Nah. Nah. You haven't seen the best yet. I don't think anybody's seen the best yet.

"It's coming."

And the day when Thomas finally surpasses his mentor as the Broncos' all-time leading receiver?

That may not be far behind.

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