Broncography: The story of Demaryius Thomas, Part 2

Note: This is the second of a two-part story, the first of which appeared earlier today.

Wise beyond his years, he realized that he was about an average size for a shooting guard. He was big and fast enough to do great things as a WR, and realized that there weren’t that many NFL receivers with his combination of size, speed and elusiveness. He looked for colleges with just that in mind. To him, Georgia Tech seemed like a very good fit. Chan Gailey was running a pro-style attack, and that seemed to Thomas as if it might improve his chances in the NFL Draft.

Following his 2007 season, however, the Yellow Jackets brought in Paul Johnson to run the triple-option offense; one which emphasizes various options that put up a lot of running yards and had worked well for Johnson when he was at Navy.  One of the advantages for Demaryius was that he was, from his time in high school and middle school, already a remarkably advanced blocker. He had taken the usual freshman redshirt year and got the work on his management degree well underway. He returned to football in 2007. He playing in all 13 of their games that year, started 10, including the final 8 games. He was second on the team in receptions with 35. He also managed to average 15.9 yards per reception, and was a fierce blocker. Two of the receivers from GT left, unhappy with the installation of the triple option. DT decided to stay.

His college bio described him as “Georgia Tech’s best receiver since Calvin Johnson and one of the most skilled receivers in the ACC.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. He ended his 2007 season with a top performance on national TV, pulling in 69 yards on 4 catches and a TD. At the end of his first year of college ball, Demaryius had brought in totals that ranked second among all receivers at his school. He had 35 receptions and 558 receiving yards. He was given two major awards afterwards:

* 2007 ACC All-Freshman Team (Sporting News)
* 2007 Honorable Mention Freshman All-America (Sporting News)

In 2008, he just got better. His blocking became even stronger, and since he had gone from 210 as a freshman to 230 as a junior, his strength had also gone up substantially. The Yellow Jackets had worked with the triple option, but his totals only grew to 39 receptions for 627 yards. Those numbers were more than half of GT’s total receptions (39 of 74). He had nine receptions of 20 yards or longer and averaged 16.1 yards per reception. He even carried the ball twice for a total of 29 yards.

2009 brought even greater things to the young man. His receptions went up again - to 46 this time - but it was his increase in yards that really caught people’s eyes. His total on those 46 catches was 1,154 yards, and his YPR was a scintillating 25.1. While he’d taken in 3 TDs in each of his first two years, in 2009 that rose to 8 TDs. While GT was averaging over 300 yards per game in total yards, DT was averaging over 25 yards per reception. His blocking was even better as his body matured and he became stronger.

Not surprisingly, DT was invited to the NFL Combine. He was dealing with a foot injury that restricted him from taking part in some of the drills (it would prevent those at his Pro Day as well), but he had been reported as running the 40-yard dash in the 4.36-4.38 range in college. While such numbers are sometimes exaggerated, DT’s brief time with the Broncos has shown that these weren’t.  The list of NFL WRs with his size who have good hands, balance, and move at that kind of speed is very brief - Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. Now there’s a fourth, with large shoes to fill if he wants to play at their level. Early returns suggest that he may reach those levels of play. 

It’s worth looking at what little Combine information is extant - mostly, his measurements. Thomas, first of all, scored a 34 on the Wonderlic, a lot higher than the average WR. His arms were over 33 inches long - about normal for a left tackle, much less a WR, and his hands measured 10.5 inches. Small wonder that going up for high passes doesn’t concern him in the least. As for blocking - the triple option required him to do a lot of it. He was good at it coming out of high school - he was exceptional coming out of college. I know that some reports disagreed, and I’ll deal with that in a minute.

One commonly-noted concern with DT had to do with his route running - there was a running comment, no pun intended, going around the Combine. Thomas, they said, knew about three routes, and the only one he commonly ran was a go route. After he was drafted, he turned out to be quick to pick up the rest of the routes, earning frequent comments from players, coaches and even pundits alike on his skill in an area where his draft scouting reports considered him weak. As is common when dealing with the Combine - if you don’t get to see it in drills, look for it on film. As I’ve noted - a single play with a scout in the press box can earn a player a reputation that doesn’t always show a complete picture. This apparently was one of those instances. There’s nothing wrong with his route running, although I’d expect him to improve even more in the next few years. He did some routes on his Pro Day, and some untimed cone drills as well. For most teams, it would come down to the interviews and the film.

Here are some predraft scouting notes on Thomas:
Release: Adequate lateral quickness and good upper-body strength to defeat press coverage. Long-strider with good build-up speed to eat up the cushion. Doesn’t possess a clear second gear to accelerate and separate.
Hands: Strong, generally secure hands. Too often allows the ball into his pads on shallow routes, though he does a good job of securing. Good jump-ball candidate due to his height and leaping ability. Times his jumps well and high-points the ball, showing good hand-eye coordination to make the reception while competing for position. Good to very good body control to contort in space for a receiver of his size. Will leap, catch the ball and continue twisting so that when he hits the ground he’s in position to keep running downfield instead of back toward the quarterback. Like a lot of bigger receivers, only has marginal overall flexibility to reach the low pass despite his long arms.
Route running: A significant area of concern. Not asked to run many pro-style routes in this offense. Most often used on simple go, drag or quick screens designed to get him one-on-one against smaller corners. May not have the suddenness in changing directions to generate separation against NFL defensive backs. Has to do a better job of coming off the line hard to sell his route when his team runs the ball. Can tip off his opponents by his effort to get downfield off the snap.
After the catch: One of his better areas. While far from nifty in the open field, shows some vision to set up his blocks and cut back against the grain, a strong stiff-arm and legitimate speed when he’s in stride. Good balance and body control to sneak down the sideline for a receiver of his size. Tough for any cornerback to bring down one-on-one.
Has tremendous size - big target
Excelled despite being the team’s only receiving option and playing for a run-first (and second) offense
Made a living catching deep jump balls. Averaged 25.1 yards per catch as a senior on 46 catches despite playing with sub-par passer
Good ball skills and above average hands
Has the raw tools to excel at the next level
Good blocker for a wide receiver
High upside
There are concerns about whether he has the speed to separate from NFL corners and continue to be a consistent deep threat
Will need to improve his route running skills as he ran a simple route tree at Tech consisting primarily of a heavy diet of deep balls
A bit of a project who is heavy on potential and measureables
Excellent height and bulk with long arms and large hands—- Very athletic—- Deceptive speed—- Great leaping ability—- Terrific ball skills and body control—- Vertical threat who makes plays downfield—- Real physical and aggressive—- Knows how to use his size—- Runs with power and will break tackles—- Nice vision—- Good strength—- Terrific stiff-arm—- Above average blocker—- Competitive—- Still has upside.

Will drop some passes—- A very unpolished route runner—- Not overly quick or explosive and lacks a burst—- Not real elusive and won’t make defenders miss—- Pad level might be a problem—- Ability to beat the jam is a question mark—- Must adjust to a pro style offense—- Health?

Nickname is “Bay-Bay” and that is what most call him—- A three-year starter for the Yellow Jackets—- Garnered 1st Team All-ACC honors in 2009—- Was responsible for 46 of the Rambling Wreck’s 78 receptions and 8 of their 11 touchdown catches in 2009—- Played in a triple-option offense in college, which allowed him to feast on single coverage and catch cornerbacks by surprise when they actually did pass—- Broke his foot while training in February and will be unable to work out for teams prior to the 2010 NFL Draft—- Was rumored to have been running in the 4.3’s and on pace to amaze at the Scouting Combine prior to the injury—- A very intriguing prospect and extremely impressive physical specimen but also carries considerable risk due to all of the projection that’s involved in his evaluation—- Looks like a first round pick on paper and appears to have all of the physical tools that you look for—- Could potentially be a true #1 wideout at the next level.

I’d like to note that there was a considerable discrepancy regarding his blocking skills. Several sites extolled his effort and skill. Several others said exactly the opposite. I didn’t have a chance to watch much film of Thomas before the draft, so all I can say is this - if it’s a problem, I would count on his own constant work ethic and the coaching staff’s skills to put any problems behind him. Thomas has no intentions of leaving weaknesses in his game.

As the days of the draft drew nearer, word began to circulate that one of two wide receivers - Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas - would be the first taken in the NFL Draft. Both players showed excellent skills, size and speed. After several draft-day trades (down from 11 to 13, down to 24, and back up), Denver had the 22nd pick of the 1st round. The Baltimore Ravens had also had rumors out that they were very high on the young man and were looking at taking him. The New England Patriots were also considered a likely option. The Broncos decided that Thomas was just their kind of player - big, tough (both mentally and physically), intelligent and willing to do anything that helped the team. He was taken with the 22nd pick of the first round.
While Thomas was ostensibly brought in to replace Brandon Marshall, it’s already obvious that he’s able to do more than that. Marshall is a huge professional talent with some personal issues, but he’s not as fast, not as grounded emotionally, and has trouble catching over his shoulder, something that limited some of the Broncos’ playcalling. Thomas seems to have none of the emotional baggage that Marshall carried, and his physical skills are remarkable. Last week we saw a young player who had never returned kickoffs rack up 144 yards in his first game on just four returns - a remarkable achievement. He also has 11 receptions for 149 yards and an average of 13.5 YPR, along with one touchdown. Perhaps more impressively, 8 of those 11 receptions have been for 1st downs.

Here’s part of an interview Ed Thompson did with Thomas prior to the draft:

Ed Thompson: In 2009 you had over 1,000 yards receiving, 25.1 yards per catch, and 121.5 yards per game. Talk about what you did during your Georgia Tech career to become such a big-play threat.
Demaryius Thomas: It was mainly working hard everyday, watching film, and having a connection with my quarterback by staying after practice.  In a wishbone [offense] you don’t throw that much, so if you do a little work after practice it adds up.
Thompson: You showed a real knack for finding open spots in zone defenses and for getting open deep.
Thomas: We had a route that you can take it deep or if [the defensive back] is off, you sit down. So we basically just read man-to-man.  On the deep ball, I just take it deep and make a play on the ball.  Anytime the quarterback threw the ball I wanted to make a play on it because I never knew if I might get another chance, so I had to take advantage of what I was given.

That’s exactly what the young man has done: he’s taken advantage of everything that he was given. From the lessons learned by watching what happened to his mother and grandmother, to the kindness of his uncle (and his family) who took him in, to John Kenny’s constant attention, Demaryius ‘Bay Bay’ Thomas has taken the bad with the good, learned to keep his eye on the straight and narrow and has to be a delight to coach. His work ethic is said to be tremendous. His natural skills give him the chance to be a truly elite receiver in the NFL, and the Denver Broncos and head coach Josh McDaniels need exactly what he can provide - a tall, strong, hard-blocking receiver with long arms, large, strong hands, a firm grounding in what it takes in life to be successful, and a willingness to do whatever the team needs him to, as Denver fans saw much to their delight against the Titans when he garnered 144 yards returning kickoffs - the first time he’d filled that role since high school.

As much as anything else, DT is the kind of person who you have trouble not getting up and cheering for. To start life under such difficult circumstances, to find a mentor within his family, and to make conscious choices as to how to keep the direction of his own life moving towards a successful and gratifying career, Demaryius Thomas is the kind of person who will overcome problems, obstacles and issues through his personal attitudes, faith and trust in the people within the inner circle of his life. The Broncos didn’t just get a receiver/returner in the draft. They got a man who has seen both sides of life and who has decided clearly which way his is going to go. With all that has come to light in learning DT’s story, I can say that I honestly can really understand why Coach McDaniels felt that he had to go with this young man over Dez Bryant. That’s nothing against Bryant - it seems that he, too, has overcome huge odds and obstacles in his life, and I’ll respectfully honor that accomplishment by him.  But there’s just something about Demaryius Thomas, even beyond his remarkable level of skill for a rookie; entering the NFL and doing things that give you a glimmer of the successes to come, with a 65-yard runback when he hadn’t returned kicks since high school. He’s notched that first TD, and he’s already becoming a player that opposing defensive coordinators will have to scheme for.

I’ve never been a betting man. But, if someone wants to bet against this young man’s success in life, I’d be happy to take his money. DT is going to be successful in the NFL. Nothing within himself will let it go any other way. All the best to him - he’s earned it.

Welcome to Denver, DT. I hope your stay is long, pleasant and victorious. With what you, growing up, and now as a man have accomplished already has earned you my respect. And I look forward to watching both the player that you are and the one that you will grow into.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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