Demaryius and Dez: From Rural Georgia to Mile High (Part 1)

There was a good deal of noise around the 2010 NFL Draft. Several players that would grow into top-notch NFL performers were selected early in the 1st-round, with players like defensive-tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy being selected in the Top-3, along with a pair of All-Pro safeties in Eric Berry and Earl Thomas being picked shortly after. This was also the year that controversial Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow hit the league, eventually being a surprise selection in the late 1st-round by the Denver Broncos.

However, that’s not who we are about to talk about today.

Typically, when you look at the NFL Draft, positions are in-flux year-to-year in terms of the depth. Quarterbacks are one example. Take 2013, when there was only one passer selected in the 1st-round, and compare it to a year like 2018, when there were five such selections. This can apply to several other positions, as well.

In 2010, one of these spots was believed to be wide-receiver, with only two coming off the board in round-one. However, as life often teaches us, quality is often more important than quantity.

Those two pass-catchers taken were Demaryius Thomas at pick #22 by the Denver Broncos, and Dez Bryant a few picks later at #24 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Both players have had star-studded NFL careers, while at the same time, facing some significant challenges along the way. Now, ten years after they entered the NFL in that fateful draft, its fair to wonder if either player will ever play another NFL snap.

This three-part series will take a look at their football journeys and how they emerged as two of the league’s best receivers for a period in time during the past decade. In doing so, we also will shine a light on what brought their careers to a seemingly premature close, while also evaluating their legacy.

In this article we cover the road of Demaryius Thomas, from his upbringing, to attending College, and into his NFL career. We will highlight many of his key moments up until when his career began to turn-downward.

The next article will do the same for Dez Bryant and his entertaining but also controversial football journey.

Part 3 will pick us off where we left off with both players, evaluating the events of their finals years in the league and why their respective NFL careers effectively, now in 2020, have come to a halt.

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The Road to the Pros

Early Years

Thomas (right) with his mother, Katina Smith (left)
Credit: 9news.com / Rod Mackey

Demaryius Thomas, was born and raised, like many football players, in the Southern United States. Originally from Montrose, a small town in Central Georgia, Thomas would experience difficult family circumstances upon his upbringing.

Thomas’ mother, Katina Smith, had Demaryius when she was just 16-years-old, and the two were incredibly close. Growing up in a town with a population of only 150 in rural Georgia, his family never had much money. But Thomas did have his mother, who was his best friend.

However, in a 2014 ESPN article, Thomas detailed the most traumatic event of his childhood. In 1999, when Thomas was just 12, he would witness cops break-down his front-door, search his home and escort his mother away in hand-cuffs, for the distribution of crack-cocaine. This did not surprise Thomas, who became increasingly aware of what was going on with his mother’s life in previous years. Thomas’ grandmother, Minnie Pearl, was also complicit in the facilitation of the drugs. They both faced the possibility of significant jail-time.

Despite this, there was reportedly a plea bargain on the table if Smith would turn on Pearl in exchange for a much shorter sentence. Pearl was quoted in the article for deploring Smith to take it in order for her to be free in a few years to see Demaryius grow up, but Smith would not take the deal that authorities offered. In the end, she was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison, and Pearl, would be sentenced to two terms of life in prison.

Thomas, needless to say, had a difficult time processing all of this in the year’s that followed, reportedly not wanting to visit his mother for about the first seven years of her isolation. The event ripped away any sense of stability he had in his life at that point.

He bounced around several different living situations in the years that followed. He would eventually be taken in by his Aunt and Uncle, James and Shirley Brown, who had a household “built on chores and responsibility”. Thomas would become an usher at his Church, and his family expected A’s in his school-work. He also did rough farm work that James believed would teach Demaryius to get used to doing things he didn’t wanted to do, which would help to prepare him for the challenges in life.

When he reached high school, this mentality helped him succeed in various aspects. He was a multi-sport athlete, playing basketball and running track. However, where he really stood-out was obviously, on the gridiron.

The Recruiting Trail

Playing wide-receiver for West Laurens High School, Thomas displayed elite size and quickness for a player of his age. He dominated in both his junior and senior seasons, leading to him receiving his share of the national recruiting spotlight. In his senior season, he caught 82 passes for 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns, being named to the All-Region and All-Heart of Georgia teams. He also received an invite to the North-South All-Star game. He would be ranked 22nd in the state by Scout.com for the 2006 recruiting class.

Via ESPN.com

With this big of an athletic profile, Thomas would receive plenty of offers from various schools. According to ESPN, he had official offers elsewhere from Duke, Georgia, Indiana and Louisville, but chose to stay close to home and attend Georgia Tech University.

Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech Head Coach Chan Gailey, who had a profile on both the NCAA and NFL stages, likely played a huge role in convincing the High School Senior to make Atlanta his college home. Gailey had a renowned reputation as an offensive-guru, and had recently helped guide fellow Yellow Jackets’ receiver Calvin Johnson to 54 catch, 800-plus-yard season in 2005.

Unfortunately, for Thomas, he wouldn’t get the full benefit of Gailey throughout his entire college career. The new arrival would redshirt for his Freshman season in 2006, and in 2007, would manage 35 receptions in his debut-season. Although it was a productive year for Thomas, Georgia Tech would finish 7-6 and 4-4 in ACC conference play, and Gailey was let go after the season.

The University opted to go in a new strategic direction for the 2008 season, hiring Paul Johnson, who had coached at Navy from 2002-2007. Johnson ran a run-heavy, triple-option offense that sometimes marginalized the production of pass-catchers. At the onset of the hiring, some at Georgia Tech opted to jump-ship to other programs due to fears about their own production but Thomas decided to stick it out.

This turned into a wise decision. Though he never put up breath-taking catch-totals, the kid from Montrose remained steady, and became the #1 option for the team when they did pass the ball. In his redshirt-Sophomore season, he modestly improved on his previous totals, with 39 catches and 627 yards and 3 touchdowns. These were a far-cry from some of the numbers put up from receivers from other programs, but Thomas didn’t seem to care. “Sometimes I think about [not getting many passes] but most of the time I just want to win,” he was quoted as saying in the midst of the season. Some games he would receive plenty of targets, and others he wouldn’t be a feature of the offense. In doing so, he ingrained himself as a team-first, hard-working individual.

Demaryius Thomas (#8) playing for Georgia Tech
Credit: ajc.com

In the 2009 season, his patience truly paid dividends. Georgia Tech opened the season with a significant amount of returning starters, and was well-positioned for success. The team would go 11-3 overall, including an impressive 7-1 in ACC Conference play, earning the team a spot in the Conference Championship game against the Clemson Tigers. Thomas would also have his finest collegiate season, bringing in 46 receptions for 1,154 yards and 8 touchdowns at an earth-shattering 25.1 yards per catch. He had multiple spectacular performances that year, but perhaps his best game came in a Week 5 matchup against Mississippi State, when he grabbed 8 balls for 174 yards and a touchdown in the team’s victory.

In that Conference Championship against Clemson, Georgia Tech would emerged victorious, winning the school’s first conference title since 1999. Thomas played a major role, scoring a touchdown in the victory. Years later, as part of an improper benefits investigation, Georgia Tech had this title vacated.

This didn’t change things for Thomas in the meantime, as he and some of his teammates had generated NFL interest, such as defensive-end Derrick Morgan and defensive-back Morgan Burnett. With this in mind, the receiver opted to forego his remaining college eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, where he was consistently projected to go in the top-50 selections.

Draft Preparations

Credit: Broncos Wire

In the lead-up to the 2010 draft, Thomas would suffer a setback. In preparing for the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine, the receiver would sustain a broken foot, which prevented him from running drills. This would cause some concerns among talent evaluators that were already skeptical about the receiver’s game, citing habit of drops and his overall lack of a complex route-tree from his days as a Yellow-Jacket.

WalterFootball.com had him listed as their 4th receiver in the 2010 Draft, behind Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant, Notre Dame’s Golden Tate and Illinois’ Arrelious Benn. Under Thomas’ profile read: “Demaryius Thomas can’t run routes and drops balls consistently. He hasn’t worked out either. It’s unclear why some consider him a first-round prospect.” ESPN’s Mel Kiper, too, had had Demaryius ranked behind Benn on his list of wide-receivers in 2010.

Which is why, it was shocking to many, that despite all of this, that Thomas was the first player at his position selected, going to the Denver Broncos with the #22 selection.

The Tebow Days

Denver Broncos teammates QB Tim Tebow (#15) and Demaryius Thomas (#88)
Credit: Jim Rogash / Getty Images

In 2009, the Denver Broncos had hired Josh McDaniels, a young 33-year-old wiz-kid that had quickly risen to the position of offensive-coordinator with the New England Patriots, to be their next Head Coach. Early days of McDaniels tenure were marked by chaos, as incumbent starting quarterback Jay Cutler was unhappy with the coaching hire and was shopped around the league before ultimately being shipped off to the Chicago Bears for a significant trade-package. As part of the deal, the team received quarterback Kyle Orton, a still young passer, who would serve as the team’s new starter.

2009

During the following season, Denver started out hot, winning their first 6 games, including an overtime victory over the New England Patriots. However, the team seemingly imploded over their next 10 games, winning only two of them and eventually, missing out on the playoffs. This collapse after such a strong-start quickly put McDaniels on the hot-seat, prompting some major offseason moves heading into his second offseason at the helm.

The Broncos’ leading receiver for the previous three seasons, Brandon Marshall, who developed into a true star at the position, would be traded-off to Miami for a pair of 2nd-round picks. This would create an obvious void in the team’s receiving group heading into the 2010 NFL Draft.

2010

Thomas (#88) with Head Coach Josh McDaniels in 2010
Credit: John Leyba / The Denver Post

When Thomas joined the Broncos in the 1st-round of the 2010 Draft, he wasn’t alone. Joining him was former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, an unorthodox left-handed passer that the team coveted so much that they decided to trade-up to select in the Draft’s opening-round. This signalled that the team’s returning starter, Orton, was not long for the job. The expectations for the rookie duo would be immense, as Thomas was not only was the first receiver taken, but he would be catching passes from a former Heisman Trophy winner in Tebow.

At the onset of the 2010 season, McDaniels, after already alienating several players while adding the most polarizing quarterback prospect in recent memory with Tebow, was walking on eggshells. This was obviously not a great environment for Thomas to enter into, with a rising quarterback controversy adding to the already difficult transition of adjusting to the NFL game.

Predictably, that season would go awry for many of the involved parties. Orton would hold-off Tebow for the starting job, starting the team’s first 13 games, but won only three of them.

Thomas, meanwhile, would battle injuries. In the preseason, he tore scar tissue in his previously-injured left-foot, missing almost all of training camp and the first week of regular season action. Early in October, he would suffer a concussion against the Baltimore Ravens, but was lucky enough to return the following week. In late November that year, however, he would sustain a sprained ankle that would force him to miss five games. It was an injury-riddled rookie season to say the least, holding Thomas to a mere 22 catches in 10 games.

Meanwhile, after starting the season 3-9, Broncos management had seen enough, and sent McDaniels packing. Following his firing, the interim staff decided to bench Orton in favour of Tebow, allowing the rookie to start the team’s final three games.

2011

Thomas (#88) with Miller (#58) as members of the Broncos
via @NESN on Twitter

During the offseason, the Broncos would hire the well-respected John Fox, who had just ended a very successful run as Head Coach of the Carolina Panthers, that was highlighted by a Super Bowl appearance in 2004. With the #2 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Denver’s regime would make a franchise-changing move in selecting Texas A&M edge-rusher Von Miller to pair with existing Pro-Bowler Elvis Dumervil. This gave the team a potentially legit defense, but there were still questions on the other side of the ball.

Near the top of the list was Thomas, who was looking to rebound from a rough rookie season after coming in as a high-draft pick. However, before he could even get on the field, he suffered yet another injury in the offseason, this time, suffering a Grade 3 tear of his Achilles’ tendon. After a long recovery process, the receiver was finally able to rejoin the team 5 games into the 2011 season.

During the stretch that Thomas missed, some drama was unfolding around the team. Fox, the team’s new Head Coach, had surprisingly opted to go back to Orton to begin the season, and in some weeks, even had Tebow listed as the #3 quarterback on the team’s depth-chart behind former 1st-round flop Brady Quinn. Orton would start the team’s first 5 games, but would only win a single game, leaving Denver with a 1-4 record. With the season hanging in the balance, calls for the team’s 2010 1st-round pick Tebow grew louder and louder. After weeks of media and fan pressure, Tebow was almost-reluctantly inserted into the starting line-up for Denver’s Week 7 matchup against the Miami Dolphins. What would happen next would capture the imagination of not just Broncos fans, but the entire football world. Tebow-mania was born.

Tebow was already a bonafide celebrity upon reaching the NFL, known not just for his unique style of play but also for his upfront religious beliefs. However, when he reached the pros, his fame rose to a completely new level.

In his first start of the season, which coincidentally was also Thomas’, the Broncos catered a run-heavy offense with limited passing-concepts to Tebow’s strengths. Drawing on his days from being part of a similar offense at Georgia Tech, Thomas hung in there, and made an immediate impact, catching a touchdown in the team’s thrilling 18-15 overtime comeback victory.

Though he was limited in his production over the next slate of games, Denver would build a winning-streak, winning many in tight-fashion, causing the legend of Tebow to grow.

Thomas would truly begin to breakout in the team’s Week 13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, catching 4 passes for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns, which was the team’s 5th straight win since starting the season 1-4. The Georgia Tech product had finally shown the elite big-play ability that many in the organization thought he had when they selected him in 2010.

He followed that up with back-to-back 7 catch performances, and though he did only finish the season with 32 total receptions for 551 yards and 4 touchdowns, these marked improvements from his rookie season despite playing in a very limited aerial-attack.

The Broncos would feed off the energy of their two Sophomores, and along with some excellent defensive-play and clutch kicking by Matt Prater, the team clawed its way to a playoff appearance in the weak AFC West, finishing with a record of 8-8

This is where many expected the miracle-run to end for Denver. The team drew the Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise with vast playoff experience led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a veteran defense, in the AFC Wildcard Round. Few expected the Broncos, despite their home-field advantage, to be able to upend Pittsburgh.

Yet, there was something magical in that Mile High air that year. Led by the can’t quit mantra that had led them this far, Denver was used to playing in close games that came down to the wire. This one was no different, with a hotly-contested battle requiring overtime after ending regulation 23-23.

Thomas (#88) runs away from Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (#24)
Credit: Mark Reis / The Gazette

After the opening kick-off of overtime, Denver began the drive at their own 20-yard-line, knowing a score would send them to the AFC Divisional Round. In what would be the most famous moment of Tebow’s, and perhaps even Thomas’ career, the team was about to achieve their greatest feat.

At the snap, the 2nd-year receiver would run a post-pattern and shake his defender just enough for Tebow to deliver an absolute strike in-stride. Thomas, produced a highlight for the ages, introducing himself to the masses, giving a wicked stiff-arm to cornerback Ike Taylor and outrunning the entire Pittsburgh defense 80-yards for the walk-off touchdown.

This would, in hindsight, mark the height of Tebow’s career, while simultaneously marking the take-off for Thomas’.

Denver would go on to lose to the New England Patriots in blowout fashion in the Divisional Round, where Thomas would catch 6 passes for 93 yards. Yet, overall optimism was up surrounding the franchise, considering the team’s dramatic turnaround over the course of the season.

However, nobody at the time, even Thomas, could picture just what would unfold over the 2012 NFL Offseason. A change was about to occur that would change the trajectory of Thomas’ career forever.

The Peak

Broncos General Manager John Elway
Credit: NY Daily News Gary Hershorn / Reuters

Earlier in 2011, in the midst of the Broncos’ rollercoaster season, the franchise had brought back legendary quarterback John Elway to run the team’s football operations as the team’s new General Manager. A member of the Hall of Fame who was beloved by the franchise after playing 16 years with the Broncos, Elway was left to clean up the organizational mess leftover from the McDaniels-experiment. Much of the questions, naturally, pointed towards the quarterback position, and what the new man in charge thought about the team’s current options, especially Tebow.

Despite the team’s success in 2011 with Tebow using an unorthodox NFL offense, a consensus was starting to build among outsiders that Elway was not in favour of building around the former first-rounder long-term.

Meanwhile, another major storyline had developed around the league in 2011. The Indianapolis Colts, who were long regular-season juggernauts, were dealt a fatal blow when star quarterback Peyton Manning wasn’t recovering well from offseason neck surgery. The mystery surrounding the quarterback’s health would carry into the season, and the team faltered during his absence. His recovery would ultimately never done over the course of the year, and the Colts would fall apart en-route to a 2-14 season. However, this did net them the #1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

During that offseason, it just so happened that the most highly-thought-of quarterback prospect since Manning himself in 1998 was available, in the form of Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Faced with the difficult task of moving on from a franchise icon, the Colts would do right by Manning, releasing him to allow the quarterback to pick the team of his choosing in free agency.

Entering the 2012 offseason, many believed, despite Elway’s suspected doubts, that the team would give Tebow another year as the starting quarterback, with few expecting Denver to play a major role in the quarterback market. However, with Manning available, the Broncos were far from the only team with a viable starting option already on the roster to pursue the sure-fire Hall of Famer.

In what would be one of the most major free agency courtships in NFL history, seemingly half the league was pursuing Manning. Few believed the Broncos were on the quarterback’s shortlist going into the process, but as the days rolled on, Denver was among a few finalists that also included Tennessee and San Francisco. Yet it was Elway, a former quarterback who won two Super Bowls late in his career, who was able to convince the Sheriff make Denver his new home.

2012

Demaryius Thomas and Peyton Manning after the Broncos 2012 Week 1 Win against the Steelers
Credit: The Denver Post / John Leyba

With Manning in tow, naturally, those who stood to gain the most were his receivers, especially the offense’s #1 target, Thomas.

Over his opening-two NFL seasons, the receiver put up a combined 54 catches for 834 yards and 6 touchdowns in 21 games. In 2012, his first season with Manning, the then-25-year-old exploded onto the scene, producing 94 receptions for over 1400 yards and 10 touchdowns, and in the process earning himself his first Pro-Bowl nomination.

In Week 1 versus Pittsburgh, Thomas finally had a clean-bill of health, and proved it with a spectacular performance that was highlighted by a 71-yard touchdown on a bubble-screen.

However, on the season, the team would stumble out to a 2-3 record and faced the real possibility of dropping to 2-4 after trailing the San Diego Chargers 24-0 at half-time. In what would be a season-defining moment, Denver would mount a furious second-half comeback that included 35 unanswered points. Thomas would play a part in the comeback, scoring a touchdown.

That victory would mark the start of an 11 game winning-streak, with the team running the table the rest of the regular season. This would earn Denver the #1 overall seed in the AFC Playoffs, but the team would lose an overtime heartbreaker to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional-Round.

2013

Thomas during his 2013 3 touchdown game versus the San Diego Chargers

Entering the 2013 season, there was tremendous optimism around Thomas and the Broncos, for good reason. Thomas and Denver’s 2nd-option in the passing-game, Eric Decker, were both entering their fourth NFL seasons, while Manning was another year removed from neck surgery. Denver would be the preseason favourite, along with the New England Patriots, to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

They wouldn’t disappoint, and neither did Thomas, who had turned in arguably his best year as a pro.

The Broncos started 2013 with a bang in a 49-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Manning threw an NFL record-tying 7 touchdowns in the win, with a pair of those going to Thomas.

This would continue for over a month, with the team racing out to a 6-0 record. A few weeks later, Thomas had a career day, going for 3 touchdowns and 107 receiving yards in a win over the San Diego Chargers, leading a prolific Denver offense that featured multiple weapons around Manning.

By season’s end, the Broncos had secured the AFC’s best record at 13-3 and had scored the most points in a single season (606), averaging over 37 per contest. Manning broke both the single-season record for passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477), both of which still stand to this day. Yet playing a huge role in this was Thomas, who had developed incredible chemistry of Manning, en-route to making 92 catches for 1430 yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns.

In the playoffs, this time, the Broncos wouldn’t go down without a fight. Denver would beat rival San Diego in the Divisional Round, with Thomas scoring another touchdown in the win. The next week, against the New England Patriots in the AFC Title Game, the Broncos would win relatively easily 26-16, and Thomas had another standout performance with 134 yards and another score as the team advanced to the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, adversity would hit the team a couple of weeks later in the Super Bowl. In a highly-anticipated match-up against Seattle that pinned the Broncos high-octane offense against the Seahawks top-ranked defense, Denver fell flat. Outplayed from the opening snap, the team would be embarrassed by Seattle, losing 43-8 on the sport’s biggest stage. Thomas would manage a solid stat-line in the loss, but it was no consolation.

2014

When the team returned in 2014, Thomas and the Broncos would have another successful year, going 12-4 in the regular season. The receiver, now in his fifth NFL season, would rack up career-highs in both receptions (111) and yards (1619), while totally 10 games of over 100 receiving yards. Unfortunately, Manning, who was now 38, was showing severe signs of decline in the back-half of the season. This would rear its ugly head in Denver’s quick playoff exit in the Divisional Round, ending hopes of an ultimate redemption season for the team.

2015

Thomas (#88) playing against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50
Credit: USA Today / Steven Ruiz

In what would amount to a complete 180 in philosophy from just two years prior, the 2015 Broncos morphed to become a defensive juggernaut rather than an offensive one. AND, it WORKED.

Manning was back for a final season, but it was clear his skills weren’t bouncing back from the previous year’s struggles. The team, instead, was led by defensive stars like pass-rusher Von Miller, and cornerback Aqib Talib.

However, this isn’t to say Thomas was a slouch that year. Quite the contrary as the receiver managed his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving-season, once again leading the Broncos. More than ever, the team was dependent on the unique skills of Thomas to turn bubble screens and slants into first-downs.

After multiple close-finishes down the stretch, the team was able to once again secure the AFC’s top-record at 12-4, and with it, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Denver would meet Pittsburgh in the Division-Round, and though offensively it was hit-or-miss, Denver produced enough to prevail. In the AFC Championship, they would once again meet the Patriots, mirroring the 2013 season. In a hotly-contested battle, Denver’s defense, led by Miller, would dominate, and hold New England Quarterback Tom Brady to 18 points in a 20-18 victory. It was once again off to the Super Bowl for Thomas and the Broncos, one step closer to achieving football’s greatest feat.

But to accomplish that, the team would need to beat the Carolina Panthers, who were led by MVP quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina had quickly become a powerhouse that year, going 15-1 in the regular season while cruising through the NFC playoffs with ease. They were favourites over the Broncos, who didn’t provide much firepower by comparison.

Yet, just like in 2013 when the Broncos themselves met the defensive freight-train of the Seahawks, defense carried the day in Super Bowl 50. Denver was able to flip the script from two years prior, this time being the ones to dismantle a juggernaut offense, winning the game 24-10 with Miller winning Super Bowl MVP.

Thomas, who played a crucial role the last time the Broncos reached the Super Bowl, was more of a decoy this time around. In three playoff games, he produced a mere 7 combined receptions, a far-cry from his regular-season output. In the end, it didn’t matter to him. Drawing on his similar experience from when he was at Georgia Tech, he and his Broncos’ teammates didn’t bat an eye, because they were now champions, completing a journey that for many of the team’s core players, was four years in the making.

When the dust settled in the following weeks, Manning, then 40 years-old, would walk-off into retirement on top, leaving the team’s quarterback situation seemingly in the hands of Brock Osweiller, who started for an injured Manning towards the end of the regular season.

This would mark the end of an era for Thomas especially, as these would go down as the most successful and productive years of his career. In the four years when Peyton Manning was with him in Denver, the athlete from rural Georgia would catch 402 passes, accumulating 5,787 yards while scoring 41 touchdowns, an elite four-year stretch for any wide-receiver.

The Quarterback Carousel Years

Broncos’ quarterbacks Trevor Siemian (#13) and Paxton Lynch (#12)
Credit: Ron Chenoy / USA Today Sports

Though they were coming off a Super Bowl Championship, things couldn’t have been much stranger around the Broncos heading into the offseason of 2016.

Manning had retired, while Osweiller, the team’s 2nd-round pick from 2012 that they had been grooming for years, was in need of a new contract.

While it was widely believed that Elway and the Denver front-office wanted him back, little progress appeared evident during negotiations with the quarterback. At worst, people assumed, the team would swallow a financial pill and franchise-tag Osweiller to avoid losing him on the open market. Instead, the Broncos opted not to.

In free agency, Osweiller generated immediate interest, and quickly signed with the Houston Texans on a lucrative 4-year 72-million-dollar contract. Denver, as a result, was forced back to the drawing board at the position.

The fallout left the team in a mad-scramble to reform their quarterback room around Thomas, and other Broncos’ star receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Their first move came via trade, acquiring former New York Jets draft-bust Mark Sanchez, who would never end up playing a down for the team. In the 2016 NFL Draft, Denver traded-up at the back of the 1st-round to select Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch. Finally, the team also brought back former 7th-round pick Trevor Siemian, who served as the team’s 3rd-string passer the previous season. None, would prove to be the answer in time.

2016

The 2016 Broncos brought back several members of their championship-group from the year before, and were certainly no push-over, especially on defense. Yet, what held them back, was that they had no clear stability at the quarterback position.

Thomas, Denver’s leading receiver for four-straight seasons, would be affected by this lack of consistency. His 2016 season was not bad by any stretch, with him putting up 1,083 receiving yards to go along with 5 touchdowns. However, these both represented dips from his previous standards. He also had fewer explosive games, only with two outings of over 100 yards and 0 multiple touchdown games.

Siemian would win the team’s quarterback competition in training camp, and Denver started out 2016 remarkably at 4-0, with the defense largely still leading the way. Yet, this didn’t prove to be sustainable. Denver would go 5-7 the rest of the way, with several poor offensive performances being the team’s Achilles’ heal in their failure to return to the playoffs.

2017

In 2017, the team returned Siemian as the starter and once again got off to a hot start. And AGAIN, would fall apart shortly after, this time winning only twice in their remaining 12 games.

Thomas, though still a productive player, was no longer star. With the team’s quarterback situation unstable, the receiver produced his first season of under 1,000 yards since the days he was catching passes from Tebow.

Things also weren’t getting any better for Denver under-center. Siemian would prove to be a decent player, but not starting-calibre. Meanwhile, Lynch, the team’s 2016 1st-round draft-pick, would become one of the biggest quarterback busts in recent memory, only starting 4 games for the Broncos from 2016-2017 before being released.

All of this is to say that this didn’t make things any easier on Thomas, who was now 30. After this season, many of members of the Broncos 2016 Championship squad had moved on, and little did we know, that Thomas would be next.

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