Over-the-hill Peyton Manning, shaky Trevor Siemian -- no big deal. Thomas will get his 90 receptions and 1,000 yards, either way. Of course, the last two seasons have come at some cost -- Thomas has scored only 11 times in his last 32 games, as opposed to 25 times over the prior 32. Moreover, Thomas' efficiency remained poor -- his 7.5 YPT was 30th among the league's 41 100-target receivers last year. On the bright side, new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy had success in San Diego opening up the passing game, Siemian will be in Year 2 as a starter, and the Broncos have a receiving tree that's on the narrow side, i.e., only Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are guaranteed to receive heavy volume. The Broncos did draft Carlos Henderson in the third round, but with no tight end of which to speak and backs who catch some but not a ton of passes, most of the throws are going to Thomas and Sanders. At 29, Thomas is a little past his prime, but at 6-3, 230 and with 4.38 speed, he'd have to lose more than a step not to be effective. Thomas heads into 2017 with a clean bill of health after offseason rest allowed his hips, which were ailing him last year, to heal. Thomas is still held back by what's likely to be below-average quarterback play, but his floor is high, and there's upside if Siemian shows significant growth.
Someone took 2013-14 Peyton Manning and replaced him with Ryan Lindley, and the results weren't kind to Thomas. Not that Thomas didn't have a hand in it — he tied for fifth in the league with nine drops and occasionally did not appear engaged in games. By season's end, while the cosmetic numbers were good — 105 catches and 1,304 yards — the efficiency was not (12.4 YPC and 7.4 YPT, six touchdowns on 20 red-zone targets). If Thomas were Jarvis Landry, this would be a fine season, but at 6-3, 229, with 4.5 40 speed, Thomas has a higher bar. From 2012-2013, for example, he averaged 10.1 YPT and scored 24 times. At 28, Thomas is slightly past his peak, but there is reason to expect a partial bounce back from last year. New quarterback Mark Sanchez is hardly vintage Manning, but we have to believe he — and nearly anyone else — would be a significant upgrade from the version we saw last year. The Broncos did nothing to improve their receiving corps this offseason, and they actually released tight end Owen Daniels, so there should be no shortage of opportunities for Thomas and teammate Emmanuel Sanders in the passing game.
Peyton Manning didn't repeat his historic 2013, but that didn't matter to Thomas. Despite a slow start, Thomas led the league in targets and finished second in catches and yards. While he tied for seventh in touchdowns (11), he led the NFL in targets inside the 20-, 10- and five-yard lines, so it wasn't for lack of opportunities from in close. At 6-2, 220, with 4.5 speed, Thomas is the prototypical dominant, physical No. 1 receiver in the modern NFL, and at 27 is still in his late prime. While Thomas' per-play production dropped from 2013 to 2014, his 14.6 YPC and 8.8 YPT on heavy volume were still strong, if less than elite. Thomas also finished second in catches for 20-plus yards (25) and tied for fourth (with five other players) with six receptions of 40 yards or more. Keep in mind it took Thomas 50 more targets to get there than Odell Beckham Jr., T.Y. Hilton or DeAndre Hopkins. The bigger concerns for Thomas, however, are the age and health of Manning, who turned 39 in March, dropped off significantly in last year's second half and was terrible playing through a quad injury in the divisional playoffs against the Colts. At press time, Manning is healthy, however, and because his game is timing, accuracy and reading defenses rather than mobility or arm strength, it's likely he'll be good enough to keep Thomas productive. The arrival of new coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison add two more variables, but as Manning is essentially the team's play-caller and a player-coach at this point, it probably won't make a significant difference. The tight-end swap of Julius Thomas for Owen Daniels is unlikely to move the needle, either.
There were a lot of mouths to feed in the Denver passing game last year, but nearly every one the table left fat and happy, none more so than Thomas, who led the team with 142 targets (12th) and led all NFL wideouts with 14 touchdowns. At 6-3, 229 and with a 4.38 40, Thomas is one of the league’s size/speed freaks in the Julio Jones/Calvin Johnson mold, who are dangerous anywhere on the field. While Thomas had only four catches of 40-plus (T-17th), he averaged 10.1 YPT (4th among the league’s 37 100-target WR). And while Thomas was only third on his own team in red-zone targets with 19, he converted seven of those for scores. With Eric Decker (136 targets, 23 red-zone, 14 inside-the-10) now in New York and Wes Welker now 33 years old, Thomas should see an even bigger role, both down the field and in the red zone. Should Thomas maintain his current efficiency – and with Peyton Manning under center, he’s not likely to fall off much – we could be looking at a receiving season for the ages. Of course, there will almost certainly be regression in the Denver passing game as a whole – all-time records are not easily repeated – but Thomas’ 2013 line was almost exactly in line with his 2012 one, and now Decker’s out of the picture.
Thomas' first year with Peyton Manning under center could hardly have gone better.
Thomas led the league's 100-target receivers in efficiency with 10.2 yards per look, thanks to 15.3 YPC and a 67-percent catch rate. Thomas was also fourth in red-zone targets (six of his 21 chances there went for scores), despite teammate Eric Decker leading the league with 25 red-zone looks and 12 red-zone scores.
At 6-3, 229, and with 4.38 40 speed, Thomas possesses elite physical skills, and he put those to good use, with five catches of 40-plus (T-9th) and 29 catches of 20 yards or more, second only to Calvin Johnson’s 40.
The addition of Wes Welker this offseason could cut into everyone’s targets, but there's reason to think it will impact Decker and the team's tight ends more severely than Thomas who runs routes further down the field. Moreover, while Welker and Decker are quality players, neither is a gamebreaker in Thomas' mold, a fact of which Manning is undoubtedly aware.
After missing the first five games of 2011 while recovering from Achilles’ tendon surgery, Thomas quickly became Tim Tebow’s top target and big-play option, averaging 17.2 yards per catch and hauling in four catches of 40-plus yards. Thomas also lit up the Steelers’ top-ranked pass defense in the playoffs, catching four balls for 204 yards and a score. But Tebow’s inaccuracy cost Thomas as he caught just 46 percent of the passes thrown his way. That should change in 2012 with Peyton Manning under center for the Broncos. At 6-3, 229, and having run a 4.38 40 at the NFL Combine, Thomas possess all the physical tools to be a top-tier NFL receiver. Thomas’ hands were inconsistent, however, (six drops on just 69 targets), and he’s not nearly as polished as the Marvin Harrisons and Reggie Waynes with whom Manning is accustomed to working. Moreover, Thomas had surgery on his pinkie in March and at press time hadn’t yet had a chance to practice with Manning, giving teammate Eric Decker a head start. But Thomas is the player with the higher ceiling, and assuming Manning is completely healthy, and Thomas shows he can make his living on timing and route-running (and not just broken plays as he did with Tebow), we could be looking at a top-10 receiver.
Drafted to be a replacement for Brandon Marshall, the 6-3, 229-pound Thomas missed most training camp with a foot injury and battled ankle problems for much of the season before tearing his Achilles’ tendon in early January. Somehow, he managed a couple productive games and posted averages of 7.3 YPT and 12.9 YPC. Thomas runs very well for a big man – 4.38 40 – and he’s a terrific athlete. He won’t be back until the season’s second half, but once he’s up to speed, he could find himself starting opposite Brandon Lloyd before too long.
Drafted in the first round to replace the
departed Brandon Marshall, Thomas’ physical
tools — 6-3, 229, 4.38 40 speed and big-time
athleticism — are top shelf. The question, at
least in the short term, is whether he’s polished
enough to contribute at the NFL level. Thomas
played in an offense where he was essentially
required to get open deep, so his route running
skills have yet to be seriously tested. On the other hand, the wide receiver depth chart in
Denver is wide open with only Eddie Royal and
Jabbar Gaffney competing for the two starting
Just keep in mind Thomas could be a little
behind heading into the summer, as he sat out
spring OTAs with a broken foot. He should be
ready for the start of training camp, however.