Wes Welker's Return Has Pushed Demaryius Thomas Back to Stardom

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor IOctober 22, 2014

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 19:  Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos puts a stiff arm on cornerback Perrish Cox #20 of the San Francisco 49ers on a 49-yard reception during a game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on October 19, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos once again have the league's most dangerous passing game. Last year, the Broncos set the NFL record for the most points scored in a single season—largely due to Peyton Manning and the passing attack.

Their 606 points in 2013 were not only the most in NFL history, but it was also the first time any team had scored more than 600 points. Manning passed for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards, with his favorite target being wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, Thomas has taken his game to stratospheric levels with Manning under center.

Manning immediately noticed the work ethic that Thomas had every time they worked out.

"He's one of the first guys that I really spent a lot of time throwing with when I first got here," Manning said. "It looks like the hard work paid off for both of us and for our team. I have a great appreciation for how hard he works and the way he plays the game. It's been a lot of fun to be his teammate."

Thomas caught 92 passes for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. That's an average of around six catches for about 90 yards and almost a touchdown per game.

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At the beginning of this season, Thomas was nowhere near those single-game numbers. The team was playing without Wes Welker due to a suspension, and Thomas' game suffered because of it.

So what happened to Thomas while Welker was out? Let's take a look at the difference between then and now.

Week 1-3

Welker was originally suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

In this picture, we see Thomas lined up on the inside of a bunch formation. This play is a staple in the Adam Gase offense, and Thomas is tasked with catching a short pass just outside the numbers.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This picture shows the ball slip through his hands as he's busy looking down the field before the pass is secured.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Welker's suspension was reduced to merely two games because the league changed the drug-testing policies. His return in Week 3 didn't immediately show through in the production of Thomas.

The numbers show that Thomas just wasn't himself for the first three games of the year. The main stat that stands out here is the four drops.

Demaryius Thomas Stats Week 1-3
TargetsCatchesYardsTDsDropsRoutes
271314114104
ESPN Stats & Inc.

Week 4 Bye

DENVER - DECEMBER 24:  Rod Smith #80 of the Denver Broncos jogs on the field during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, as the Broncos defeated the Bengals 24-23 on December 24, 2006 at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug P
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Broncos had an early bye this year, and Thomas took the time off to seek out advice from former Broncos greats.

"I talked to a couple (of people)," Thomas said. "I talked to [Ring of Fame tight end] Shannon Sharpe, I talked to Dre Davis, and I talked to [Ring of Fame wide receiver] Rod Smith. They all talked to me in the off week, and that was about it. They were just telling me to go out and play my game and quit thinking."

Even through the poor start to the season, Thomas believes his confidence was never shaken.

"My confidence has never failed," Thomas claimed. "I know I am able to go out and make big plays and able to have great games. It was just getting back and concentrating and not letting one play bother me."

Having a short memory is important for a player to play up to his potential. Thomas does his best to move on from bad plays.

"Just saying, 'Forget it.' That's a big part of being a great player is that play you can never get it back, so you leave it alone and just go to the next one."

Week 5-7

Coming out of the Week 4 bye, Thomas had a different look to his game on the field and in practice. Manning noticed the change.

"Yeah, somebody asked me, 'Did y'all challenge Demaryius?' Demaryius challenged himself during the bye week," Manning said. "He knew he wasn't playing up to his capabilities. He has high goals and high standards, and for whatever reason, I think he's been thinking a lot. We did put him in the slot early with Wes out (for the first two games).

"He’s been thinking a lot, and it's just affected his concentration with catching the football. I think he just had a good look in his eye all week, and he got back to his fundamentals and practiced well and played well."

Thomas had his first monster game of the season against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5. He finished the contest with eight catches, 226 yards and two receiving touchdowns.

In this picture, we see Welker lined up on the inside of Thomas. Welker is running a jerk route back to the middle while Thomas is running an inside slant at a shorter depth. Thomas turns this catch into a 31-yard touchdown.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This next play, we see the Broncos lined up before what turns out to be an 86-yard touchdown to Thomas. Welker is once again lined up to the inside of Thomas. The two defenders highlighted here are both locked onto Welker—thus giving Thomas one-on-one coverage on the outside.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

After that game, Thomas talked about his struggles before the bye week.

"I don't know if many people knew this, but the first thing was I had to play slot because [WR Wes] Welker was out, and I'm not used to that," Thomas admitted. "I knew if it was, like, 3rd-and-5, Peyton always went to Welker, and I knew if I'm not open, he's going to be on me.

"So I was thinking when I got the ball coming my way, I would drop it, and the first one I dropped, I let it get to my head, 'I'm letting down Peyton, I'm letting down my team.' It was just being back in my position and being more comfortable."

Thomas kept the hot streak going after the Cardinals game.

He was targeted 12 times, caught 10 passes for 124 yards and one touchdown against the New York Jets in Week 6. Thomas followed that up with eight catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns in Week 7 against the San Francisco 49ers.

This play highlights how Welker can alter the defense for Thomas even when the two are lined up on opposite sides of the field. Again, two defenders are highlighted because Welker gets—and holds—both of their attention. Thomas is able to sneak behind the middle linebacker, who is concerned with Welker running across the field in front of him. The result of the play is a 32-yard gain.

NFL.com - Game Rewind
Demaryius Thomas Stats Week 5-7
TargetsCatchesYardsTDsDropsRoutes
37265215095
ESPN Stats & Inc.

Summary

Demaryius Thomas is one of the best receivers in the game today. In fact, Broncos linebacker Von Miller believes that Thomas is the best.

"Number one," Miller said. "That's my son. I raised him up. He's number one. I don't think there's anybody else out there doing the type of stuff that he does.

"For all you guys that have kids, I'm sure your children are number one, too. My son, I'm proud of him right now. He's doing great."

With the injuries to both Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions) and A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals), Thomas might be the top receiver in the NFL. Players like Julio Jones and Dez Bryant might be close, but they have not had the huge games that Thomas has had this year.

Thomas is one of the most difficult players to slow down. He can catch short passes and turn them into long gains regularly. He has the speed to get downfield in a hurry, and Thomas is a great deep target on longer routes. His size, wingspan and leaping ability also make Thomas a fantastic target in the red zone.

Demaryius Thomas 2014 Stats
NFL Rank
Targets647th
Catches398th (tie)
Yards6625th
TDs62nd (tie)
Drops42nd (tie)
Routes Run19930th
Yards Per Catch16.9711th
Yards After the Catch3342nd
Yards After the Catch per Reception8.563rd
ESPN Stats & Inc.

The Broncos have an elite receiver in Thomas. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Thomas is set to get a huge payday in the near future. With his natural ability (and chemistry with Manning), the Broncos should do everything in their power to lock Thomas down with a big-money deal.

All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.