Bron­cos’ Thomas rises to chal­lenge

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Lind­say H. Jones @bylind­say­hjones

Among Vance Joseph’s first moves as the new head coach of the Den­ver Bron­cos was to is­sue a per­sonal chal­lenge to the team’s long­est-tenured player.

Joseph thought the Bron­cos would need more from De­mary­ius Thomas and he wanted to make sure the team’s No. 1 wide re­ceiver knew it.

Joseph’s chal­lenge, is­sued in March be­fore the team be­gan its off­sea­son pro­gram, was for Thomas to be con­sis­tently dom­i­nant, from the first minute of games to the fourth quar­ter and from Week 1 through Week 17 — and hope­fully longer.

“He can take over a game,” Joseph said at the time. “But I want his mind-set, ev­ery game we play, to walk on the field and take over the game.”

It’s a bold move for a new coach to call out a vet­eran such as Thomas, who in 2015 signed a five-year, $70 mil­lion con­tract and has the sec­ond-most re­ceiv­ing yards and catches of any player over the last five years.

Thomas wasn’t of­fended — he was in­vig­o­rated.

“I was shocked he said it, but I was low-key happy,” Thomas told USA TO­DAY Sports. “I had put that chal­lenge on my­self be­fore he even men­tioned it. Once I saw it, I knew was on the same page as him.”

Thomas has spent ex­ten­sive time this off­sea­son work­ing on re­hab­bing a lin­ger­ing hip is­sue that has both­ered him for years, es­pe­cially last sea­son af­ter tak- ing a hit in the sea­son opener against the Carolina Pan­thers.

Though Thomas didn’t miss any games, he also never felt close to fully healthy. He man­aged to stretch his streak of 1,000-yard re­ceiv­ing yards to five years with 1,083 yards, but his catches (90) and touch­downs (five) dipped in the first year of the post-Pey­ton Man­ning era.

“I was never fully run­ning the routes I wanted to do, or felt the way I wanted to, from hips up, even to­ward my neck. It’s bet­ter now,” Thomas said.

Feel­ing healthy for the first time in months has al­lowed Thomas to set big goals for 2017. He’s try­ing to be a bet­ter leader — al­beit a quiet one — for an of­fense that lacked one last year, and on the field he’s fo­cus­ing on using his 6-3, 229-pound body to win ev­ery con­tested ball — some­thing that’s not easy to do in prac­tice against Den­ver’s cor­ner­back duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Har­ris.

“I still have more in me,” said Thomas, who will turn 30 in De­cem­ber. “This is go­ing to be my big­gest year all around for me. Block­ing, catch­ing, run­ning routes, ev­ery­thing.”

As the Bron­cos wrapped up their off­sea­son with a manda­tory minicamp this week, Joseph said he was pleased with the way Thomas had re­sponded to the chal­lenge.

“He’s en­gaged ev­ery day,” Joseph said. “He wants the ball, and if he at­tacks ev­ery game in that way, he’s go­ing to be what we want. He’s a guy that can’t be cov­ered one-on-one.

“If we get sin­gle cov­er­age, that ball is go­ing to him. Stop him if you can.”

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