Vet­eran re­ceiver’s skills com­ple­ment Hop­kins, add threat

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - By Aaron Wil­son STAFF WRITER aaron.wil­son@chron.com twit­ter.com/aaron­wilson_nfl

DEN­VER — DeAn­dre Hop­kins’ work­out part­ner three years ago de­liv­ered feats of strength and speed that left a last­ing im­pres­sion on him.

As Hop­kins trained along­side De­mary­ius Thomas that off­sea­son, he was struck by how ath­letic and ded­i­cated Thoma was.

At a sculpted 6-3, 229 pounds, Thomas ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 sec­onds when he en­tered the NFL nine years ago as the Bron­cos’ first-round pick out of Ge­or­gia Tech.

In Thomas, Hop­kins saw a vet­eran wide re­ceiver with an phys­i­cal style like his own.

“His scores and how high he tested in ev­ery­thing,” said Hop­kins, who is ac­cus­tomed to be­ing ranked the best in ev­ery­thing. “Even though he was a big­ger guy, he tested higher than I did in ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing, so I was try­ing to push to reach his goals.”

Three years later fol­low­ing a high-pro­file mid­sea­son trade, Thomas and Hop­kins are team­mates and in­volved in a whirl­wind pair­ing that brings them to Bron­cos Sta­dium at Mile High on Sun­day. af­ter­noon.

When wide re­ceiver Will Fuller, the fastest player on the ros­ter who had emerged as one of the most dan­ger­ous deep threats in the NFL, tore his an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment against the Dol­phins, Tex­ans gen­eral man­ager Brian Gaine moved to re­place him.

The Tex­ans traded a fourthround pick and swapped sev­en­thround se­lec­tions with the Bron­cos, ac­quir­ing an ac­com­plished wide re­ceiver to work in tan­dem with Hop­kins.

‘It’s go­ing to be great’

When Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son breaks the hud­dle Sun­day, he’ll have two im­pos­ing re­ceivers in Hop­kins and Thomas. Both are ex­cel­lent at mak­ing con­tested catches by leap­ing over or muscling de­fen­sive backs out of their way.

“It’s go­ing to be great,” Wat­son said. “Noth­ing re­ally should stop the train. DT’s a vet­eran guy that can do a lot of dif­fer­ent things and he’s played a lot of foot­ball.”

A five-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion, Thomas has caught 665 ca­reer passes for 9,055 yards and 60 touch­downs. He isn’t the burner he was early in his ca­reer, but the 30-year-old is ca­pa­ble of get­ting be­hind cor­ner­backs.

“Noth­ing’s chang­ing,” Wat­son said. “We’re do­ing what we’re do­ing. Throw it deep, throw it short, throw it across the mid­dle. I mean, ev­ery­thing we’re go­ing to do, we’re go­ing to do. Just be­cause we lose Will doesn’t mean that the train is go­ing to stop or we’re go­ing to take a dif­fer­ent route.”

When it comes to us­ing their body con­trol and su­pe­rior size, Thomas and Hop­kins ex­cel. They have huge hands, ex­cel­lent leap­ing abil­ity and strength.

“Any time guys have that kind of size, I mean, DeAn­dre cre­ates matchup prob­lems be­cause of his size,” Tex­ans re­ceivers coach John Perry said. “De­mary­ius has done that through­out his ca­reer. You’ve got to have great hands to play at this level, and he has that. He’s got great size. He’s de­cep­tively quick and ag­ile. He’s that guy, a lot like DeAn­dre, that they have great move­ment skills for a big­ger guy. So, that’s go­ing to be ex­cit­ing to see what we can do with those two guys.

“It’s ob­vi­ously an on­go­ing process here to try to fig­ure out how all of the pieces fit to­gether. We’re just ex­cited that those guys are able to work to­gether. They’re both great pro­fes­sion­als, so they’ve re­ally got­ten along well and I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing how it all con­tin­ues to mesh.”

Fuller will be missed

But not hav­ing Fuller changes the com­plex­ion of the of­fense. Fuller caught 32 passes for 503 yards and four touch­downs with 23 first downs on 45 tar­gets. He caught a 73-yard touch­down pass in his fi­nal game of the sea­son against the Dol­phins.

De­fen­sive backs were un­able to stop Fuller, a 4.28 sprinter, from run­ning by them.

“Will is a big piece to this of­fense be­cause of the things we want to do and the things we like to do, re­quire him to do the things he was do­ing very suc­cess­fully,” Wat­son said. “It’s tough to lose a guy like that. But gain­ing a guy like DT and be­ing able to in­clude him in the of­fense to do the same thing that Will did, is a great ad­di­tion for us too.”

Even with Thomas, Hop­kins might shoul­der more of the load.

“You’d have to be liv­ing in a treehouse in the mid­dle of Colorado not to know what we feel and how we feel about DeAn­dre,” Perry said. “We’ll lean on him heav­ily just as we’ve al­ways done and I’m sure he’ll come through, just as he’s al­ways done.”

Hop­kins leads the Tex­ans with 53 re­cep­tions for 789 yards and six touch­downs. He’s gen­er­ated 38 first downs through eight games and has been in­stru­men­tal in the Tex­ans’ turn­around from an 0-3 start to a 5-3 record.

“What’s changed? I don’t think it’s any se­cret,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s the lead­ing tar­get on third down. He’s got a bunch of yards. He’s our No. 1 re­ceiver. We’re not try­ing to hide him. Hop knows that. That’s why he is who he is.”

Thomas said this will be an emo­tional day. The place he called home for nearly nine years and the men with whom he was team­mates are the en­emy.

“It’ll be fun,” Thomas said. “I’m used to prac­tic­ing against them but now I get to play against them. So, I’m go­ing to look for­ward to it.”

Thomas has worked over­time to ab­sorb as much as he can about the play­book. He’s gleaned knowl­edge from ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Hop­kins and Perry.

How the Tex­ans uti­lize Thomas against his for­mer team will be in­ter­est­ing. He’s ex­pected to start and play ex­ten­sively, but his for­mer team­mates down­played how much the Tex­ans will use him.

Bron­cos ready for chal­lenge

“He’s go­ing to be ready for war,” Bron­cos wide re­ceiver Em­manuel San­ders told Den­ver re­porters. “There is only a cer­tain amount of plays that they can give him. He can’t run the whole play­book with him in there.”

Said cor­ner­back Chris Har­ris: “You know DT is go­ing to want to come up here and prove us wrong why we traded him and make big plays. So, we’ve got to stop that.”

Thomas should com­ple­ment Hop­kins’ skill set. Tar­geted 56 times this sea­son in eight games with Den­ver, Thomas had 36 catches for 402 yards and three TDs.

“Oh yeah, he can make plays,” Hop­kins said. “He did it with Den­ver for years. I’m pretty sure he’s go­ing to con­tinue to do that here.”

Dean Rutz / TNS

De­mary­ius Thomas, a five-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion, has caught 665 ca­reer passes for 9,055 yards and 60 touch­downs.

Karen War­ren / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Wide re­ceiver DeAn­dre Hop­kins leads the Tex­ans with 53 re­cep­tions for 789 yards and six touch­downs.

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