CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Demaryius Thomas needed embellishment.
For the first time since his rookie year, his season required qualification. It was solid statistically, but not up to his standards. Thomas caught 105 passes, but averaged a career-low 12.4 yards per reception. His nine drops, some in critical moments, ranked fifth in the NFL and just two behind league leader Mike Evans. Thomas won a Super Bowl ring, and yet caught just seven passes for 60 yards in the playoffs.
At 28, Thomas enters his seventh season determined to rebound. He went to every Broncos' offseason workout, his contract negotiations a distant memory. He trained with a track coach in Atlanta, dropping from 232 pounds in mid June to 222 pounds when training camp opened. He last played at this weight in high school, a reminder of when the game was a joy and he schooled the competition.
"It's about being the best that does it," Thomas told Denver7 in an exclusive interview last week about his motivation this season. "I want to be the best teammate. I want to be the best player. I am not going to say I am the most athletic -- I am not. But when we are playing a team I want them to say, 'That's the guy we have to stop.'"
Such praise fit from 2012-2014. Thomas posted 4,483 yards and 35 touchdowns. He entered the argument as the game's top wideout, drawing comparisons to former Detroit Lions great Calvin Johnson with his freakish size and speed. The numbers landed Thomas a five-year, $70-million contract with $43.5 million guaranteed. Overnight, everything changed. In his first five seasons, he was known as a shy player with a penchant for the big play. He raced into the arms of the city during the 2012 playoffs when he hauled in a short pass from Tim Tebow and walked off the Pittsburgh Steelers with an 80-yard sprint into the end zone.
Last season, Thomas went from an exclamation point to puzzlement, battling inconsistency. He hurt his neck against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 4, but never used it as an excuse. The drops can be traced to flawed fundamentals, Thomas said.
"Last year I was trying to catch the ball and go up the field too quick. I feel like I am one of the best after the catch. That’s what I was trying to do. The main thing is catching it first," Thomas said. "You don’t want to be one of those guys where you hear the whole offseason, 'Why do you drop the ball all the time?' I am going to do whatever I have to do to make sure I make the catch."
This summer Thomas has delivered. He has enjoyed two strong weeks. Saturday, he made a touchdown catch in the red zone, hauling in a laser from Trevor Siemian. If he looks quicker, it's because he is. A leaner body helps on routes, Thomas said after a month of running 100, 200 and 400-yard sprints in the humidity near his Georgia home.
"This is the best I have felt in any training camp," Thomas said. "I have never played this light in the pros. The last time I was at this weight was high school. I have to get used to some bumps and bruises because I am smaller. I did it because of the hamstring problems I have had my whole career. Training on the track has made me quicker, and I feel it has made me better."
Carrying less weight is a tangible factor in Thomas' success. It's hard to gauge how much Thomas being unburdened mentally will help him return to his previous form. Last season created a blend of emotions as his mother Katina Stuckey Smith had her 20-year prison sentence for running a drug ring commuted by President Barack Obama. After spending time in a halfway house, Stuckey was granted freedom in November and watched her son play in person for the first time in the Steelers playoff game in January.
"I was so excited about her being out, but I was also kind of nervous about her being around people she didn't know," Thomas said. "It was hard."
This story resurfaced last week because Thomas' grandmother Minnie Pearl Thomas had her sentenced commuted by President Obama. Thomas talked with Obama about his family during the Broncos' visit to the White House in June. President Obama mentioned Minnie Pearl, leaving Thomas hopeful she would be released.
"It was love when I talked to here after the news," Thomas said. "It was so hard being on the phone with her last year after my mom got out. They were together in the same cell for 15 years. My grandmother was so sad, crying. Her situation will be totally different because she has my mom to help her. It's just a blessing."
When Thomas secured his big contract, he talked about serving as a vocal leader. A year later, he's comfortable in his own skin again. He serves as a core player through relentless practice, work ethic, and if he has way, bigger statistics.
"I go hard on run blocks and when I am trying to get open. In meetings, coaches will see the film and say that’s how you have to practice. I know I have to be a leader but I am not one to speak," Thomas said. "We have players who have bought in. The first year coming off Peyton (Manning's) offense, it was something we had never done before. We didn't have the whole system down. And last year not being at OTAs took a big part away from me. I am ready now. We are going to be a better offense. And I am going to do my part to make sure we are better."