Four years removed from a 2013 season where he finished first in wide receiver PPR fantasy points, Demaryius Thomas posted his worst stats since 2010 and trailed fifteen other receivers in fantasy scoring. The 2017 season marked the end of a five-year streak of 90-catch, 1,000-yard seasons. Thomas failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time since his second year in the league. His sudden downturn in statistical output seems to coincide with a sizeable drop-off in quarterback play for the Denver Broncos. The Broncos attempted to remedy this by signing last year’s surprise star Case Keenum in free agency. Will Keenum’s presence revive Thomas’s career, or is the 30-year-old beginning his descent into obscurity?
The Manning Years
Demaryius Thomas was a monster with Peyton Manning and the record-setting Broncos offense. He hauled in 402 receptions for 41 touchdowns and a league-leading 5,795 yards during the quarterback’s four-year stint in Denver. Once Manning retired, Thomas experienced a marked decrease in quarterback play and a subsequent drop in personal production. He was the sixteenth best fantasy wide receiver in both 2016 and 2017 after finishing no worse than eleventh in the four years prior, and that low point was the 2015 season during which Manning started just nine games.
The 2015 season was a sign of what was to come once Demaryius Thomas didn’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to him anymore. With Manning, Thomas led the team with a 30% target share and his average depth of target (aDOT) was 11.4 yards, per airyards.com. During Manning’s benching and bout of plantar fasciitis, Thomas’s target share dropped slightly to 28% and his aDOT plummeted to 9.0 yards. His average target share and aDOT for the past two seasons averaged to 25% and 10.4 yards, respectively.
According to airyards.com, Demaryius Thomas’s catch rate was well above the league average for passes seven yards downfield and deeper when paired with Peyton Manning. His receiving efficiency (measured by the Receiver Air Conversion Ratio) was also considerably above average during this time span, and he led all receivers with at least 50 catches in that statistic in 2013 with a RACR of 1.03.
Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, and Paxton Lynch couldn’t hold a flame to what Peyton Manning had accomplished in Denver. The trio never combined for more than 3,685 yards or 20 passing touchdowns in a season, which are 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns less than Manning’s worst full season in blue and orange. The 22 interceptions the trio threw last year were more than Manning tossed in 2012 and 2013 combined. It is no question that Demaryius Thomas was a diminished receiver in part, or fully, due to inferior quarterback play after Manning retired.
The Case for Keenum
Last year’s surprise breakout quarterback (besides Nick Foles, of course), Case Keenum, outperformed his first four years in the league by a wide margin. His 2017 quarterback rating of 98.3 was over ten points higher than his previous career best. He had the second highest total QBR of qualifying quarterbacks in the league, per ESPN, and was the 12th most efficient quarterback according to playerprofiler.com. From the same website, Keenum had 16 money throws, eighth most in the NFL. His passing stats were all in the top half of the league, except for attempts and attempted yardage.
Keenum’s leap from throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in 2016 to being a legitimate Pro Bowl snub the following year was likely a result of a massively improved supporting cast and a more up-tempo offense. The Vikings are lucky enough to have two of the best receivers in the NFL in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The latter led the league in contested catch rate by coming down with an incredible 83.3% of his 50-50 balls and the former was second in the NFC in receiving yards. Keenum will be stepping into a similar situation in Denver, where the team has two established veterans in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, as well as an exciting rookie in Courtland Sutton.
While having the ninth most efficient supporting cast (per playerprofiler.com) certainly helped Keenum break out in 2017, the faster Minnesota offense expanded his play and led to his ascension. For the first time in his career, more than 10% of his pass plays were run from a no-huddle offense. On no-huddle plays, his completion percentage from 20 yards or less was considerably above the league average and his total completion percentage on those plays was 66.0%, which is over five percent higher than his expected completion percentage. His overall 67.7% completion percentage was second only to Drew Brees last season.
Case Keenum took the ninth longest time to throw last season, per NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, at 2.78 seconds but had the sixth lowest sack percentage at 4.37% according to Pro Football Reference. He lost just 136 yards due to sacks (31st) and had the fourth best interception percentage with a mere 1.5% of his passes getting picked off. Keenum can keep plays alive and take care of the ball, two things Denver quarterbacks were incapable of the past two years. The Broncos are, however, proponents of the no-huddle offense, with 9.7% of Trevor Siemian’s plays and 13.3% of Paxton Lynch’s plays coming from the no-huddle in 2017. This bodes well for Keenum to step in and pick up right where he left off last season.
Long story short, as long as Keenum doesn’t revert to his pre-2017 form and the Broncos play to his strengths, Demaryius Thomas should experience a revival, at least in his opportunity. His production ultimately hinges on how well he can still play at 30 years old.
An article written by Pro Football Focus details how receivers usually begin a gradual decline in production beginning at age 28 and continuing until they fall off big time at about 35 years old. Thomas has clearly begun to decline, which was likely sped up by the poor quarterback play. Last year, just 15 receivers played at age 30 or older, and of those, three had 6 or more touchdowns and only one (Larry Fitzgerald) surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. That doesn’t really bode well for the aging Thomas to bounce back after a couple down years.
Sometimes, Thomas looks like a physical force to be reckoned with, but sometimes he looks like a player to avoid at all costs. His 64.5% contested catch rate was seventh in the league and he was tenth in receptions with 83. But, Thomas did have seven drops, second-most in the NFL, and was 62nd in target separation. His RACR of 0.64 last year was his lowest in six years. Perhaps these are all a result of Siemian and Lynch unable to get him the ball in opportune situations, or it could be a sign of a looming drop-off.
I would not draft Demaryius Thomas as my WR1 and I am not 100% comfortable calling him a WR2. Thomas is getting a (potentially) large upgrade at quarterback. Though if Keenum reverts to his pre-2017 play, the Broncos are worse off with him. Thomas will be a graybeard soon (in football terms) and will likely experience a further decline in play regardless of who is throwing him the ball. He had 15 PPR fantasy points just seven times last season and had less than 10 points five times. I hope Demaryius Thomas has a bounce-back season in 2018. What’s far more likely he will finish as a low WR2 or WR3 for the third year in a row.
Thank you for reading. You can find me on Twitter @DFF_Graphics.