Thomas caught four passes for 52 yards in the loss. And when the Broncos closed out their 5-11 season with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs days later, Thomas closed out his season below the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2011, when Tim Tebow ran an option-flavored offense for the Broncos.
As the Broncos continue to mull the moves that soon will be made in their expected roster makeover, many of Thomas’ teammates, and even Thomas himself, have wondered both privately and publicly what the future holds for the team’s longest-tenured player.
Thomas is, after all, the only player on the roster who was with the team before Pat Bowlen hired John Elway to be the Broncos’ football boss. Running back C.J. Anderson said at the close of the season that “I don’t think anybody knows how [Elway] is going to make decisions. As a player, all you can do is control what you can control. But you know being here or not being here, that’s upstairs, those decisions are upstairs."
Moving on from Thomas would be no small item. Certainly, players don’t often get to pick how it ends -- Peyton Manning was told he had to take a pay cut in his final season -- but Thomas is a future Ring of Famer who has not missed a game since 2011. At the moment, he’s second in franchise history in receiving yards (8,653, to Rod Smith’s 11,389), second in receiving touchdowns (57, to Smith’s 68) and second in 1,000-yard seasons (five, to Smith’s eight).
Quiet, hard-working and one of the most productive players in franchise history, Thomas may be one of the more underappreciated players in the game. He will not be included in any touchdown-celebration videos given that’s not really his thing, but on the strength of his four seasons with Manning behind center, Thomas does sit with Torry Holt, Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison and Antonio Brown as the only players with five consecutive seasons with at least 90 catches and 1,000 yards. That’s some fast company.
Thomas has taken heat for dropped passes -- “they make me mad, too," he says. He’s taken heat for not being louder, but in his mind he’s always tried to answer the bell, including this past season when he continued to practice in December as if the Broncos were headed to the postseason rather than the offseason.
“I always say I take it year by year," Thomas said recently. “That’s just how I think about it. ... I know what I put into this every year, and that’s how I’ll go at [this offseason]. I’ll be ready to give my all."
The Manning pay cut continues to be the most business-is-business move Elway has made. But the Broncos are poised, coming off their worst season since 2010’s 4-12, to make some high-profile business decisions when the new league year opens in less than a month. And players like Thomas ($12.033 million against the salary cap in 2018), cornerback Aqib Talib ($12 million) and Emmanuel Sanders ($10.938 million) are at the top of the financial food chain. The bottom line is if the Broncos are going to dive into free agency to find a difference-maker, especially at quarterback, they’re going to need more cap room.
To get more cap room, they can either renegotiate some deals, trade some players or cut veterans with big contracts, all while trying to limit the “dead money" damage -- salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster. For his part, Thomas has a deal featuring an option bonus of $4 million that the Broncos must exercise by the start of the new league year -- it begins at 2 p.m. Denver time on March 14 -- or else have the final two years of Thomas’ deal voided.
If the Broncos exercise the option, Thomas’ contract remains in place for 2018 and 2019. If not, Thomas is a free agent and the Broncos would take on a $3.1 million “dead money" charge, which is about $9 million less than his cap figure for the ’18 season.
At the Senior Bowl last month, Elway was asked specifically about the future of Thomas and Sanders. He didn’t offer anything close to a guarantee regarding the two veteran players, saying only that “we will also look at ourselves, look where we are and look where we are budgetwise and capwise."
The clock is now ticking a little more loudly each day.