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2008 Draft: Devin Thomas, WR

Almost Too Obvious

To be sure, when the frantic first hour of the draft is ticking by, Shanahan and the Goodmans will be calling around to other team's warrooms looking for a feasible, and responsible way to trade into the top ten for Sedrick Ellis. They probably have an upper limit for how high they will trade, based on the salary they can afford to pay, but I would guess that they would consider anything up to #6 or so. Even if they didn't keep him beyond his rookie contract, it would be a solid way to spend that money in the meantime.

And while the general consensus is that, if Denver misses out on Ellis, they will immediately start lining up offers to move down, one old gambler may just have other ideas: Denver may be looking for a trade partner; but what if they are looking to move up with this one as well? I will get to that scenario in a moment. First, I would like to draw your attention to exhibit A, arguably the best WR in this years draft, and a top 5 KR prospect as well:

Devin Thomas, WR Michigan State

6' 2", 215lbs, 4.4 40yd

The Gambler

If ever there were a pick in a draft that was more about the man making the pick, than the player being drafted, this is it.

The list of failed attempts by Shanahan to draft a WR is a lengthy and damning document. Triandos Luke, Travis McGriff, Darius Watts and Chris Cole were all first day WRs who never panned out. Marcus Nash and Ashley Lelie were of course first round picks that never quite gelled. But to be fair to to the Broncos, this is an area that seems to have begun to come together: Lelie made contributions before getting a oneway ticket into Shanny's doghouse, Marshall looks to have everything onfield that we could ask for, and though he was cut recently, Domenik Hixon was showing promise and seems to indicate that if ever there was a time to lose patience with a player, his was the wrong time.

But does this inconsistent 'trend' mean that Shanahan is ready to throw his chips back onto the table, and make a play for a first round WR selection? If he is, he does so with full knowledge that the top class of WRs in 2008 is a mess, with no clear, hands down #1, and with tremendous potential offset by tremendous question marks for each and every prospect. The top WR potential in this draft comes with a potentially serious price: don't care too much, or you won't be able to take the hurt if it fails. Denver is desperate for a complete passing package, and their red zone offense is a testament to that. Whichever WR Denver looks at in the first round will be a gamble, and when it comes time to pull the trigger on a pick, Shanny will have to ask himself whether the Broncos can afford to pay the heavy price to ante up for a shot at greatness.

It is worth noting that he has paid much more for much, much less.

The Gamble

You can make the argument that Devin Thomas had the most impressive 2007 college season of all the WR prospects in the draft. It is very easy to point out his receiving stats (85 for 1350 yds, 16yd avg) or his return statistics (39 1135 yds, 30yd avg). His 2510 all-purpose yards is pretty darned impressive, and his consistency through 13 games can't be denied (100yds receiving /game, over 200 all-purpose yads /game).

But your argument from statistics ends there. He had only a single year of on field production at Michigan State after transferring from Coffey Community College. And while he was excellent at the previous school, it hardly encourages wonder at his abilities. Though he was at Michigan state as a sophmore, he only started one game, and played in 9 others. The reason was playing behind established players, though as his sophmore season wound down, it was becoming obvious that one way or another, they were going to have to find a way to get him involved more. Enter Coach Dantonio. He made it his mission to rebuild the Michigan State team, and Devin Thomas featured heavily in that plan. As a result, Thomas exploded onto the scene with a blockbuster junior campaign, before declaring for the NFL draft.

He spent the first part of his stay on draft boards, nestled snugly with the prospects in the 2nd and third rounds. Before the combine he stated that one of his goals was to be the "first WR to be chosen in the draft." He left a dramatic impression after having easily the best day of any WR at the combine, and he went home that day on the tops of NFL draft charts. But is that enough to warrant being taken as the top WR in the draft?

Bill's head coach, Dick Jauron, on Thomas: Good run after catch, good size, good speed, good speed down the field, powerful guy, quick and explosive with good balance. Devin has only done it one year? He had a huge year. Obviously if a guy has done it more times, kind of like a quarterback, you hear all the quarterback gurus talking about college quarterbacks and they want a guy who’s thrown it a lot. I don’t know if it’s the same thing at receiver. I really believe you just keep looking at it and you get a feel for a guy. Is there a downside about the Juco factor? Not for me. I just look at as many plays at the guy as I can so I feel confident.
So what do we see? Start with a powerful, well muscled frame, strong arms and legs that are cut. He uses his tremendous strength to fight for the ball in traffic, and is a consistent winner in those battles. Exceptionally quick, but not the fastest player on the field. Gets into his breaks well, but could get better with his footwork, as he seems to rely quite heavily on his strength to get separation, and to deal with inital contact at the line. Would wear down over the course of an NFL game if he doesn't develop his footwork.

While he has the speed to press the deep coverage, deep routes are not his strength. His intermediate and short routes, especially going over the middle are perfect, and a testament to his courage and confidence that he can win the physical battles. He was rarely sent long and it shows, as he definitely needs to work on tracking the ball and bringing it in over his shoulder. But he also shows the willingness to lay out for a ball and sacrifice his body near the sidelines. As part of working on his footwork, he can address the concerns of scouts who feel he needs to work on body control when going out of bounds, though I wasn't able to see any plays like this so I can't speak to that aspect of his game.

His yards after catch ability is impressive as well, and he and Marshall could have a lot of fun competing with eachother in this category, I think. He will benefit from NFL level film study and coaching in order to better understand zone coverages and how to pick a spot to sit down in them, as sometimes he seems to read them wrong. He is also a willing blocker who is a natural with the cut block and has the power to in-line block if he is called upon to do that. His combination of size and speed makes him an above average consideration for the type of WR Coach Shanahan looks at to complement his running game: they need to be able to uncover quickly, and provide good targets to a moving QB. His routerunning experience qualifies him immediately to what Denver asks their WRs to do throughout 99% of the game, and he has the tools, if not the experience, to add the missing element of a deep route to the playcalling. His size should do well to create opportunities in the redzone, but again, this is a factor that only truly opens up when Denver's running game proves that it is back up to par.

On top of this, his KR return ability may very well prove to be the best in this draft. He has the speed, power and patience to improve our ST INSTANTLY, and he has the experience and confidence to be able to contribute consistently from the begining. This is the strongest area of his game, in my opinion, because I see the things he does so well here creeping into his offensive game, where they aren't as effective. Things like his ability to juke a defender, which works impressively at full speed, but should probably be supplanted with a more direct, tackle-breaking approach on short and medium receiving routes. And he definitely has the strength to make that adjustment. He shows great field vision and sets his blockers up very well. If Denver only drafted him to back up Stokely and return kicks initially, they would be getting plenty of value for the #12 pick.

The question is, could they get him at #12?

The Table

A lot of Bronco's fans sounded off on the recent cutting of ex-Bengal's WR Chris Henry. "He'll only cause problems for the Broncos," they warned. Well, he's causing problems for us anyways, even if we don't sign him!

You see, IF Denver actually wanted to target the top WR in the draft, the cutting of Henry leaves the Bengals with only two proven WRs on their roster, and one of them doesn't even want to BE there. So the Bengals can be expected to seriously consider WRs with the #9 pick. And if they decide to go elsewhere, well, another WR hungry team lies in Denver's way. BrianG from Buffalo Rumblings kindly weighed in on the idea:

Buffalo thinks very highly of Thomas. He's been here on a pre-draft visit, and word is that he and Malcolm Kelly are neck-and-neck for the top spot on Buffalo's WR board. That said, the Bills aren't married to the idea of drafting a receiver in the first round, but it's clearly their top need. We're hurting pretty bad at the position.

Buffalo would certainly entertain the idea of trading down, but only if they'd be ensured of landing either Thomas or Kelly. Trading down one spot is a little unorthodox (but it's been done), and it would give the Bills an extra pick to play around with (they've traded up in each of the last two drafts to select DT John McCargo and LB Paul Posluszny). If the Bills trade down, it's because they're targeting a receiver - and trading down with Denver would obviously keep them in position to draft one of the top two wideouts (again, assuming they're both available - you never know with Cincy's WR situation, though).

If the Bills stay at 11, there's a very high likelihood that they'll take Thomas over Kelly. So if they get wind of Denver sniffing around Thomas, they may just stay at 11 and take him.

The top DTs will be off the board with a dry spell before reliable prospects will warrant being taken. Top oline talent will be available, but is seriously devalued by Denver's zoneblocking scheme. And to top it all off, our most urgent offensive need, WR, is severely compromised by the teams picking immediately before us in the draft. The Broncos can't seem to catch a break, and more than ever it is apparent that Shanahan is going to have to make his own luck, if he wants this draft to be another reflection of the "Mastermind" legacy and not a continuation of the bad drafting that put us in this position to begin with.

The conservative call is for a trade down, at all costs, and so far the biggest curveball of all has been the suggestion that we take a top player as bait to force other teams into a trade (DE Harvey). We haven't even begun to guess what Shanahan might have up his sleeve. If he rates WR and KR as high on his wishlist as we all think he might, he will be hard pressed to pass on an opportunity to go get Devin Thomas.

And if there are teams standing in the way, Shanahan, the Mastermind, may just get a disturbing twinkle of the eye, and stiffening of the upper lip. He'll be watching for their tells, and obfuscating his own, hoping to reveal nothing, and win everything.

And won't you be just a little scared? What hand will he play, this gambler extraordinaire, when his legacy is on the line?