When Dymonte Thomas was called up from the practice squad last December to help the Broncos’ No Fly Zone face off against the Colts, Redskins and Chiefs, the rookie safety found out just how much faster the pro game is.
“They were a lot bigger, faster and stronger than I had ever played,” Thomas recalled.
The rookie had seen action in the preseason - even had a huge 58-yard pick-six against the Cardinals in the fourth game that remains Thomas’ “biggest play of my sports career.”
Dymonte Thomas to the house pic.twitter.com/cnXv8VPVfs— Michigan Nation24/7 (@247Wolverines) September 1, 2017
But a preseason game against second- and third-string players is a lot different than a regular season contest against NFL vets.
“Mannnn, I felt like I was a fifth-grader playing the high school varsity team,” the second-year safety admitted with a laugh.
Although the stage was bigger than he expected, it turned out not to be too big for the rookie, who helped the Broncos win their first game since Week 4 and their fifth and final win of the season.
“I was excited to play and I was determined not to take it for granted,” Thomas said of his opportunity. He was called up from the practice squad after starting safety Justin Simmons was placed on IR. “A lot of teams put in their rookies at the end of a losing season just to see how they do, but they told me they were putting their trust in me because we were trying to win.”
Thomas didn’t have any game-changing pick-sixes in those final games, but he did record three solo tackles and four assists, so the former Michigan Wolverine had an impact on the game. He credits that in part to his mentors in the No Fly Zone - Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Darian Stewart in particular.
“I learned a lot from those guys about the game and how the game is going to go,” Thomas said, adding that he was also told just to play to his strengths. “They gave me a lot of tips on how to play but they also said, ‘just be yourself. You don’t have to play just like us but just go and ball out.’”
Now an offseason later, Thomas is still fighting for a place in a crowded room of safeties - and he’s looking to those mentors to help him keep improving his game.
When it comes to understanding the playbook and being smart on the field, he consults strong safety Justin Simmons, who became a starter last year after T.J. Ward was cut just before the regular season. Harris Jr.’s story of going from UDFA to Pro Bowler is always an inspiration, and Darian Stewart’s all-around football IQ and game knowledge is invaluable. But for aggressiveness, Thomas’ go-to is third-year free safety Will Parks, and he still uses tips from Ward on big-time tackling.
“I can’t hit like T.J. yet; I need a little more size to do that,” the 6-foot-2, 199-pound safety joked. “But I do like to tackle.”
Although Thomas was not on the field for four of the Broncos’ early wins and nine of its pride-killing losses, he was around to experience the season-long disappointment that would follow any team finishing 5-11, 28th in the 32-team league.
But Thomas confirmed that team unity remained strong even if morale took a hit after each loss, and players genuinely believed in their preparation and coaching.
“The games just didn’t go our way,” Thomas said of the frustrating record. “That’s the way football goes sometimes.”
It’s a new season, though, and despite being only in his second year, Thomas is noticing a new attitude among players and coaches.
“The team is more focused, more determined,” he said, adding that he can’t really explain why it seems that way, “but you just have to see it. Everyone is taking it a lot more seriously, from coaches to players.”
The team slogan for the offseason has been “accountability,” and Thomas knows players are taking that to heart.
“We are more focused and paying attention to details,” he said, adding that coaches are being stricter with on- and off-field rules as well as paying more attention to the little things that make a difference in a play working and not working. “People will say ignoring details won’t get you beat, but it will. Paying attention to details teaches discipline - and the little things do matter.”
It appears that Thomas and his fellow defensive backs have been making those little things matter, and coach Vance Joseph has noticed.
“Our young safeties have been really impressive. Dymonte Thomas and Jamal Carter have been impressive,” Joseph said after Wednesday’s minicamp practice. “It’s a tough league for defensive backs. There’s so much information and the physical part of the job is also hard. They’re working hard. It’s a good young group; they’re working hard and they’re getting better every day.”
As the Broncos wrap up mandatory minicamp and head into a five-week break, Thomas will take a little vacation time to head back to the Midwest, but then he plans to be back out in Colorado getting ready for training camp and the beginning of the season. He still remembers how hard it was to acclimate to the thin air last year.
“When I was at Michigan, we played Colorado, and I remember they ran circles around us because they were in so much better shape, and we were like, ‘how are they doing this?’” Thomas recalled. “And then I came out to Denver for OTAs and was like, ‘Ohhh! That’s how they did it.’”
No longer a rookie and no longer a victim of the altitude, Thomas knows the expectations of him this season are higher - and he’s ready for them.
“I know what I have to do to make the team,” he said, adding that he’s more comfortable with the playbook and the system - and believes Year Two is going to be a good one. “I’m excited about this season.”