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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Breakout stars: Broncos' Thomas at top of list of guys ready to shine

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On the play that made him (almost) famous, Demaryius Thomas burned the Steelers in OT. (Getty Images)  
On the play that made him (almost) famous, Demaryius Thomas burned the Steelers in OT. (Getty Images)  

It was one of the marquee plays of the 2011 NFL season, and the guy who truly made it was essentially reduced to a footnote, a victim of Tebow-mania.

You might have heard about Tim Tebow throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers last January in the playoffs, but the guy who made it possible, turning an easy throw into an 80-yard TD catch, was the player I see as the Rob Gronkowski-like breakout player of 2012.

Say hello to future star, Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas.

"It's exciting to have somebody think that," Thomas said.

Why not? Thomas has all the tools. He's big. He's fast. He's strong. And he now has a quarterback in Peyton Manning who will see him when he's running open, rather than forcing him to put his hand up every time he crossed the field.

That's the way it was for much of 2011 for Thomas, dealing with Tebow's blind spots in the passing game, while dealing with a broken pinky that limited his ability to catch the football.

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I told him that after watching tape of his games, I came to the conclusion that his favorite pattern of all was the many he ran with his hand up, just hoping Tebow would see him.

Thomas laughed. He wasn't going to take a shot at Tebow, even though he did so earlier this year in a radio interview before backtracking because God forbid somebody question Tebow.

This is what he said at the time: "You gotta go back and look at the rest of the games [other than the Steelers game]. I wasn't getting no balls and you had to make some of these plays where some players were open and he is not making the throws. But I don't want to talk bad about Tim, but hey I am happy we got Peyton."

That's because the Broncos will run a real offense, not some gimmicked-up crap that wasn't kind to the receivers.

"I am so excited to get out there in a pro-style offense," Thomas said.

In 11 games, including five starts, Thomas caught 32 passes for 551 yards and four touchdowns last season. But he really came on down the stretch. In December, he had 22 catches for 414 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up with 10 catches for 297 yards and the one touchdown in two playoff games.

With Manning, in a much more receiver-friendly offense, expect to see the end-of-year numbers for Thomas all season long in 2012. Aside from the addition of Manning, Thomas is healthy for the first time in his Denver career.

Coming out of Georgia Tech, he had a tough rookie season in 2010. He broke his foot in a pre-draft workout, aggravated it early in the season and was limited to just two starts. Last February, he tore his Achilles tendon while doing conditioning drills at Georgia Tech, which kept him on the sidelines for the first month of the season. It didn't help that he fractured his pinkie during the season, playing through the pain.

"I have no problems now," Thomas said.

He has worked with Manning and he's excited about the chance to catch passes from him. Working on route running -- something he has done little of because of his injuries -- will help him improve as a receiver.

"It's so much different now," Thomas said. "If you know what he [Manning] did with the Colts, you know it's different. It's new routes and new terminology. He's so passionate about the game. He's helped me with things like running routes and doing it the way he wants it. You have to know what you are doing or he'll get on you."

Thomas said he sometimes will watch the play that beat the Steelers and think about how important it truly was for the team. It won a huge game in overtime, stamping him as a player to watch in 2012, even if he didn't get the credit he deserved.

He got lost in Tebow-mania, even if that 235 pounds streaking away from the Pittsburgh defense is the image most true football evaluators will remember.

"Once I caught stride, I knew I was going to be hard to catch," Thomas said.

That's what will make him one of the NFL's breakout stars this season.

2012 NFL breakout stars

C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills: I know they just re-signed Fred Jackson and he's healthy again, but he doesn't have the same explosive ability that Spiller has. The Bills need to get Spiller the ball more in 2012, and they will.

Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys: He is moving to the left tackle spot after a dominating rookie season at right tackle. He will be a fixture in the Pro Bowl for years to come.

Jimmy Smith, CB, Ravens: When he was on the field last season, he showed big-time cover skills. Now that he will have an offseason, I look for a huge year from this talented second-year corner.

Joe Haden, CB, Browns: Haden has great man-cover skills and probably could have gone to the Pro Bowl last season. It's too bad his talents get lost in Cleveland.

Nick Fairley and a guy named Suh give the Lions two dominant interior linemen. (Getty Images)  
Nick Fairley and a guy named Suh give the Lions two dominant interior linemen. (Getty Images)  
Nick Fairley, DT, Lions: In the second half of the 2011 season, he was starting to show why he was a first-round pick. He will be a force next to Ndamukong Suh.

Derek Cox, CB, Jaguars: When he was on the field last year, he was emerging as a good cover corner. He has to stay on the field.

Nate Solder, T, Patriots: When he played as a rookie, he was impressive. Now that he's entrenched as the left tackle with Matt Light retiring, he will be even better. He did some really good things in his 14 starts as a rookie.

Linval Joseph, DT, Giants: He was a force in the second half of the season for the Giants and appears ready to do even more. He is strong and can penetrate.

Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals: Yes, he flashed as a return man, but I think he will take a huge step forward as a cover corner this season. You saw more of it in the second half last season.

Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks: Here's another corner who flashed as a rookie in 2011. He plays with a swagger and his size (6-feet-3) really helps.

Adrian Clayborn, DE, Buccaneers: He plays with a relentless style and had 7½ sacks as a rookie. I see double-digits this season and maybe even 15.

Robert Quinn, DE, Rams: He had five sacks as a rookie and playing opposite Chris Long he has the look of a double-digit sack player.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Raiders: Surprised to see him here? Don't be. He showed his speed off late last season. With an offseason working with Carson Palmer, watch out in 2012.

Roy Helu, RB, Redskins: Mike Shanahan is known for finding runners and having them put up big numbers in his offense. Helu will be the latest. He had 640 yards as a rookie last season.

Orlando Franklin, T, Broncos: He was good as a run blocker in Denver's run-oriented offense, but I think he will be just as good in pass protection with the move to a more pass-friendly scheme.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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