Is Demaryius Thomas Quarterback-Proof?

Many worry that when Peyton Manning retires, Demaryius Thomas's production will nosedive. Is that true?

Sometimes people really touch you.

My grandma was one of the coolest and impressive women I’ve ever known, biased opinion or not. Connie was a strong-willed, intelligent, independent and motivated woman who met the love of her life early on, my Grandpa Bob, and raised six children with him.

When my grandpa passed away, Connie took my mom and her five siblings onto her shoulders, took a job as a postal worker for years, and got them through. Yet, despite remarrying once, Connie never fully got over Bob. I’ve always been moved by that tragic notion: Connie spent the last 40 years of her life still madly in love with him. Though she lived a long, successful life, she was never the same once he was gone.

How does this relate to the Denver Broncos? Contract negotiations between the team and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas have finally come to fruition, with Thomas on a five-year deal with the team. However, it’s possible that quarterback Peyton Manning retires in the next few seasons. The two have shattered and set records together, so it seems worth asking: Will Demaryius Thomas ever be the same without Manning when he goes?

I’m Walking After You

We’ve heard about –- and researched -– the Peyton Manning Effect on running back production in the NFL, but we’ve never actually looked at how much he improves wide receivers. Seems silly, right? He’s the guy throwing the ball to them, and we don’t know what extra prowess he gives over an average quarterback in the NFL.

Well, now we do.

The way we will measure this is by using our signature metric here at numberFire: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

We can see very simply how an offense’s passing game as a whole changed after Peyton’s arrival or departure. The table below shows the average of three years preceding Manning leaving Indianapolis (2008-10) and three years since (2011-13), as well as the three years prior to him arriving in Denver (2009-11) and since (2012-14). What do we find?

TeamYearsPass NEPPer-Play

This isn’t just a slight upgrade that Peyton offers; he revamps an entire passing game. Bear in mind, too, that not only did the loss of Manning downgrade the Colts’ passing attack by more than 100 expected points on average, that takes into account two years of Andrew Luck’s so far stellar career as well. It’s not like they have nobody passing the ball, and still Manning brought the value of an additional touchdown or so to every game.

More relevant to our initial question, Manning also upgraded the Broncos’ passing game by an average 225 points annually when he arrived in Denver. Quarterback Passing NEP isn’t directly translatable to wide receiver Reception NEP, but it’s a safe assumption for this study that Demaryius Thomas since has had a lot more to work with, having a future Hall of Famer under center, he has significantly outproduced where he'd be with a league-average or replacement-level passer.

By the Light of the Silv’ry Moon

So, we now understand that there is truly a Peyton Effect for the passing game as well as the rushing game, and we’ve seen how much he can turn around an air assault. What about how he specifically affects his wide receivers? It’s no surprise the Demaryius has been the top dog in Denver since he was drafted, but how much of a difference would his stat line have if Peyton never arrived?

The table below shows the same comparison we did from before -– Peyton’s effect during his time and either before he arrives or after he leaves -– but this time in terms of his top receivers’ Reception NEP (points added on catches only) and Target NEP (points added on all targets).

TeamYearsRec NEPPer-PlayTarget NEP

This is expected, but striking. The composite of Reggie Wayne’s 2008 to 2010 iterations with Peyton Manning actually received three fewer targets than the average of Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton with Andrew Luck, yet the earlier group exceeded the latter by far in raw and per-play Reception and Target NEP.

Similarly, despite Brandon Marshall and Brandon Lloyd’s exceptional 2009 and 2010 seasons with more than 150 targets -– as well as Eric Decker’s 2011 -– Demaryius Thomas’s last three years has far and away outpaced them all in every possible way.

It’s been incomprehensible -- but notable -- how much Peyton Manning increases a player’s value in the passing game. Now, however, we have a certified number to tack onto this effect: It appears that top-tier receivers gained between 18 and 40 percent extra value by having him throwing them the ball. This is an incredible mark and would certainly impact Thomas's production if Manning left.

P.S. I Love You

The final question that we’ve given evidence for, but not yet answered: What happens to Demaryius Thomas without Peyton Manning?

The table below shows Thomas’s production in his five years in the league, with the years he’s played with Peyton starred. For his injury-shortened 2010 and 2011, his NEP scores have been prorated to 16 games.

YearsRec NEPPer-PlayTarget NEP

Here we see that Thomas’s Reception NEP went up more than 40 percent once Peyton Manning arrived in the Mile High City, and his Target NEP more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. Even if we account for a progression in skill refinement between his second and third seasons, that’s a huge leap up due to Manning’s presence.

Will Thomas fall apart without Manning? I don’t believe he’ll fully implode. Still, what other offense is going to be able to feed Thomas an annual helping of 150 or more targets, with the quality of a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback? It's very likely that some fall-off will occur when Manning rides into the sunset. A drop of 25 percent -– to around 80 receptions, 1,100 yards, and 9 touchdowns annually –- seems right for Demaryius Thomas once his signal-caller leaves the field for the last time. That would still have put him as the 12th-best wide receiver in standard fantasy scoring last season; a more than acceptable mark.

Thomas seems to still have a long and successful career ahead of him, but he just might not be the same once Peyton is gone.