John Elway had said at the scouting combine that the Broncos would issue a franchise tender to Thomas if the sides could not negotiate a long-term deal. Elway has said he could see a scenario where Thomas got the franchise tag and then the two sides reached an agreement at some point after free agency begins March 10, when the contracts started to come in.
"This is another step in our efforts to extend Demaryius' contract and ensure he remains a Denver Bronco," Elway said in a statement announcing the Broncos' move. "We will continue working toward a long-term agreement with Demaryius, who is a very important part of our team."
The designation will mean the Broncos captain will get a one-year, guaranteed deal for the average of the top five salaries at his position. This year that figure will be $12.823 million as part of the salary cap being set a $143.28 million. The deal would be fully guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it.
The non-exclusive tag means Thomas can solicit offers from other teams and the Broncos would then have the right to match.
The Broncos would almost certainly match any offer Thomas would receive. Any team that would potentially sign Thomas would have to make a contract big enough to deter Denver, a tall order, and send the Broncos its next two first-round picks.
Calvin Johnson has the largest contract for any wide receiver in the league, a seven-year, $113 million deal he signed in 2012 that is significantly back-loaded and includes $48.8 million in guaranteed money. Andre Johnson signed a seven-year, $67.8 million deal in 2010, while Percy Harvin signed a six-year, $64.2 million deal ($14.5 million guaranteed) in 2013 and Mike Wallace signed a five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) in 2013.
Demaryius and Julius Thomas are the Broncos' highest-profile free agents this year, and the team tried to negotiate with both over the past year with Demaryius Thomas, who was the first of two first-round picks by the Broncos in the 2010 draft (Tim Tebow was the other), having been the top priority.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Demaryius Thomas, 27, is second in the NFL with 28 100-yard receiving games in the regular season and postseason combined, including 10 100-yard games last season, seven of those in consecutive weeks. His 226 yards in the Broncos' Oct. 5 win over the Arizona Cardinals is a franchise record for a single game, and his 1,619 yards receiving last season set a single-season franchise record.
After a rookie season slowed by injuries -- suffering a fractured bone in his foot in a pre-combine workout in early 2010 -- Thomas had a 32-catch season in 2011 as the Broncos ran a read-option offense with Tebow at quarterback. But since the arrival of Peyton Manning in 2012, Thomas has played himself into the league's elite at the position.
Thomas has had three consecutive seasons with at least 92 receptions, 1,430 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. He is only the third player in league history to have three consecutive seasons of at least 1,400 yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns; Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison are the others.
Last season Thomas was voted a team captain for the first time in his career.