ENGLEWOOD | The most intriguing new face turning heads at the Denver Broncos’ offseason workouts isn’t Montee Ball or Sylvester Williams. It’s third-year tight end Julius Thomas.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound former power forward is finally healthy after spending the bulk of his first two seasons with the Denver Broncos dealing with a bum right ankle.
Treating every practice like it’s game day, Thomas is finally flashing the skills that made him an attractive prospect coming out of Portland State in 2011 even though he had played just one season of college football.
Last week, he outraced the safeties and hauled in a 50-yard TD pass from Peyton Manning. This week, he stretched out his long, lean body for a one-handed grab in the flat before weaving his way into the end zone.
“It feels great. I mean, just being able to go out there, and run around, and feel healthy,” Thomas said. “For so long, I feel like I was dragging a leg around. Just to go out there and feel like I’m playing at a high level, it’s really encouraging and I feel blessed.”
“I’m not surprised by what he’s doing,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “He’s been doing that for the last two years, it is just getting that opportunity to do it with the first team and getting some reps there. That is great because he has the talent. It’s just all about learning how to play this game and the mental part of it. We’ve seen him mature a lot over the past two years. I’m looking forward to seeing him get more reps this year.”
Thomas was a power forward at Portland State who was a bully in the blocks, swatting 62 shots and pulling down 520 rebounds while leading the Vikings to two NCAA tournament appearances.
But basketball wasn’t really in his blood. He said he never quite felt like the hardwood was really his canvas, figuring he’d be more at home pulling down passes than rebounds, blocking linebackers instead of shots.
So, once he exhausted his basketball eligibility, and with one scholarship season left, he contacted Vikings football coach Nigel Burton about stepping onto the football field for the first time.
Thomas was a quick study, catching 29 passes for 453 yards and earning All-Big Sky Conference first-team honors. His stock soared at the East-West Shrine Game, where he captured the attention of scouts with his athleticism and grabbed a 5-yard TD pass.
That was enough to entice the Broncos into selecting him in the fourth round that year, hoping they’d discovered in Thomas the next Antonio Gates, who made a smooth transition from the basketball court at Kent State to the football field and became a perennial Pro Bowler for the San Diego Chargers.
Thomas said his basketball background helped him navigate the crash course of NFL football. He makes split-second decisions, deciphers defenses, anticipates the action, adjusts on the fly just like he did on the basketball floor. He said shielding a defensive back to give the quarterback an opening is just like posting up a player under the basket to give the point guard a clear passing lane.
But Thomas injured his right ankle on his first — and so far only — reception of his pro career, and after working out with Manning after the quarterback’s arrival in Denver in March 2012, he discovered he needed an operation that sidelined him again.
He’s played just nine games in his NFL career.
In this era of ever bigger tight ends like New England’s Rob Gronkowski and offensive mainstays like Gates, Thomas said he can fit right in.
“In my mind, I can do the same kinds of things they can,” he said.
If he can stay healthy, he’ll get the chance to prove it this season.
Thomas is getting more work than he expected this offseason, especially in the passing game, because Joel Dreessen recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and won’t be back until training camp in late July.
“It’s been a good deal for Julius in the sense that he gets more opportunities and more reps,” coach John Fox said. “He’s a guy that we have a good feeling about his abilities. Now it’s just a matter of getting him in there, and this gives him a good opportunity.”
He’s making the most of it, compiling his own highlight reel of jaw-dropping plays.
“I’m proud for him because he came in and when he first started, everybody thought he was going to be a great player and then he got injured and had his ups and downs, but I knew he was going to be good, because he was a basketball player and most of the basketball players that play football can play,” wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “To see him out here doing the things he’s doing is amazing. I knew he had it and I just feel like he can help us out and is just going to get better and better once he keeps practicing with Peyton and everybody else.”
Manning loves having another big receiver lining up with him.
“He’s a great athlete. A big target. If you can’t complete a ball to Julius as a quarterback, something is wrong with you,” Manning said. “He has a great wingspan and great size and jumping ability. I think he’s just continuing to get better for us.”
Thomas made the most of his late start in college football and he aims to do the same in the NFL now that his right ankle is mended.
“It’s been a frustrating experience but I try not to focus on that,” Thomas said. “It’s just about making it to the next day, the next play and coming out here and trying to improve, and really, that’s where all my focus is now. I’m doing what I can to get better.”