Third-year tight end finally healthy and it shows
Updated: June 4, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — 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
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
"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."
Cornerback Champ Bailey said he's not surprised Thomas' performance.
"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,"
he said. "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."
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
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
"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
"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."
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."
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