ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme combined for 93 catches, 911 yards and seven touchdowns last season, yet the tight end making all the noise at the Denver Broncos' training camp is a third-year pro with all of one career catch to his name.
Julius Thomas is dropping jaws, eluding linebackers, overpowering safeties and even holding his own when blocking All-Pro linebacker Von Miller.
In one spectacular but increasingly typical half hour, he overpowered safety Rahim Moore for a touchdown that no DB in the league could have denied, somehow reached into the crowd and hauled in a pass on the sideline that safety David Bruton had batted away and then kept Miller from getting anywhere near Peyton Manning.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound former power forward is finally healthy after spending the bulk of his first two seasons in Denver dealing with a bum right ankle. He treats every practice like it's game day.
"That's my thing," Thomas said. "A lot of guys out here, we play around and get back and forth at each other a little bit, but every rep, that's one that I want to win. Every time I go out there, I want to get the best of the guy I'm going against. And I just think that's the attitude you have to have every play."
Because Thomas has some making up to do.
Not only was he a late bloomer — he only played one year of college football after exhausting his basketball eligibility at Portland State — but he got hurt on his one and only NFL catch after the Broncos selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.
After flashing enormous potential in overpowering safeties and eluding linebackers, Thomas injured his right ankle when Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson tackled him after a 5-yard catch in his second NFL game.
His career's been stuck in neutral ever since and he's had to fight to keep from letting despair overtake him.
"We spend so much of our lives training and preparing, and when you feel like you can't get out of yourself what you know you can do, it's tough," Thomas said. "But you've have to continue to stay patient and know that one day your chance is going to come."
Playing against the NFL's second-best defense last season while running with the scout team helped him hone his skills, calm his nerves and bide his time.
"It's just a good way to develop confidence," he said.
That attitude and approach started to pay dividends this summer, when Manning and others really started to take notice of him. One week, he hauled in a 50-yard TD pass from Manning and the next he stretched out his long, lean body for a one-handed grab in the flat before weaving his way into the end zone.
"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."
With Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker at receiver, it remains to be seen how much the tight ends will be targeted, but one thing's for sure, Manning loves having another big target in his repertoire of receivers.
Thomas is trying to follow in the footsteps of some other hoopsters who translated their skill set from the hardwood onto the gridiron.
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. So, once he used up his 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 caught a touchdown pass and captured the attention of scouts.
The Broncos selected him in the fourth round, hoping they'd discovered the next Antonio Gates or Rob Gronkowski.
"In my mind, I can do the same kinds of things they can," he said.
If he can only stay healthy, he should get the chance to prove it this season.
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