ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Pro Bowler Julius Thomas’ resume now reads like this: one year of youth football, one year of high school ball, one season in college and, essentially, one full season in the NFL.
“I think he’s just going to keep getting better,” Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “He works so hard. He’s a really smart player and person. So he understands what defenses are trying to do and I’m really excited to see what he can do this year.”
So is general manager John Elway, who knows he’ll be breaking the bank for Thomas if he has anything like the season he just had.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound late-bloomer became a bulls-eye for some of Peyton Manning’s biggest moments last year, like when he caught Manning’s 51st TD throw that broke Tom Brady’s single-season record, one of a dozen touchdown passes he caught, breaking Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe’s team record for tight ends.
He was Manning’s main target in the AFC Championship, too, with eight receptions for 85 yards a week after his two clutch third-down catches helped ice Denver’s win over San Diego.
All of this from a guy who entered the season with just one career catch in his first two injury-filled seasons.
Thomas isn’t acting like a man who’s arrived, though, but like one who knows he’s still a work in progress and has to fine-tune his game.
“I’m spending a lot of time going back and looking at last year’s tape these last couple weeks and just seeing so many areas that I can improve in,” Thomas said. “By no standards was I my best in any aspect of the game and that’s what’s really exciting about these offseason OTAs for me is I really get a chance to work on things and improve.”
Thomas doesn’t look at the film to relish his big moments but to find the flaws.
“To look back and see all the things that I didn’t do so great and know how comfortable I am going into this season and how much I’ve learned, I’m just excited to go out there and show everyone – and show myself – how hard I’ve worked this offseason and (show) more of what I can do,” he said.
Thomas played football as a freshman in high school but when his back started to hurt during a growth spurt, his mother told him he could play basketball but not football. He blossomed into a power forward who would lead Portland State to two NCAA tournament berths, one whose teammates always thought he was joking when he’d talk about playing football when his basketball eligibility expired.
He was no joke on the football field, though, earning All-Big Sky Conference first-team honors in 2010 and catching a touchdown in the East-West Shrine Game along with the attention of the Broncos, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2011.
“It’s definitely not the easiest way to do it,” Thomas said. “People always talk about, `How are you improving?’ How are you getting better at areas that they feel that you should be better in? I always like to remind people it’s tough to learn when you’re going up against the best people in the world. They say ‘Just go out there and block DeMarcus Ware.’ Well, he’s one of the best people in the world at not getting blocked.
“So if you’re trying to learn, it gets kind of tough. But it’s just a challenge. I’ll never be able to make up those years in high school and college that other guys were able to be out there on the field learning the game. But I put in my extra time. Our coaches do a great job of helping me understand what I’m supposed to do, making things simple for me.”
Thomas has also been keeping tabs on Jimmy Graham’s situation in New Orleans, where the Saints star received the $7 million tight end franchise tag rather than the $12.3 million wide receiver tag. Graham contends that the frequency with which he lined up split out from the line merits the more lucrative designation.
“Do two letters next to your name on the depth chart really determine your value to a team?” Thomas said. “… I don’t think that the position matters. I think if you’re a guy making plays for your team, then that should be your value.”
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