In Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens the team showed off a new weapon in the arsenal, tight end Julius Thomas.
Thomas is a third-year player out of Portland State. He was a basketball star in college with only one year of college football experience. He stood out to me during the week of practice for the 2011 East-West Shrine Game and flashed his big-play ability immediately.
Thomas was a raw prospect but one the Broncos felt comfortable taking off the board in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. After missing two years due to an ankle injury, Thomas is making the most of his opportunities in 2013.
He has taken his basketball skill set to the football field, where he hopes to transform that athleticism into NFL dominance. Thomas has a large frame to box out defenders, and he also has the leaping ability to go over the coverage to pull down high throws.
Expect Thomas to create mismatches every time he's on the field. The Broncos used him wisely against the Ravens in Week 1.
After missing two years due to an ankle injury, Thomas is making the most of his opportunities in 2013. Let's take a look at how the Broncos are creating mismatches with this budding star.
In this target for Thomas, we see him lined up on the right side of the offensive line. He's in a three-point stance and the defense does not know if he'll block or go out for a pass. The first area that must immediately stand out to Peyton Manning is the soft spot directly in front Thomas.
The Broncos run a play fake to running back Knowshon Moreno. You clearly see linebacker Josh Bynes take a step towards the line of scrimmage. This leaves Thomas open and Manning puts the ball on target.
The pass was incomplete because Thomas dropped the ball after being hit hard by safety James Ihedigbo. The play didn't work for the Broncos, but it showed how Thomas can get into his routes quickly from a traditional in-line tight end stance.
On this play we see Thomas lined up on the left side of the offensive line in a two-point stance. Once again Manning is going to pick on Bynes in coverage.
Eric Decker is lined up at the X receiver spot and runs a clear out. Bynes does not stay with Thomas but instead he backs up and keeps to the inside in case Decker breaks to the middle. This clears out a spot for Thomas in the flat. He secures the catch and picks up six yards on the play.
On Thomas' first touchdown of the night, we see him standing up on the right side of the formation, on the outside shoulder of tackle Orlando Franklin. The Broncos have just picked off Joe Flacco and are looking for six points.
After the snap, Manning quickly pump fakes in the direction of Decker, drawing the two cornerbacks on the outside right towards the Bronco receiver.
Thomas runs an out and up. He's originally covered by linebacker Daryl Smith. The veteran linebacker lets Thomas go assuming that he has safety help behind him. However, the safety isn't concerned about Thomas, because he sees Wes Welker running a go-route down the right sideline.
The Ravens are playing two high safeties on this play. Thomas is wide open in the middle of the field because the other safety is concerned with Demaryius Thomas on the left side.
The Broncos get on the board with Julius Thomas' first career touchdown.
On this play we see Thomas lined up on the left side of the formation. He's standing up, on the outside shoulder of tackle Ryan Clady.
Manning often takes what the defense gives him. And before this play unfolds, he knows X receiver Demaryius Thomas is going to break to the inside. If the defense rolls towards the Pro Bowl receiver, then Manning will look for his young tight end on the outside. If the defense plays Demaryius Thomas with single coverage over the middle, then Manning will take his shot there.
The Ravens will take their chances on the outside with veteran Michael Huff closing in on Thomas. Here's where the former college basketball star is able to use his strength and athleticism to get away from Huff. On his longest reception of the night, Thomas caught the ball cleanly, powered around and by Huff and quickly scampered downfield for 44 yards.
Here is the formation before Julian Thomas' second touchdown catch, another seam route in which Thomas gets by Huff in the middle of the field.
Both linebackers underneath go after rookie running back Montee Ball. Bynes should have dropped into the deep middle just to make sure Thomas didn't burn the defense again. The Ravens are playing single-high safety so it makes Thomas the easy read in the middle.
Manning makes the easy throw to an open spot and Thomas brings it down. The Ravens defense looks like Keystone Cops after the catch. Huff and Ihedigbo run into each other, and Thomas easily scores.
Thomas does the sweet reverse dunk over the goal post to celebrate his second touchdown. Even that celebration shows his elite athleticism. This is the same player who told me at the 2011 Scouting Combine that he could jump over a Kia and dunk a basketball.
The Broncos can clearly use Thomas in many different ways. They will exploit defenses who aren't ready for Thomas and his remarkable game.
Thomas can line up like an in-line tight end or in a two-point stance. He can stand up outside the tackles. There are even times when the Broncos could put him in the slot.
He's the ultimate chess piece for the Broncos' passing game. Defenses so concerned with Denver's other receiving options risk leaving Thomas in one-on-one situations. The only way to truly stop Thomas is to leave guys like Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker or Eric Decker with single coverage.
After the season opener, one thing is certainly clear. Manning is going to make defenses pay with his new weapon.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand.