Julius Thomas could have been another basketball player who didn’t make it at the tight end position in the NFL. The Denver Broncos have tried this formula before—take a basketball player and transform him into a tight end at the pro level. It’s a recipe that has not worked to this point for Denver.
He could have easily been another Wesley Duke. Duke was added by the Broncos in 2005 as an undrafted free agent out of Mercer. He had zero college football experience, but Mike Shanahan felt he could mold him into a quality pro.
I remember watching Duke in training camp, and I was never impressed. He was clearly athletic, but he looked like someone who hadn’t played football before. His movements were wrong, his hands were suspect and he did not know how to play with a physical style.
These symptoms have been trouble spots for other basketball players who have tried their hand at the tight end position in the NFL.
Since Thomas has become a Pro Bowl tight end for the Broncos, it has been fun to reminisce about his rise to stardom. Nobody in the media is closer to Thomas than I. He knows (and appreciates) my support and belief in his game from day one. Here’s a roadmap for that journey.
2011 East-West Shrine Game
When Thomas came out of Portland State, he did have some experience playing college football. After starring for four years on the basketball team, including making an appearance in two NCAA tournaments, Thomas played college football for one season. He ended that year with only 29 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns.
There obviously wasn’t a lot of film on Thomas when it came to his ability on the football field. However, he did do enough to earn an invitation to the 2011 Shrine Game in Orlando, Fla.
I was there (I’ve attended every Shrine Game since 2007) during the week of practice for that game, and Thomas immediately stood out as a potential star.
The first day of practice was held indoors due to torrential rains in Orlando. Instead of cancelling practice, the coaches (Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips) decided to hold practice indoors in a ballroom.
This practice was held on carpet, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and glass light fixtures attached to the wall.
Instead of seeing hesitation from these players, we in the media instead were treated to a physical style of indoor football. This was practice, the first day even, but these players all knew what was on the line.
There were big hits left and right. A plant and the ceramic pot it was in were broken after one of these hits. A ricocheted football broke one of the glass fixtures, and an errant pass sliced through one of the chandeliers.
Julius Thomas was out there making big plays immediately. He was making tough grabs, bouncing off would-be tacklers and showing the ability to play with a physical style.
I was immediately impressed with Thomas, so that night I made a video with Chad Reuter (formerly of NFL Draft Scout and NFL Network) talking about a couple of standout players. One was Thomas, and the other tight end standing out was Jordan Cameron.
After practice on the first day I was able to interview both Reeves and Phillips about their experience. Both had practiced indoors (or in a parking garage) before.
Thomas continued to be a standout player each day of practice, and many scouts in attendance took notice. During the game, he accounted for the only points scored by the West team. In the second quarter, he caught a five-yard TD pass from Idaho QB Nathan Enderle and followed that up by catching the 2-point conversion.
I felt Thomas could be a standout player in the NFL, and I started talking him up as a sleeper pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
2011 Scouting Combine
At the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, I ran into Thomas once again.
He was sitting by himself at a table as other players were interviewed at other tables and podiums. Nobody outside of Danny O’Neil (710 ESPN) wanted to talk to Thomas. I sat down and caught up with Thomas, reminding him I watched him down at the Shrine Game.
I was excited to write a piece about Thomas from the combine that year. I felt he could be a nice fifth-round pick, but many questioned whether or not he had done enough to actually get selected in the draft.
2011 NFL Draft
The Broncos felt strongly about Thomas that year and selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. I remember talking to former Broncos GM Brian Xanders (who was also in Orlando for the Shrine Game) after the draft. He and the entire staff were excited about his upside as an “Antonio Gates-like” weapon.
2011 Training Camp
It didn’t take long for Thomas to make an impression in front of Broncos fans out at Dove Valley. He opened training camp as third on the depth chart behind Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario.
In four days, Thomas had gone from third-string to running with the first team. His star looked brighter than ever, and many in Broncos country were excited to see what this young tight end could do.
Yes, there were some skeptical fans who brought up Duke’s name, but those naysayers were few and far between. It looked like the Broncos had a hit on their hands early on.
All that excitement was cut short when Thomas suffered an ankle injury that ended his rookie season. Thomas had only one catch for five yards as a rookie for the Broncos.
2012 Ankle Surgery, Peyton Manning and the Waiting Game
Many things changed for the Broncos after the 2011 season. They went to the playoffs, secured a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers with Tim Tebow at quarterback and then were beaten by the New England Patriots in the postseason. Tebow was replaced at quarterback as the Broncos jumped at the chance to add Peyton Manning as a free agent that offseason.
After Manning was signed he quickly began working out with some of his new teammates. That small group included Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. They were seen at Valor High School in Highlands Ranch multiple times working on their timing and chemistry.
It was a good sign for Thomas that he could work out and that Manning had embraced him so quickly. However, before the start of minicamp that year, it was determined that Thomas needed surgery to repair the ankle injury he suffered as a rookie.
This all but eliminated his sophomore season. Thomas was able to appear in a small handful of games, but he ended his second year in the pros without a catch.
Even though the production wasn’t there, the coaching staff still loved his upside.
I remember chatting with Broncos head coach John Fox on the sidelines during practice in Week 17 last year. Thomas made a great play near the sidelines, so Fox turned to me and said, "Looks like my man Jules is back!"
This team still believed in Thomas, but 2013 was painted as a make-or-break year for the young tight end.
It didn’t take long for Thomas to show the country what he could do. In the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, Thomas caught two second-quarter touchdown passes.
The nation was now on alert for what he could do.
Thomas really thrived in 2013. He finished the season with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Thomas reached this peak even though he missed two games (and part of a third) due to a knee injury.
His 12 touchdowns set a new team record for the most touchdowns in a single season by a tight end. This broke the mark (10) set by Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe.
As the team enters the postseason, it’s clear Thomas is a key piece of its passing game.
There’s simply no way for a team to match up against him. He’s too big for safeties to cover, and he's too fast for linebackers to cover. Thomas will regularly “box out” defenders, using his basketball skill set to get open and catch passes.
Thomas has become a favorite target of Manning, and both could be in for a productive postseason.
Chatting with Thomas
I was able to catch up with Thomas in the locker room on Thursday. I was excited to tell him I had booked my tickets for the 2014 Shrine Game, this time in Tampa Bay.
Thomas shared a few memories from his experience at the Shrine Game. “That rain was outrageous. Practicing inside was crazy. I thought somebody was going down. Everyone was going full speed, and it was intense. I was wearing Vans [laughs] and just kept thinking ‘I have to impress these scouts’ no matter where we’re at.”
We like joking around about that game all the time. In fact, earlier this year Thomas recorded this liner for my ESPN Radio Show Ridin Shotgun.
He elaborated on whether any of the three losses the Broncos suffered this year could actually be a quality learning experience for the team. “We know that any of these teams can come out and beat us if we’re not on our A-game. I think that any team that has made it to this point is a good team, and they have the ability to win. But playing teams that have beaten you before, or playing a team that you’ve been in a close game with, definitely helps you from overlooking a team like that.”
Since the Broncos have a bye this week, Thomas believes he’ll get a jump-start on the teams they could face. “I think each guy will do it differently. Some guys might break out the notepads and the pens, but we’re going to get those games, and we’re going to study the team that we have to play extensively next week.
So for me, I’m just going to take it as an opportunity to rest up a little bit, get a little ahead, jump-start on film study for the team that we end up playing. And then, most importantly, just enjoy watching playoff football. We enjoy watching just as much as you guys.”
It’s clear Thomas is a rising star in this league. No matter how this season ends up, the Broncos know they have a quality weapon in Thomas for many years to come.
Next season the doubters who felt Thomas was not that talented will begin calling him a “one-year wonder” or a “product of the system.” Just like the naysayers before the season who compared him to the likes of Tony Scheffler (or worse), Thomas will gladly prove them wrong once again.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Records and statistical information are provided via email from the Denver Broncos.