The Denver Broncos hope that Portland State tight end Julius Thomas is of the Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates mold. In other words, a basketball-player-turned-football-player who becomes a matchup nightmare in the NFL.
Julius Thomas is certainly raw. He played on Portland State’s basketball team for four years, and set a variety of school records in the process. In 2010 he turned to football and had 29 catches, 453 yards and two scores. And he has great size (6'5", 251), athleticism and natural hands. Thomas will need to improve on his route running and blocking, so he is certainly a project.
Still, the Broncos don’t have many options at this position—they released Daniel Graham, making Dan Gronkowski their best option at this point—so it wouldn't be surprising to see Thomas get some major playing time right away. He would need to benefit from some type of offseason training, so his development is at least partly resting on what happens with the lockout situation.
John Fox has not traditionally made tight end a focal point for his offenses, but that may be changing now that it’s assumed that Tim Tebow will be the starting quarterback. Thomas drops the occasional easy pass, but also shows great receiving skills at times. The Broncos hope that he can use those basketball skills to develop into a prominent pass-catching threat—a guy who can give linebackers and smaller defenders nightmares trying to cover him.
The Denver Broncos have up until this point in the draft played it safe. They focused on players who have proven themselves for more than just one season, and they have tried to also focus on the top rated athletes at their relative position. Thomas was ranked as the seventh- or eighth-best tight end on many draft boards, but perhaps has one of the highest ceilings of the group.
Until we can see Thomas on the field catching passes, we can only speculate. But at this price (fourth-round selection, which was made possible by a savvy trade down in the second round) it could be an absolute steal.
Will he be the next Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates? That remains to be seen.