I kept running into that phrase as I researched Julius Thomas’ draft info and biographies. Everyone from scouts to athletic directors have called Thomas an athletic freak. In this context, being a freak is anything but a bad thing. Cecil Lammey of the NY Times wrote:
He has good ball tracking ability when hauling in a long pass, and is a natural hands catcher. Thomas has a game built on speed and quickness. He knows how to use his big frame to box out defenders, and will square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage. This gives his quarterback the biggest target possible to throw to. He’s too fast for linebackers to cover, and too big for safeties to cover effectively. Thomas essentially creates mismatches every time he lines up on the field.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Thomas knows how to box out - he attended Portland State University on a basketball scholarship, and didn’t play a down of high school or college football until PSU's 2009 basketball season had ended. Not seeing an NBA career heading his way, Julius walked into the office of head coach Nigel Burton, who had just replaced former Oilers and Falcons coach Jerry Glanville as the head football coach, and asked if he could walk on to the team that spring.
Burton said that he was welcome, but privately, he had reservations. How would a guy who hadn’t played football since Pop Warner react to what happens when a tight end goes over the middle and gets laid out by a linebacker? But Burton talked to the other folks in the athletic department and got glowing recommendations from all of them. It turned out that Thomas had wanted to get back into football the year before, but the basketball coach was against it. Given Thomas’ size and natural level of skill, there was no reason not to let the guy play football if he wanted to and could show it on the field.
Thomas was actually following in his father’s footsteps - Greg Thomas played baseball at JFK HS in Richmond, California. Greg would later make the Contra Costa Community College football team as a receiver, and then attended the University of the Pacific where his football hopes were dashed by a serious knee injury. Julius wanted to take it a step further, and with his basketball days behind him and the football coach willing, he started into catching up on the game with spring football. He’d been sold on football way back in Pop Warner, but gave it up to take a chance on basketball, which gave him a college scholarship. Now he wanted to become one of the few to make the transition from basketball to tight end.
"I played football a lot when I was younger," Thomas told MaxPreps. "I played Pop Warner in seventh and eighth grade. Football was a big part of my life. I spent a lot of time watching the game."
The basketball coaches and athletic department officials told Burton that Thomas was “a hard worker, a freakish athlete and a tough guy”. Burton had his own ideas about tough - he’d been a standout safety with the University of Washington. Was basketball-tough the same as football-tough? It didn’t take long for him to get his answer.
"I wanted to see what would happen the first time he got popped in the mouth," said Burton. "He got blindsided by a linebacker the second day in spring practice. When Julius got up and he still had that same confidence, that swagger, I knew he was going to be OK." The linebacker had gotten the worst of the collision. By autumn, Thomas had become a primary offensive weapon.
Boxing out a defender wasn’t a problem for Thomas. Catching the ball wasn’t an issue either - he looked it into his hands and almost never dropped a pass that he could get a hand on. What was probably more important was catching up on all the terminology and theory of the game that he’d missed over the years. Thomas’ solution was to sit in on meetings: meetings with quarterbacks, with linebackers or defensive backs. He also became obsessive about watching film, coming to the football offices at 11 o'clock every morning. It wasn’t required. It was Thomas’ own idea, but the coach wasn't going to send him away.
"I've coached 12 guys that are in the NFL, and he's probably, of all them, the most professional in how he conducted himself while he was in college," Burton said. Broncos TE coach Clancy Barone apparently agreed - he had several phone conversations with Thomas and also visited and worked him out personally. That led to Thomas’ desire to become a Denver Bronco.
Thomas would end the year with 29 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns in 2010, despite the fact that the PSU football team used a run-first philosophy. They usually split him out wide and dared their opponents to try and stop him. Too fast for linebackers. Too tall, at 6’5.5” and 250 lb, for safeties to handle. Cornerbacks? Not a chance - he could outjump any of them. Thomas’ work ethic had turned him from a walk-on maybe to a burgeoning professional in only a year.
Thomas’ professionalism had started at a young age. At Tokay High School in Stockton, California, basketball coach Dustin Lanz said that Thomas was "a major leader. He was the voice of the team. He had a really strong, deep voice and people followed him. He really took care of his body and his strength increased. He could really jump and he had a strong work ethic. In my offense, the ball had to go to him first. We had scorers all around him, but he was the centerpiece." That ability as a player and as a leader got him a full-ride basketball scholarship to PSU. With his obligation to the sport finished (as a four-year letterman), Thomas was looking for his next challenge. Coming into the NFL will be his next, and his greatest athletic challenge.
Just as it’s common to mistake the terms 3-4 and 4-3 defensive fronts for systems rather than simply formations, tight ends are often seen by the fans as falling into two categories - blocking and receiving. A rare few do both very well, but nearly all are stronger in one area than the other. Even so, that’s only a small part of the story. The rest of the categorizations within the position are more subtle, less well known and are easily overlooked. Head coach John Fox was kind enough recently to clarify some of this conundrum, and to give us a better view of how the team sees the options that they have at TE:
I think there is no question that (Julius) Thomas is what we call a wide tight end, an end-line tight end. He has a bigger frame—most of your top tight ends do have bigger frames. I think it helps the quarterback. It is the closest receiver for the quarterback to throw to. Developing that, we have (TE Richard) Quinn in place already. He is that type of body and I think he can grow a lot like (TE Antonio) Gates did in San Diego. Yet, they are built well enough and powerful enough to learn how to block. Every tight end ever been brought in this league—the No. 1 adjustment coming out of college into pro football is the blocking. We think we have an outstanding coaching staff that can help that process.
As far as (TE) Virgil (Green) goes, he more of an ‘F’ tight end, a ‘move’ tight end. He has great vertical speed—he tested off the charts at the combine as far as the physical aspects. He can stretch the field, yet he is still a physical guy who can line up in the backfield from a wing alignment and has a physical-enough presence to block.
Many sources have confused the ‘F’ or ‘move’ TE with an ‘H-back’. While the terms are being used interchangeably in the media, Fat Man readers know better.
Right now, Denver has five TEs on the roster. The first is Richard Quinn, and contrary to the commonly repeated media and message board theme that he’s somehow been a disappointment to the team, Quinn has consistently developed over the past two seasons. He’s been groomed as an end-line TE, and has had to make the adjustments that most TEs make in learning to block for an NFL offense and special teams. He hasn’t been used much as a receiver yet, but that may come - or it may not. It’s really not particularly important at this juncture. It seems that every year, fans talk disparagingly about ‘blocking’ TEs - really, end-line TEs - and every year teams are looking desperately for one by about midseason. Many excellent TEs entering the NFL struggle to learn the blocking skills involved - it’s a lot different than in college, and the technique used has to be perfect.
Coach Fox also noted that in his opinion, the differences in blocking at the tight end position from the college to the NFL experience is the hardest jump that most TEs will have to make. When you look at Fox’s statement, it’s a small wonder that Quinn struggled in his first year to learn the blocking and the playbook. He made substantial strides last year, and I’d expect him to make more in the coming season. Green and Thomas will also be learning those skills.
Neither Daniel Coats or Dan Gronkowski was mentioned by Fox in this quote, and I wouldn’t read too much into that - Fox was addressing the media and was answering specific questions, not delineating their plans for each player. Coats was more of an end-line TE in Cincinnati until Denver took him in December of last year as an insurance policy once Gronkowski went down to injury, while the 6’5”, 255 lb ‘Gronk’ was used by Maryland as an end-line blocker until his final season of college ball.
But during 2009, Maryland moved to a West Coast Offense-based system under new offensive coordinator James Franklin, and Dan promptly caught 29 passes for 287 yards and three TDs that year. He also won the Iron Terp award for the Maryland football team by living in the weight room - he has a top weight in the squat of 635 lb, a figure exceeded only by Vernon Davis (with a rep at 685) among TEs in Maryland’s history. Gronk was also rated as the second highest strength-index on that Terps team in the spring of 2008. Like Quinn, Gronkowski has had to learn NFL blocking, but he’s a much more natural receiver. He was also a Rhodes Scholar nominee, so his academic intellect is substantial. He’s a young player with a lot of ‘upside’.
Julius Thomas probably has even more of an upside in the receiving game due to his transferring knowledge of boxing out defenders and using his body to shield the catch, while using his hands to grasp the ball - both skills that can transfer over from basketball. He and Gronkowski are of similar build - both are large-framed, at 6’5ish, although Gronk is about 255 lb and Thomas about 246 lb. Thomas is a better all-around athlete, if not currently as strong at this time. Gronkowski has the chops to be an ‘F’ type TE, stretching the field and operating out of the wing, and he also has the frame to be an end-line TE as his blocking develops. I think that it’s obvious that all five won’t still be on the team when the next season opens, but I think that Coats is the odd man out. If the Broncos only keep three, it’s going to be a tough battle for those three slots. I’m hoping that they keep four - Denver would be set at the position for years to come. Gronk has even played some downs as a fullback when Spencer Larsen was injured. He’s a handy guy to have around, and with Thomas and Green coming on, Denver has quite a young TE crew.
As far as the recent rumor that Denver moved up and used a fourth-round pick on a TE and yet figures to place him on the practice squad, I find that dubious at best. When you place a player on the PS, you’re exposing him to any team that will place him on their active roster. The Broncos might expose Virgil Green, but Green is probably more NFL-ready than Thomas is at this point: he’s had more experience and he’s a better blocker, although his upside may not be as high. They’re also different somatypes - Thomas is 6’5 and 246 lb and is talented at going over the middle and, obviously, going up for the jump balls, while Green is 6’3 and 249 lb, with speed to spare going up the seam. I think that the question will come down to how many TEs the team is willing to keep - Gronk, Thomas and Green would all be desirable to other teams if they’re on the PS, and I doubt that any of them would last there long.
There is one wild card in this situation - Gronk ended the season on IR with an ankle injury on the same day that Denver placed linebacker Joe Mays on IR. It’s possible that Denver is hedging its bets on his recovery - I haven’t heard that being addressed yet.
Julius Thomas will be in a battle for his slot on the team. I expect him to be successful, and for the Broncos to keep him on the 53-man roster and let Clancy Barone - who previously coached Antonio Gates, to whom Thomas is often compared - do his magic in developing his skills to the max. Barone had multiple conversations with Thomas and worked him out personally, and his opinion apparently carried a lot of weight in Denver's decision to draft the player. It also influenced Thomas, who took to Clancy right away. Thomas wanted to play under the man.
"You try not to get your hopes up too much, but when people ask what team I hoped to play for, it was definitely the Broncos, and I had my fingers crossed, and I was praying I would be a Denver Bronco next year," Thomas said. "I'm excited. This is all I asked for."
With the variety of skillsets that the Broncos now have at TE, barring a run on injuries, Denver should be set for years still to come. While I wasn’t expecting the team to take two TEs in this year’s draft, once I sat down and considered the different body types and skills among them, I couldn’t help but get excited at the opportunity to see these young players develop. And, I was equally pleased that John Fox wanted to keep Clancy Barone on the coaching staff and to let him mold these players - he’s one of the best in the business, and the Broncos are fortunate to have him. If Barone is excited about Thomas, so am I.