The naysayers in Broncos Land spent much of the two summers prior to this one calling for Julius Thomas to be cut. Denver had drafted Thomas out of Portland State in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft, taking a flyer on a player who could go either way. Julius had only started into football during the 2009 season; he had walked into the office of head coach Nigel Burton and asked if he could walk onto the team that spring.
Burton said that Thomas 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 a year earlier, but the basketball coach was against it. Given Thomas’s size and natural skill level, there was no reason prevent the guy from playing football if he wanted to, and could show it on the field.
Despite the coach’s early misgivings, the first time Julius took a big hit from a linebacker in college, he jumped back up as if he'd enjoyed it. At that point, Burton knew he had a potentially solid player on his hands.
Nigel Burton’s reaction wasn’t that different from the people who wanted to end the Julius Thomas experiment after his first training camp. The same group’s reaction became more vocal when Thomas missed all but four games last season with an injury; he had struggled in his rookie year with injuries as well. He’s put that behind him this training camp, and has four receptions in each of Denver's three preseason games, for a total of 123 yards and a 10.3-yard average. His blocking has improved noticeably, and although he had a ball stripped in the Seattle game, that’s just part of developing into a top NFL player - you’re going to get owned a few times along the way. The only question is whether the player learns from it. So far, Thomas has - and quickly.
"I played football a lot when I was younger," Thomas told MaxPreps in 2011. "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."
Thomas learned a lot in the film room and on the practice field during his first two seasons, but he had no way to prove it. Coach John Fox has said that if there had been room for Thomas to play late in the 2012 season, he would've gotten Julius on the field. When your team is on a long winning streak, though, you don't make changes if you can avoid them.
Now, it's a new year with a new set of possibilities. Thomas has obviously worked very hard on both his physical body and his understanding of the game. He's had two seasons to pick the brains of teammates Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, and to spend as much time as he wanted to watching film. From the moment he walked into OTAs, it was obvious that he'd spent his time well.
His solid performance in OTAs was all well and good, but most people wanted to wait and see how he did in pads. Moving from a short college career into the NFL is a huge leap upwards in terms of the violence of physical contact. Even in training camp, you're going to see, hear, and feel some tremendous hits.
So far, Julius has shown that he can take it all in stride. His blocking has improved, and that's a very difficult area for a tight end just coming out of college to learn. He understands routes very well for a young player who has not had much time on the field, and his experience in the low post, boxing out in basketball, has served him very well in using his body to defeat the defender and catch the ball. He had to find out how defenders will strip the ball if you don’t have it protected in the Rams game, but that’s part of the learning curve too.
In basketball, you never catch the ball with your body. You reach your hands out and you pluck it from the air - and then lock it into position in your arm(s). That skill is one of the reasons that so many organizations have tried to take basketball players from college and turn them into NFL tight ends. It usually hasn't worked out, although there are outstanding exceptions such as Antonio Gates. What I believe makes the difference with Thomas is that it was his choice to seek out the football program - no one came to him with a proposal. He just decided to follow in his father’s footsteps - his father Greg Thomas had a promising college career as a receiver until a knee injury ended that dream. Julius was incredibly athletic, liked football, and knew he wasn’t NBA material (the low post isn’t the right place for a guy who’s 6-5). To him, it just made sense to go to the tight end position.
It still only preseason, but with injuries to Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, Julius has seen plenty of extra playing time. He's making the most of it, too. Denver is counting on developing their youth to maintain a high level program over an extended period of time. If they do as well with some of the others as they have with players like Wesley Woodyard, Rahim Moore, Duke Ihenacho, and Julius Thomas, the future looks bright indeed.
The term that I kept seeing when I was researching Thomas was ‘physical freak’. At 6-5 and 250 lb, with soft hands and a rugged inner toughness, there’s something about his silky moves that have already (and perhaps prematurely) had Gil Brandt describe him as a bigger Shannon Sharpe. His athleticism and drive haven’t had a chance to come out until now, but that’s changing.
It looks like the Sheriff's got a new deputy in town.