ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you judged third-year tight end Julius Thomas strictly by the numbers he's amassed since being a fourth-round pick in 2011, his career to date would be a disappointment: he has only one catch for 5 yards, and that came in his second regular-season game.
Yet there are extenuating circumstances.
On the same day he made his catch, he injured his right ankle. He was never the same after that in 2011, practicing most of the season and playing three more games through it. Then he missed the entire offseason of organized workouts after surgery the following spring, which put the still-raw ex-college basketball player even further behind.
That Thomas is still with the Broncos is testament to his freakish athleticism -- when healthy -- and potential to translate that to on-field performance. Even if he'd avoided ankle problems, the Broncos knew they'd have to be patient with him, given his limited football experience -- just one season at Portland State, after not playing since his freshman year of high school.
Thomas was going to require more seasoning and practice repetitions to get up to speed than most players, but injury prevented that. When the 2011 lockout is factored in, Thomas was effectively robbed of a full year of work.
Now he's trying to make up for lost time.
"It comes down to experience and actually getting out on the field," said fellow tight end Joel Dreessen. "This is a big offseason for him. This is the first time he's ever been healthy in the offseason."
And that means he's able to fully dive into the offense and in learning the trade of being an NFL tight end.
"I think this is his first offseason that he's really been able to dig in and say, 'All right, I know this, let's get after it,'" Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said. "It's good to see him be able to go out there and just be able to play, instead of worrying about, 'All right, what do I have here, what am I doing here?'"
In other years, that wasn't possible. The player recovering from injury and/or surgery is often on a different schedule. While his teammates have their regimen of practice and meetings, the injured must adhere to a schedule that sends them to the training room or the conditioning center to rehabilitate.
The missed time put Thomas even further behind -- and only now, when he's back to health, can he truly catch up.
"He's done a very good job of working hard in the weight room, picking up on our offense," Gase said. "Being hurt last year, he missed some meeting time, because you're rehabbing, you're trying to get your body straight. So you get stuck and you're behind everybody else."
So perhaps no Bronco has as much to gain -- or to prove -- when organized team activities begin Monday than Thomas. Amazingly, this will be his first time participating in an OTA, even though he's been with the Broncos for nearly 25 months.
Thomas' massive upside, borne out in his athleticism, has helped keep him on the 53-man roster even though he's been inactive nearly three times as often as he's played. Now that he's healthy, he has the chance to justify the Broncos' faith in him.
"Now he's caught up," Gase said, "and he's ready to make that next step as far as being somebody that could possibly help us out."