ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It would have been easy to dismiss Julius Thomas' deep reception down the seam as just another catch in practice – even though it was the offense's longest gain of the Broncos' 2013 OTA session that day.
But for Thomas, it was something unusual – as it would be for anyone at his position.
"That would probably be one of my favorites, because as tight ends, we don't get that many down-the-field catches," Thomas said. "I'm always like, 'Man, if I could just get a 50-yard pass one time, I'd feel great.'"
But it was more than just a play that sent onlookers to their smartphones to furiously tweet the news of his big play to the world beyond the walls of the Broncos' practice fields. When he came down with Peyton Manning's deep pass in stride, he provided the strongest evidence to date of the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end's potential when he's not hampered by injuries.
"He is a great athlete. A big target," said Manning. "If you can't complete a ball to Julius, as a quarterback, something is wrong with you."
As Thomas made the play easier for Manning, the same was true in reverse.
"It's not very hard to run downfield and catch a ball that's right on the money," Thomas said. "I guess we're all expected to be at that level when you put the jersey on. It's whenever the quarterbacks give me a chance, just make the catch and see what I can do afterwards."
Even before the notion of Manning as a Bronco was a gleam in John Elway and John Fox's eyes, Thomas showed this potential in the 2011 preseason. He was poised for a major role as his rookie season developed, in spite of having just one year of college football playing experience at Portland State. But a high ankle sprain suffered in a Week 2 win over Cincinnati derailed those plans, and through a slow recovery, setbacks and eventual surgery, Thomas' progress stalled.
He was so hindered that the May 20 practice represented the first OTA of his career, having missed last year's following surgery and the 2011 sessions because of the NFL lockout, which canceled all offseason work that year. Not only is he able to practice, but he's able to work on the offense with Manning, as Joel Dreessen's recent knee surgery moved all other tight ends up a notch.
It's the most extensive work Thomas has had with Manning, which has forced him to dig deeper into learning the offense to catch up and get in sync with the veteran quarterback. This work would have come last year if not for the recurring ankle problems; Thomas took part in some informal sessions with Manning prior to 2012 OTAs before being told he needed more surgery.
"You're going in, Peyton Manning's here, and you have some time to work with him, and then you find out a week and a half later that you've got to have surgery on something that's already been making you frustrated," Thomas said.
The Broncos moved on, and when Thomas was finally cleared to practice, he couldn't catch up. Most of his practice work in 2012 was on the scout team with backup Brock Osweiler. That might pay dividends in future years, but Thomas wanted to move up now, and didn't have much of a chance.
Not that it would have been the best thing for him, anyway. Although he practiced throughout the 2012 season, his ankle was still healing. Thomas said the ankle didn't stop bothering him until last December – eight months after his surgery and 15 months after he first suffered the injury. Freed from the shackles of pain, Thomas is a changed player.
"I always tease (tight ends coach) Clancy (Barone) and say, 'I feel like I'm out here on two good ankles now.' It definitely doesn't hinder me," Thomas said. "I don't even think about it anymore."
And as long as Thomas stays healthy, he'll be evaluated on what he still can be, not on what he was when playing through pain.