ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Three years ago, Julius Thomas was a rookie with just one year of college football under his belt, coming off a lockout-shortened offseason into training camp. And he was making plays everywhere.
"I probably was a little more confident my rookie year [than last offseason], just because everything was moving so fast I didn't really have time to think," Thomas recalls. "I was just playing."
"But after being hurt for a while, you haven't been playing in games and you're kind of like, 'Man, what's going to happen?'"
One year ago – after a lengthy recovery from an ankle injury suffered on his first career catch – Thomas was back to his playmaking self in practice, once again drawing the attention of fans and close followers of the Broncos. But on a national scale, the future Pro Bowler was still virtually unknown. The whole team knew, however, that it was only a matter of time before the secret of Thomas' ability was revealed to the league.
"I had teammates telling me, 'Man I'm telling my buddies on different teams or friends back home, we've got a guy,'" Thomas said, smiling. "'Wait 'til you see, wait 'til you see him. He's healthy and he's good to go. You'll know who he is after a little while.'"
It took less than a little while. Just 30 minutes into the 2013 season, Thomas dwarfed his career statistics prior to that point. After one catch for five yards in 2011 and 2012 combined, Thomas exploded against the Ravens for 97 yards and two touchdowns on only four catches – just in the first half.
"I think my teammates might have been happier for me than I was," Thomas said. "But they were encouraging me, 'Man you've got to keep it up though. It can't just be a one week thing. This has to be something you bring to this team week in and week out.'"
Thomas kept working and the results kept coming, as he racked up eight touchdowns through the first seven games. His career performance in the opener proved to be a preview of a career year to follow, in which he tallied 65 catches, 780 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games.
But Thomas isn't satisfied with last year's coming out party.
"By no standards was I my best in any aspect of the game," Thomas said during OTAs. "I hold myself to a very high standard. I'm spending a lot of time going back and looking at last year's tape these last couple weeks and just seeing so many areas that I can improve in."
Defenses will be shaking in their boots if No. 80 can improve on what was the Broncos' best season by tight end since Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe retired. It was Thomas' emergence in 2013 that paved the way for so many offensive records, an out-of-nowhere star piled on top of Denver's embarrassment of riches on offense.
Take a look at the best shots from Saturday's practice at Dove Valley.
Now that he's a known focal point of Peyton Manning's aerial attack, the fourth-year veteran is working to round out his game. Developing the feel for blocking after moving from basketball to football takes time, and Thomas points out it requires more work in the weight room. With his limited football experience, the majority of which has been hampered by injury, Thomas hasn't had the time most players do to develop.
"You get to playing the game like some of these guys, for 16, 18 years straight, there's not much more you can learn," he said. "Each year I get more and more comfortable with the game. I learn more. I'm learning the little intricacies of how to play, of how to prepare."
Thomas says his blocking has come a long way this offseason, to the point where he's anticipating the defense's actions and can prepare for what's coming. Going against a player of DeMarcus Ware's caliber has proved helpful as well, in more ways than one.
"No question, going up against him is going to make me a better blocker," Thomas said. "But then for him to take the time to really talk to you about the things that are happening in practice – if he notices that I'm doing something too consistently and it's showing him a tendency, instead of just abusing you out there, he'll tell you, 'I know what's coming because you're doing this,' or 'I know what your offense is doing because of the things that you're doing.'"
Thomas says working with Ware has also helped him learn defensive ends' tendencies and "what makes them uncomfortable. What they like, what they don't like, based on the gamut of things that we run."
In addition to the help from his new veteran teammate, Thomas says he appreciates the continued motivation from Tight Ends Coach Clancy Barone.
"His persistence in trying to make me a great player – that's something he hangs his hat on every day," Thomas said. "He's telling me, 'Julius I'm not going to let it get any easier on you. I'm not going to make any excuses for you. You're going to come out here and work every day and I'm going to continue to push you and we'll see what level we can get you to.'"
What level the 26-year-old can ascend to will be revealed in time, but for now, he's targeting a few key areas for growth. As both a blocker and a receiver, Thomas says he wants to be "consistently good," to the point where he's "grading out high" after every game. He also want to show off some more of the open-field explosiveness that he used to score a 74-yard touchdown in San Diego last year, saying there's a friendly competition involving the team's offensive weapons to pick up the most yards after catch in 2014.
Thomas has already found plenty of space to run with the ball during training camp, often thanks to creative play design affording him some room. And that's been just one piece of his impressive play in practice, as he's using crafty routes to find holes in the defense and his large frame to corral passes with defenders draped all over him.
Asked to explain his confidence that he can improve on a banner year, the 6-5, 250 pound tight end sounded pretty convincing.
"I remember that guy," Thomas says of his former self, who first tried out football at 220 pounds expecting to play receiver. "I remember where I started."
"And you know, that's what encourages me. That's what helps me know, 'You've continued to improve. You've come a tremendously long way so far. You can keep doing it.'"