ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** Tight ends coach Clancy Barone figures he should play the lottery after seeing how his prediction for Julius Thomas turned out.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2011, Thomas had some strong athletic tools but had little experience in football as he had played basketball until his senior year at Portland State. That warded off plenty of potential suitors, but the Broncos had liked what they saw in him and when he joined the team, Barone eyed his talent looking to the future.
Recently he looked back in his rookie write-up of Thomas. "I thought it would take him about three years to grasp it," Barone said. "And I knew he could do it because he's such a tremendous athlete and he's smart, he's mature. But I thought it was about a three-year learning curve. And last year I find out I should have played the lottery because that's how it worked out," he added with a laugh.
Peyton Manning saw the talent, too. Coming aboard in 2012, Manning worked out with Thomas before they could meet at the Broncos training facilities, so they had to go to Valor Christian High School to practice. It was an odd scene with the track team practicing around them and a FedEx worker taking video of the unusual sight.
But it was a constructive workout for them regardless. "I remember going 'Golly, 6'4" tight end.' Those guys don't come around very often and they can really run," Manning said. "I definitely had a great early appreciation of his talent and ability."
The appreciation went both ways. "That's just one of those moments in your life where a guy like Peyton Manning comes to town, you got a great opportunity to play with a Hall of Famer quarterback that can really use your skill set," Thomas said.
But before they could build upon that initial meeting, Thomas learned that he would need surgery on his ankle, the same ankle he had been rehabbing from an injury five months earlier. "Then you find out you've been busting your butt for five months and it's time to start all over again. That was probably one of those defining points in my life," he said. His second rehab effort was an arduous path, but one that saw him come out with the rewards he and the Broncos had hoped to see.
Thomas plucked 65 passes from the air for 788 yards last season, 12 of which he took to the end zone. He led the AFC in touchdowns by a tight end (third in the NFL), and was third in the conference in receiving yards at his position (tied for eighth in the NFL). He burst onto the scene quickly and explosively, ultimately getting the nod as a Pro Bowler.
The connection between Thomas and Manning has been working out pretty spectacularly so far in the early moments of this season, too, as we saw in Week 1 with Thomas making seven catches for 104 yards and three touchdowns. His effort earned him the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award.
It certainly has been a long journey since he was drafted.
"Now, the thing to his credit is when he was injured, he wasn't taking time off," Barone said. "He was in here, learning football, studying football. He was even running the scout team for us on defense just to learn more about football and not just his position, but the entire game in general."
It's showing. With precise route-running, great size and athleticism, Thomas is a prized weapon for the offense. The Broncos assuredly hope he'll be winning many more accolades in addition to his AFC Offensive Player of the Week award.
"He deserves it," Manning said. "[It's a] great start for him. He really worked hard this offseason. He's had some specific goals that he wanted to try and reach and I think he's put the time and work in and he's still a young player, he's still got to keep improving and he will, but he's willing to put in the work."
Perhaps that Thomas can still improve is the most fun part of this all, and that earnest desire to push himself is the key to his growth and success to this point. "There's a lot more to get out of him," Barone said. "You have to keep pushing, pushing the envelope. The best thing about him is that he wants to be pushed."
Thomas said that three years ago when he played with Manning on that first day he wanted to show that he can come out of the gates and contribute to the team. It took a little longer than anyone had hoped with his ankle bothering his rehabilitation, but last season he started fulfilling the promise he had long had inside him.
But the potential could reap even more success for Thomas, Manning and the Broncos. As Barone said, "He's scratching the surface."