ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --As the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations and general manager, John Elway has to think as much about planning for 2015 and beyond as he does this coming season. And when he spoke of what the team planned to do with pending free agent Eric Decker in February, he cited those future considerations as a reason why the fifth-year receiver would hit the market.
Elway cited three expiring contracts after this season: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker -- and Julius Thomas. The first two are wide receivers with a proven, multi-year track record. But the inclusion of Julius Thomas in that group reveals what the Broncos think of his progress, how far he came in 2013, and the understanding that via patience through injuries and a steep learning curve, they unearthed a unique, elite talent.
"I think it feels really good to know that the people upstairs appreciate what you're bringing this team," Thomas said. "I think that even last year, I've said that I've always had the confidence of the coaches and the execs in this building. They believed in what I can do. And to kind of confirm that belief and have them confident in what I can do moving forward in this franchise is great."
Sixty-five receptions, 788 yards and 12 touchdowns -- a franchise record for tight ends --
represented the best season any Denver tight end has produced since Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe was running routes down the middle.
It took a decade of draft picks, free-agent acquisitions, players shifting positions and even another former college basketball player to replace Sharpe.
In that span, the Broncos started 17 different tight ends -- including Thomas himself, who started the first game of his career, against Oakland in Week 1 of the 2011 season. That number might have been less if Thomas had not injured his ankle in the second game of his career, which delayed his progress for two years.
Aside from a two-week stretch last November, he has been healthy for a year, and his progress was obvious. And while much of the focus from pundits is on how he can improve his run blocking, Thomas sees room to grow elsewhere.
"One of the things I'm most excited about, besides this wind, is how much I can improve," Thomas said as stiff breezes buffeted the platform on which he stood to answer questions Wednesday. "A lot of people talked about the run game, but the passing game, the run game, protections — there's a lot of room for growth. So that really gets me excited about this next season."
So does the opportunity to take that final step -- something no team has done in the year after a Super Bowl loss since the 1972 Dolphins. For all but four Broncos, Super Bowl XLVIII was their first experience on that stage. For Thomas, whose football experience remains limited compared with his teammates, it was an eye-opener.
"I think the thing I learned most from that game is how to get there," he said. "It took a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work to get to that stage.
"I think I'm hungrier than even I was last year. You start off every season, you say, 'I want to be a Super Bowl champion,' and they tell you, 'Well, these are the things you have to do.' But then to be so close and not reach your goal, it just makes you that much more hungry, that much more determined to do whatever it takes."
He learned that even what he believed was an abundance of preparation was not enough.
"Coming out of the Super Bowl, my biggest thing is you've got to win. Whatever it takes. Every little extra on each play. Just don't let them do more than you," he said. "That's what I'll take going forward."
And that's why he wants to improve not just as a blocker, but as a receiver. If he stays healthy and stays in Denver, last season could be just a morsel; the main course could put him on track to be mentioned with Sharpe as one of the Broncos' all-time tight ends.
As it is, he's mentioned as a comparative model for some draft propsects, including North Carolina's Eric Ebron, a near-certain first-rounder. It has only taken one season as a full-time starter for Thomas to become a model for tight ends that follow him. What he wants to do now is live up to it.
"It gives you that extra motivation that you want to come out and you want to continue that," he said. "You don't want it to be something that just happened that one year. You want it to be something that you're known as, time and time again, like the great guys that have played the position."
Thomas has the physical gifts and skill set. Those attributes gave him a chance at the NFL. But he also has diligence and drive. Those traits give him the opportunity for greatness.