DENVER –Thursday night's NFL Kickoff was the long awaited debut of the Broncos new receiving corps – one that boasts three receivers that racked up more than 1,000 receiving a piece in 2012.
While those receivers eventually made their share of big plays, it was a tight end – one that was deep on the depth chart just a few weeks ago – that got things rolling for the offense.
Julius Thomas, in his third year out of Portland State, caught the first two touchdowns of the season for the Broncos, and the first two of his career.
He played just nine games over his first two NFL seasons as he recovered from an ankle injury, but emerged as the team's leading receiver with 12 catches for 123 yards in the preseason.
"I almost had to check and make sure I was in there," Thomas said. "I had to look down and see if my feet were in there. It felt great. It's been a long time since I was able to play in a football game. It was a lot of work and to come out tonight and have a great team performance and have a good individual performance as well – what else could you ask for?"
His first touchdown tied the game 7-7 in the second quarter, and it came immediately after a diving interception by Chris Harris. On the Broncos first play after the pick, Manning hit Thomas for a 24-yard touchdown.
Manning, though, took a hit on the play and didn't see Thomas cross the goal line, but he did hear it.
"I did not quite see him get in the end zone," Manning said. "That is always a good sound after you get blasted on the ground and you are playing at home and you hear the crowd cheering, it usually means touchdown. The hit does not hurt quite as bad when you hear that noise.
Manning went back to Thomas the next time the Broncos had the ball and the six-foot-five, former college basketball player accounted for 67 of the 80 yards on the drive.
After the Broncos lost yardage on an offensive pass interference penalty, Thomas picked up 44 yards to get within striking distance of the endzone. Thomas scored on the very next play – a 23-yard pass – and tried to flash some of those basketball skills with a reverse dunk through the uprights.
"I had made up my mind that I was going to try to do a reverse dunk if I got a second one – I just didn't know it was going to come after a 50-yard catch and another catch – I was a little gassed," he said.
"So, I just have to get in there again and show a little jumping ability."
Other than flubbing a touchdown celebration, Thomas' mistakes were hard to spot. He caught five of the seven passes thrown his way for 110 yards, 97 in the first half, for the best performance by a Broncos tight end since Shannon Sharpe in 2002.
He because the first tight end in Broncos history to have multiple touchdown catches in the season opener and it was the first 100-yard performance by a Bronco tight end since 2009.
Thomas' strong opening night adds another element to the Broncos' passing game, one that forces future opponents to take notice.
"It would be an interesting question," Manning said about how teams will defend the tight end moving forward. "I am not sure how they will answer it, or if they will, but it will be interesting to see how teams play Julius (Thomas) all season. He is a big guy, he definitely will make teams have a conversation, and that is what you want."
While Thomas said he didn't necessarily see the breakout game coming, it's something that he's spent plenty of time thinking about.
"I think we all visualize great games," Thomas said. "When you lay down at night and you're thinking about that game tomorrow, you're thinking, 'That's going to be a touchdown, that's going to be one.' That's what we visualize. It just happened to work out tonight."