ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — He is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound testament to patience, a matchup crushing tight end who shows a question mark can be forced into an exclamation point with a little good fortune and plenty of work.
Because for two football seasons Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas’ career stat line was this: One catch. Five yards.
It’s been a long journey for the player who injured his ankle on his first career catch to the player who currently leads the NFL in touchdown receptions after nabbing nine in five games.
“I wouldn’t say that I imagined that far,” Thomas said Wednesday. “I was confident that I’d be able to come in and make plays and do things to help out my team. I was focused on working towards being one of the better players at my position. To come out and have the hot start I’ve had this year, it’s something that kind of just happens. You prepare for it. You train for it. Everybody in the offseason thought they would have two touchdowns a game, but it just doesn’t always work out like that. I’m thankful, blessed.”
In a contract year Thomas has gone from breakout season in 2013 (65 catches, 12 touchdowns) to the league’s top shelf at his position. His touchdown total is just ahead of Antonio Gates (six) and more than New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (three) and New England’s Rob Gronkowski (four) combined.
He has already had more games with at least two touchdown receptions — three — than he did all of last season.
“I wasn’t going to rest on what I did last year,” Thomas said. “I was really determined to come in and keep working and try to find every way I could to get better. Fortunately for me, it’s been able to show in production. I’m still going to continue to keep working. Everything I’ve done now inspires me to work harder, so I’ll stay after it.”
“He asks the right questions, does it the right way,” said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme. ” … And even in the spotlight a little bit right now, he’s still is a humble guy going about his business.”
And Sunday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers should offer Thomas not only another prime-time stage, but perhaps the best defense the Broncos have faced thus far when it comes to how it handles opposing tight ends.
Even with the injuries and suspensions, the 49ers have allowed just one opposing tight end more than 43 yards receiving in a game this season — the Rams’ Jared Cook, with 74 this past Monday night — and opposing tight ends have three touchdown receptions combined in the 49ers’ six games (one each for Martellus Bennett, Travis Kelce and Lance Kendricks).
“What’s been amazing to me is how well they’ve adjusted to injuries,” Manning said. “You lose some of these guys and think they couldn’t be doing this as well, they couldn’t be stopping the run as well and you see it statistically and you see it on film. They’ve got guys stepping up, answering the bell. … There’s nothing where you can say, ‘we can attack this’.”
It’s all fairly heady stuff for Thomas, whose original rookie contract will expire following the season and puts him high on the team’s list of priorities. Thomas has lined up down in a three-point stance as a traditional tight end, he’s lined up in the slot and lined up wide.
He’s overpowered cornerbacks to the ball as well as run by safeties and linebackers. And Manning said he could see it coming when the quarterback and Broncos pass catchers gathered at Duke University for some workouts this past offseason.
“I know he really wanted to improve his route running, both at the tight end position and outside,” Manning said. “And so I know that Jimmy Graham ruling has already been ruled on but he’s doing pretty good out wide at receiver. He’s got nine touchdowns. He’s worked on that aspect of his game and he spends time talking to Demaryius. He comes down and does one-on-one with the receivers and we watch one-on-one together … have to admit, when I saw him at Duke this year in early April for the first time he looked faster to me than he did from last year. It just kind of jumped out at me.”
“Every week I get a cutup of a lot of the big plays that tight ends across the league have made,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter if they were a Pro Bowler before. I get a whole clip, and I watch it every week. That’s one of the first things I do with my week — just see what other guys are doing, how they did it — and I think it really helps me a lot. It’s kind of a competitive thing. I turn on the tape and I see some good things that guys across the league have done and I want to be able to do those things for my team.”