Broncos Training Camp Primer: Julius Thomas by Jesse Schaffer

Unless you are an absolute baseball fanatic, this time of the year in the wide world of sports is tough to stomach. No basketball, no hockey, and a painstakingly long wait for football season. Sure, technically it’s not that far off, but it feels like we’re all doing 30 years in Shawshank with Red and Andy Dufresne. Don’t worry if you find yourself watching hours upon hours of Nathan MacKinnon highlights on YouTube or if you are overreacting to every little bit of Broncos news you can get your hands on. Believe me, we are right there with you, but don’t despair friends: Pegboard has got you covered. For the next four weeks, Kevin and I are excited to present to you our first annual Training Camp Primer, where we will analyze eight Broncos who have a great deal on the line for the 2013 campaign.

The current standing of these eight players is shaky at best due to a variety of reasons. Maybe they are coming off a bad season and need to win back the trust of coaches and fans. Perhaps they haven’t lived up to their potential yet and after being buried on the depth chart, they will need a great showing in camp to even make the final roster. Every guy’s story is different, but they are all connected to the same irrefutable truth; if they don’t change their fortunes and turn their careers around, the road to the Super Bowl becomes a lot more difficult for the Broncos. Yes, we’re completely serious. First up is the athletically gifted but egregiously disappointing Julius Thomas. Here are Thomas’ stats from college and in the pros.

2010 Portland State: 29 catches, 453 yards, 2 touchdowns 

2011-2012 Denver Broncos: 1 catch, 5 yards, 0 touchdowns 

Julius Thomas is to the Denver Broncos what Mance Rayder is to Game of Thrones – you hear a lot about him, but you rarely ever see him. For all of the hype surrounding the 6’5″ tight end, Thomas has earned exactly half a first down in his two seasons with the Broncos. In fact, I was in attendance at Mile High when he gained those five yards. The Broncos were hosting the Bengals for their second game in 2011 and Kyle Orton was the starting quarterback. Not only is that completely depressing, but if I had known that it would be the only catch in his career so far, I would have at least taken a picture. I think John Elway and John Fox were expecting a little bit more in return when they traded up to select Thomas in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. On the bright side, at least he hasn’t been as worthless as Richard Quinn, who we have all forgotten was ever a Bronco and as far as I’m concerned never existed anywhere, ever. That being said, the guy simply hasn’t even begun to live up to his potential. So what gives?

It’s important to keep in mind that Orange Julius only played one year of football at Portland State, so he was always going to be a project no matter who drafted him or which round he went in. Factor in the loss of the 2011 offseason thanks to the lockout and Thomas started out way behind most rookies in the transition to pro football. Then there was the ankle injury he sustained in that very same game against the Bengals, which pretty much cost him the rest of his rookie year. The recovery didn’t go as planned and when Thomas attempted to begin practicing in the offseason once Peyton Manning arrived, he aggravated the damn thing and had to undergo surgery to repair his ankle once more. Considering PFM is a workaholic and rarely throws to any receiver he doesn’t trust, Thomas lost his opportunity to build chemistry with his new QB and then lost his chance to compete for any meaningful playing time due to the arrivals of Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. When a tight end other than those two saw the field last year, it was always fellow 2011 draft pick Virgil Green, who was picked three rounds after Thomas. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Now that all of that is on the table, the word out of Broncos minicamp and OTA’s was that Thomas is finally healthy and he was getting plenty of reps due to the absence of Dreessen, who was out with a minor injury. I want to get excited about the possibility of Thomas finally turning the corner, but we’ve been down this road before. Orange Julius was a training camp star in 2011 and then as I mentioned was a ghost when the games started to count (note, he hasn’t earned that nickname yet, but I’m determined to make it stick). There’s no question that his athleticism for a player his size is intriguing, and the Patriots have shown us first-hand how effective a freakishly athletic tight end catching passes from an elite quarterback can be (I’m talking about the Pats tight end who throws his back out fist pumping and partying with strippers in Las Vegas, not the one who murders people). Thomas can certainly rival Gronk in terms of size and strength, but until he proves himself on the field he’s just not going to be part of Manning’s circle of trust.

And he doesn’t have a lot of time left to accomplish that. In year three of a player’s career, the amount of excuses and everyone’s patience for slow-developing players begins to rapidly dissipate. When your team is thought of as a Super Bowl contender, those last few roster spots become far too valuable to only keep on guys who you think might be able to help you someday, because you need players who can help you right now. Due to his status as a project, Thomas is one of the few who might be an exception to this brutal reality, but at this point I think the coaching staff has a pretty good idea of whether or not he will ever pan out, so I don’t think that will save him this year. It would be nice if the plays Thomas makes in practice started to translate to the regular season, and considering how stacked the Broncos are at wide receiver, Thomas wouldn’t have to carry the load in the passing game. He doesn’t even have to be in the top three.

What I would like to see from him this season is progress: progress in his route running, progress in his knowledge of the playbook, and progress in his ascent up the depth chart. Thomas doesn’t need to be as dominant as Gronk or Jimmy Graham, just provide the Broncos with a steady, reliable presence at tight end. Maybe totaling around 30-40 catches and a few touchdowns. If Thomas can do all of that and emerge as another weapon for Peyton Manning, then he will more than vindicate Elway and Fox for drafting him so high. I’m not sure if he’ll pull it off or not, but once camp rolls around I know that he’ll be given every opportunity to do so.

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