2014 Super Bowl: Broncos' Julius Thomas, from nobody to game changer

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Once an afterthought on the roster, Thomas has turned into one of the best players in the NFL.

Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas has been surrounded by media all week, sitting on a podium, atop the NFL world.

Once a fourth-round pick in 2011 out of tiny Portland State, Thomas seemed like nothing more than a longshot, picked for his athletic ability that was displayed on the basketball court. The selection was Denver's second in the round, acquired from the Green Bay Packers. In other words, he wasn't even worth the Broncos' first fourth-round pick in their minds.

Over the first two years of his career, he appeared as though he wasn't worth any draft slot. Thomas made only one catch for 5 yards in his rookie season and did not play a snap in 2012 due to various injuries, most notably an ankle ailment.

To their credit, the Broncos didn't give up on Thomas. Just look at Jeff Legwold's article from March 2013 in the Denver Post, and specifically the quote from head coach John Fox, when talking about potential breakout players this year.

"Like Julius Thomas ... but he got hurt, missed time and then everybody moves ahead. Towards the end, even though he's having great practices and you like him, as a coach it's hard to get him a uniform on game day. There's a guy that virtually I don't think anybody knows about, but he's a young guy that's going to be a good player."

It turns out Fox was right.

Thomas exploded onto the NFL scene in 2013, making 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. Thomas put the league on notice on opening night, snagging two touchdowns and racking up 110 yards against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. In the playoffs, Thomas has 15 catches and 161 yards in two games.

His detractors will say his success is a direct byproduct of Peyton Manning, and there is some truth to that. Certainly, Thomas would not be having this type of season if he were playing with Tim Tebow or Brock Osweiler.

Yet, isn't that true of almost any receiver Manning has ever thrown a pass to? Jimmy Graham wouldn't be the player he is without Drew Brees and Sean Payton, but who cares? He has them, same as Thomas has Manning.

Thomas still has plenty of work to do before being put in the ranks of Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten and other elite tight ends, though. On Pro Football Focus, he ranked an average 24th behind such all-time greats as teammate Jacob Tamme, Lee Smith, Craig Stevens and Mychal Rivera.

Heck, Thomas would have come in fourth on the Tennessee Titans depth chart alone if going by PFF rankings. Why so low? Well, Thomas ranked third in pass catching behind only Graham and Gronkowski, but came in as the penultimate run blocker for a tight end, only better than Ed Dickson.

All told, the season was a raging success for a man who played only one year of college football followed by two injury-plagued professional campaigns. He is among the biggest weapons heading into the Super Bowl, a potential game breaker for the most prolific offense in NFL history.

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