Weight: 251 pounds
School: Portland State
40 Time: 4.72 seconds
Bench Press Reps: 17
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s been nearly eight years since the San Diego Chargers watched Antonio Gates tear up Kent State’s basketball foes and saw the potential for a game-changing tight end. Since then, teams have engaged in a scattershot search for the next basketball player who can make the jump.
But the process has been refined since then, and the Broncos’ choice of Julius Thomas with a fourth-round pick acquired from the Green Bay Packers appears to be equal parts serendipity and study.
The former came into play 16 months ago, when Thomas decided to walk on at Portland State after four years playing basketball for the Vikings. He’d wanted to moonlight as a football player earlier, but Thomas said his basketball coach at the time, Ken Bone, discouraged it until after his hoops eligibility was exhausted.
By then, PSU’s football program had a new head coach; Nigel Burton had just replaced Jerry Glanville. (Yes, That Jerry Glanville. Stagger Lee Jerry Glanville.)
“I went to his office and I told him around December that I was looking to play football in the spring, and he told me he would love to have me out there,” Thomas recalled.
His physical skills were undeniable last year. His statistics weren’t remarkable — 29 receptions, 453 yards and two touchdowns — but his speed, body control and improvement as a blocker earned him invitations to the East-West Shrine Game and the Scouting Combine, legitimizing his NFL aspirations.
The Shrine Game in particular was a coming-out party; he scored on a touchdown and a two-point conversion. On the conversion, he appeared to stumble intentionally before rising quickly and getting open in the left flat — a savvy, fluid move for someone who until last year hadn’t played football since being a safety and wide receiver in his freshman year at Tokay High School in Lodi, Calif.
“A lot of teams had questions (such as) ‘What can he do against top-level competition?’” Thomas said. “I grew a lot from my last college game to that shrine game, and I think it showed. It really allowed teams to see how I compete against some of the best talent and how far I came in those three months and how much I’ve learned in that time.
“I think it really put me on the radar for teams and let them know that I was a serious that they should start looking in to.”
That included the Broncos, who sent tight ends coach Clancy Barone to work out and meet Thomas. Saturday, he said that was his favorite meeting with a team.
“I probably talked to the Broncos more than I talked to any team,” Thomas said. “I talked with Coach Barone several times after that and expressed to him how much I enjoyed that meeting and how I felt that if we happen to get together that it would be a great fit for myself.
“I think that he’s a coach that the way he thinks (about) the game is exactly the way I think, and I feel like he is going to be great at helping me understand what is expected of me. That’s all you can ask for.”
Well, that, and playing exactly where you want. Few players go to their dream destination, but Thomas did.
“When people ask what team I hoped to play for, it was definitely the Broncos,” he said. “I had my fingers crossed, and I was praying I would be a Denver Bronco next year. I’m excited. This is all I asked for.”
THE POWER AND ATHLETICISM of a well-built power forward has long intrigued NFL teams who looked for ways to translate the agility, smooth motion and footwork of a top-flight interior college player into football-field contributions.
It was easy for the Kansas City Chiefs with Tony Gonzalez, who was more prominent in football than basketball. Gonzalez’s emphasis was on football, although his stellar play in leading California to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 1997 only enhanced his stature.
Gates remains the most prominent example of a tight end with little football experience using basketball as a catapult to the NFL; he hadn’t played since high school before signing with the Chargers. But the hardwood-to-gridiron trend predates Gates’s emergence; eight years earlier, tight end Marcus Pollard jumped to the NFL in after playing basketball at Bradley University, which does not have a football program.
After Gates blossomed, teams took a second look indoors. Denver signed former Mercer forward Wesley Duke in 2005. The Giants signed ex-George Mason forward Jai Lewis after the Patriots’ Final Four run of 2006. Neither worked out for the long term, although Duke caught a touchdown pass at Buffalo late in his rookie season and might have possessed a future had he not torn his anterior cruciate ligament in NFL Europa during the 2006 season — reinjuring a ligament that had been torn three times previously.
But it appears that a true working template for basketball players like Thomas was established last year by Jimmy Graham, whom the New Orleans Saints drafted from the University of Miami in last year’s third round Graham played four seasons of basketball for the Hurricanes, then moved to the football team to exhaust his last semester of college eligibility. Five touchdowns on on 17 receptions in his sole football season in Coral Gables were enough to move him into the third round.
Conventional wisdom dictated that Graham would spend his rookie season as a game-day inactive, apprenticing under veteran Jeremy Shockey. But Graham was active for all but one game last year and became a key component of the offense by midseason. He didn’t have a reception in his first five games and only had eight catches for 49 yards at midseason, but had 23 catches for 307 yards in the final eight games with five touchdowns — four in the last three weeks of the year.
That rapid rise offers hope for the Broncos that Thomas might be more than a raw developmental prospect in their 2011 equation. Given the Broncos’ scarcity of tight ends since cutting Daniel Graham, it would appear substantial, immediate playing time is a possibility for Thomas if he can show enough development after the lockout ends.