DOVE VALLEY, Colo. -- Until last Thursday night, Julius Thomas was like an emerging rock band working college-town bar gigs: his brilliance was known to only a few -- mainly Broncos fans who showed up for training-camp practices in recent years -- but he was obscure in every circle beyond that.
This week, he's being discussed as a season-long factor in the NFL's leading passing offense.
Against the Ravens, Thomas had his breakthrough hit: a five-catch, 110-yard, two-touchdown game that announced the former college basketball player's arrival as an effective downfield threat. It culminated a meandering, unusual path: four years playing basketball at Portland State, one season in the school's football program that was enough to propel him into the fourth round of the 2011 draft and finally, a high ankle sprain in his second regular-season game that ended up worsening into an injury that kept him from being fully healthy until the end of the 2012 season.
"He got frustrated, we got frustrated, because it wasn't coming, it wasn't getting better," Broncos coach John Fox said. "When the injury occurred, it was right in front of me and I thought he broke his leg. Looking back, it might have been better if he did."
Through it all, the Broncos stayed with him. With Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen more than filling the role in 2012, the Broncos kept him on the 53-man roster, even though they deactivated him for the last 12 games of the regular season. The practice squad might have seemed a logical place for Thomas at the time, but the Broncos knew they couldn't risk exposing him to the waiver wire.
The Broncos began to be rewarded for their patience, as the athletic Thomas made catches near the sideline and down the seam against the Ravens. The only area of Thomas' game that remains sub-par is in-line blocking. Although he continues to improve at the skill, it's the most unnatural aspect of the position to a former basketball player.
Thomas is a perfectionist -- he'll be the first to castigate himself for a mistake, even when someone tries to point out a moment when he blocked well. So when a missed block on Elvis Dumervil led to a sack, he was miffed.
"There was some other plays in there too that I didn't exactly execute what I needed to do," Thomas said. "I'm just going to keep on working out and getting after it and hopefully by some time at the end of the season I'll be able to look at you and say, 'Hey, it was perfect.'"
With Thomas' emergence, the Broncos are now blessed with a staggering array of potential targets. He and Demaryius Thomas both broke 100 yards last week, and Wes Welker had nine catches for 67 yards and two scores, a typical game that establishes him on a pace to break 100 receptions yet again.
But in this passing game, a target is liable to be the forgotten man.
In the opener, it was Eric Decker, who led the Broncos in touchdown receptions last season but had just two catches for 32 yards. He was targeted seven times by Manning -- as many as Julius Thomas -- and some of Decker's struggles were self-inflicted, particularly on a pair of drops, one of which cost him a touchdown.
"I was asked earlier, 'How are you going to keep all these guys happy?' Well, they're happy when they win and I don't think they care," Fox said. "They are very unselfish guys."
It helped that the Broncos heavily emphasized three wide-receiver formations. Fifty-five of their 67 snaps against Baltimore came in that package.