On the receiving end of nine Peyton Manning payday passes through five games, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas is on pace to break the NFL record for receiving touchdowns in a season. Here's how the former basketball player is doing it
In Denver’s 31-17 victory over the Jets on Sunday, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas got to the end zone with his second touchdown catch of the day and screamed something the sideline microphones could pick up.
Thomas was sheepish when asked about it later. “Sometimes," he said, “you get a little over-expressive out there. You get a little too excited and in the heat of the moment you say things. But I can tell you now there’s nothing easy about it. You think there’s anything easy about playing with Peyton Manning … There’s nothing easy about it. It’s hard work day after day, or he’s going to throw it to somebody else."
Not much chance of that now. Since the start of the 2013 season, Thomas and Peyton Manning have been a perfect match. Thomas has 21 touchdown catches over the past 13 months, more than any Denver target of Manning’s. (DeMaryius Thomas is next with 18.) Julius Thomas’ nine in the first five games this year is on pace to break Randy Moss’ single-season record for touchdown catches in a year—23.
And, of course, Manning is three TD throws away from breaking Brett Favre’s record of 508 touchdown passes in his career. That could come Sunday night against the Niners. Interestingly, the Niners’ touchdown stats have much in common with Thomas’ this morning: San Francisco has allowed nine touchdown passes in five games. Manning will have a tough go breaking the record soon, with San Francisco and then San Diego (on a short week) coming up the following Thursday.
"I feel like he’s in his 37th season with how much he knows," Thomas says of Manning. "Nothing surprises him, and he’s got an answer for everything."
Lots of talk about records, which blows away Thomas, the former basketball player from Portland State.
“It absolutely amazes me," he said of his early-season performance. “I never expected it to happen. Nine touchdowns after five games? That is amazing. I am so blessed."
Thomas fits the profile Manning likes to work with. Thomas is smart in the Dallas Clark mold, very athletic, and slithery. It’s hard to keep him blocked. On the touchdown that caused him to scream how easy it was, it truly was easy. Thomas lined up outside the formation to the right, against Jets rookie safety Calvin Pryor, and ran a simple post. Manning found him the split second Thomas turned upfield to the goalpost. Pryor seemed either marginally interested in covering Thomas, or he fully realized he’d have had to interfere with Thomas to have any chance to make a play on the ball. Either way, this was how Thomas got his ninth touchdown of the young season.
Thomas has some Antonio Gates/power forward in him too. At Portland State, Thomas was a 6-5, 251-pound four-year starter on the basketball team. He played only one year of college football before the Broncos drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. He spent all of 2011 learning the NFL game, and was simply in the right place at the right time when Manning signed his free-agent deal with Denver in March of 2012. Manning needed practice mates to throw to, and when he wasn’t hurt, Thomas was one of those guys. By the time 2013 rolled around, Manning had thrown to him as much as any tight end on the roster. Thomas was instinctive and he became the kind of receiver Manning could trust to be in a certain spot at an exact time.
Thomas already was the man to catch Manning’s 500th touchdown, against Arizona.
“You must have thought about catching the record-breaker, right?’’ he was asked this week.
“If I could be the one," he said, “I would love it, obviously. But it’s not about the stats with [Manning], so it’s not about that with us either. I am really happy for him, because of how hard he works at this. I feel like he’s in his 37th season with how much he knows; nothing surprises him, and he’s got an answer for everything."
Thomas has been a constant with Manning over the past couple of years. He averaged 5.6 targets per game in 2013, and that’s remained steady in 2013 at 6.0 while Emmanuel Sanders has worked his way into Manning’s power group, replacing Eric Decker. Sanders has more quickness than Decker, though, and it’s doubtful any other receiving group in the league has more quickness and ability to get open than Denver’s.
Denver’s offensive line will be tested in the next two games by two defensive fronts that pressure the quarterback and force quick throws. The meaning of that? Don’t be surprised to see number 509 for Manning be a quick post or curl to Sanders or Julius Thomas. My money’s on Thomas. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Sanders has zero touchdown catches in 35 receptions, and Thomas has nine scoring plays among 24 catches.