January 27, 2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Julius Thomas is about to cash in, one way or another.

One of Denver's dozen unrestricted free agents, he'll either get a long-term contract soon or play next season under the Broncos' franchise tag.

General manager John Elway said back on Jan. 12 that re-signing both the big tight end and star wide receiver Demaryius Thomas were his top priorities after finding a new coach.

''I didn't hear about that until now from you,'' Thomas told The Associated Press. ''But I think it's good that's something they want to do. Obviously, those conversations and negotiations will take place in the next coming weeks. Hopefully it all works out.''

If not, Thomas will still see a big jump in his pay. He made $645,000 in the final year of his rookie deal.

Thomas is a bit of an uncertainty. He has spent 2 1-2 years nursing ankle injuries that rendered his production near nil and 1 1-2 years as a transcendent tight end a la Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham.

Thomas' stock soared after he rejected Denver's contract offer last summer. He scored a dozen TDs through nine games, becoming the first tight end in league history to post back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons.

Gronkowski's record 17 TDs seemed well within reach. So did Graham's record four-year, $40 million contract he signed last summer that made him the league's highest-paid tight end.

Then, Thomas turned his left ankle at St. Louis on Nov. 16 and was never the same. Neither were the Broncos, who went from Super Bowl favorite to one-and-done in the playoffs.

Thomas said he has no idea if his stock slipped along with his production: ''It is what it is. There's no changing it. So, we'll just see.'' And he wouldn't venture a guess as to whether he'll still be in a Broncos uniform: ''I guess we'll all know shortly.''

Thomas was one of Denver's league-high 11 Pro Bowlers. But he skipped the annual all-star game for the second consecutive season. Last year, he was preparing for the Super Bowl. He sat this one out to protect his tender ankle - and maybe even his earnings potential.

Thomas said he starts training again next month and didn't want to risk any setbacks.

''I'm going to really get after it to make sure I'm ready for OTAs. And I wanted to be able to be healthy then and feeling 100 percent, so I need to attack this offseason the way I need to,'' he said. ''I have goals that I still need to achieve, and the only way to get there is through work.''

Thomas said his ankle is ''feeling good, man, getting an opportunity to rest it. That's the No. 1 way to heal. So, it's definitely feeling fine. It just needs a little rest.''

He said he had a tough time watching the Pro Bowl.

''It was hard missing an opportunity to compete against the best of the best in the world,'' Thomas said Monday via phone while promoting the release of the Havoc DLC pack for ''Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare'' in San Francisco.

''I have to go back so I can finally get out there and play in that Pro Bowl.''

Thomas has always maintained this latest ankle injury wasn't anywhere near as serious as the one he sustained to his right ankle on his first catch his rookie year. That injury lingered and essentially cost him his first two years in the NFL.

There are other unknowns facing Thomas: even if he returns to Denver, he doesn't know who his quarterback will be.

With Peyton Manning mulling retirement, Denver's offense could be run by the man who's thrown an NFL record 530 touchdown passes or Brock Osweiler, who's thrown just one.

If Manning ''decides to come back, he'll give everything he has because that's the kind of competitor he is and the love he has for this game,'' Thomas said. ''And if he decides his time of running around and getting chased by big guys is over, he'll have so much to show for it. He's one of the greatest athletes ever, one of the greatest football players ever. He'll always be in the conversation of who's the best football player of all time.''

And if it's Osweiler running Gary Kubiak's West Coast offense, that's fine with him, too.

''When it comes to Brock, I'm a believer. I have a lot of faith in what he can do,'' Thomas said. ''I really believe he's going to do a great job when his number gets called.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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