Thomas making it look easy thanks to Gonzalez
AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD — Julius Thomas says he was misquoted — by Julius Thomas.
After scoring his second TD against the Jets last weekend, Denver’s star tight end screamed, “It’s so easy!”
Although his nine TD receptions are tied with Calvin Johnson (2011) for the most in NFL history thorough five games, Thomas backed down from his bravado this week.
“Contrary to my own statements, it’s not very easy,” Thomas relented.
He’s making it look effortless, though, thanks to some offseason tips from Tony Gonzalez and a dogged determination to prove his breakout 2013 season was just an appetizer.
“I wasn’t going to rest on what I did last year,” Thomas said. “I was really determined to come in and keep working and try to find every way I could to get better. Fortunately for me, it’s been able to show in production. I’m still going to continue to keep working. Everything I’ve done now inspires me to work harder, so I’ll stay after it.”
Thomas’ position coach, Clancy Barone, called Gonzalez, the 14-time Pro Bowler who had just retired, and asked if he could tutor his fellow power forward-turned tight end.
Gonzalez, now an NFL analyst for CBS Sports, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he invited Thomas to his home in Southern California. They went out and played some hoops and talked tons of football.
Not about technique or run-blocking, but “about the mental side of it,” Gonzalez said.
“It doesn’t matter how good you get, you have to keep looking for ways to improve. You’re always eating right. You’re always looking for the latest way to get your body quicker, stronger, faster,” Gonzalez said. “And then you look at the film, how do I come out of the break faster? How do I get guys to bite on a slant/fade faster? You’ve got to be obsessed with your routine.”
He calls it the “routine of greatness,” and one component of that philosophy was catching 100 passes every day.
“When your defense is doing 7-on-7, go get your work in when everybody else is taking a knee,” Gonzalez said. “And then after practice when everybody is going in, go get your catches. And then get more.
“It’s like a jump shot.”
Shoot several thousand and they become second nature.
“It’s the same with catching the ball,” Gonzalez said. “And a lot of young receivers or tight ends, they don’t get that. They think they can go out there and have three, four, five catches at practice and think their hands are going to be ready for the game.”
Thomas proved a star pupil.
“When probably the greatest tight end that’s ever played tells you something, you usually have your ears pretty wide,” he said.
Thomas’ tutoring sessions have paid off: he leads the NFL with 21 TD catches over the last two seasons, two more than Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, whose four-year, $40 million contract last summer made him the league’s highest-paid tight end.
Maybe not for much longer.
Thomas is making $645,000 in the final year of his rookie deal. He declined the Broncos’ offer of a contract extension during training camp and his stock has only soared since putting Gonzalez’s words of wisdom to work.
“I know he really wanted to improve his route running, both at the tight end position and outside,” Peyton Manning said. “And so I know that Jimmy Graham ruling has already been ruled on, but he’s doing pretty good out wide at receiver.”
An arbitrator ruled Graham could only be considered a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag designation. Graham, who often lines up outside the numbers like Thomas does in Denver, wanted to be considered a wide receiver. Franchise tags were set at $7 million for tight ends and $12.3 million for receivers.
Of Thomas’ nine TDs this season, only two have come from the traditional tight end spot alongside the tackle, two have come from the slot and five from out wide.
Manning was among the first to notice Thomas had improved upon a season in which he broke Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe’s franchise record for TDs by a tight end.
“I have to admit, when I saw him at Duke this year in early April for the first time he looked faster to me than he did from last year,” Manning said. “It just kind of jumped out at me.”
This is only the beginning, Gonzalez said.
“You can’t just like football or want to be good at it. You have to be willing to sacrifice,” Gonzalez said. “And it’s not easy. It’s not an easy life at all. It’s staying after practice when other guys are going home. But those guys will all be out of the league in a couple of years. Or those guys had a couple of good years and then they were average. Or well, whatever happened to that guy?
“Julius doesn’t want to be that guy.”
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