By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Julius Thomas figures only friends and family drafted him in their fantasy football leagues this season. One catch in two pro seasons didn’t exactly make him a tantalizing target.
He certainly was a bull’s-eye for Peyton Manning in the NFL’s kickoff.
He caught the first two of the Denver quarterback’s record-tying seven touchdown throws in the Broncos’ 49-27 rout of the Ravens.
His five-catch, 110-yard breakout performance showed fantasy fans and real opponents alike that Thomas can be just as big a part of the Broncos’ plans this season as their trio of wide receivers.
Not that Thomas was ever doubted in Denver, mind you.
The Broncos brass stuck with the former college basketball power forward who got hurt in his second game as a rookie in 2011, and Thomas returned the favor with a dogged work ethic even as an afterthought.
Finally healthy after spending the bulk of his first two seasons in the pros dealing with a bum right ankle, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Thomas treated every practice this summer like it was game day.
Not only was he a late bloomer — he only played one year of college football after exhausting his basketball eligibility at Portland State — but he got hurt on his one and only NFL catch after the Broncos selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, hoping they’d landed the next Antonio Gates.
After flashing enormous potential in overpowering safeties and eluding linebackers, Thomas injured his right ankle when Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson tackled him after a 5-yard catch in his second NFL game.
His career was stuck in neutral after that. He needed an operation last year and played in just four games while tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme combined for 93 catches, 911 yards and seven touchdown catches in 2012.
No matter: playing against the NFL’s second-best defense last season while running with the scout team helped Thomas hone his skills, calm his nerves and build his confidence.
Thomas took advantage of injuries to Tamme and Dreessen this summer to earn Manning’s trust and a prominent role in Adam Gase’s turbo-charged offense.
When Broncos Executive Vice President John Elway remarked recently that he was “truly jealous of the weapons that Peyton gets to throw to,” he made sure to mention he was including Thomas in that equation.
“He obviously knows a lot more about football than I do and to have his confidence, that means a lot,” Thomas said. “This is my third year, but really I’m pretty inexperienced and when times get tough, I’m sure that’s going to be something I have in my back pocket.”
Thomas had TD catches of 24 and 23 yards before the Broncos roared back from a 17-14 halftime deficit Thursday night with their biggest onslaught in nearly a half-century — the only time they ever scored more points came in a 50-34 win over San Diego on Oct. 6, 1963.
“Someone said it was 718 days since I last caught a pass,” Thomas said. “It’s tough to stay focused and keep remembering what you’re working for, but I made it through and it feels good to have all that behind me.”
Fantasy players aren’t the only ones who took notice of Thomas in Week 1. New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell surely did, too.
When the Broncos visit the Giants next weekend for the latest Manning Brothers matchup, Fewell will have to devise a plan to slow down not only Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker but also Julius Thomas, who in many ways can be the most menacing of them all. That’s because of the matchup problems he creates, his nifty moves he honed on the hardwood and his growing rapport with his quarterback.
“I’m not sure how they will answer it, or if they will, but it will be interesting to see how teams play Julius all season,” Manning said. “He is a big guy, he definitely will make teams have a conversation, and that is what you want. You want guys that make teams have a discussion. ‘How are we going to handle this guy?’ He’s a big guy.”
Thomas knows his number can be called one week, somebody else’s the next.
After standing on the sideline for so long, sharing the spotlight isn’t a bother.
“We have so many weapons on offense. I wouldn’t want to be a defensive coordinator trying to figure out what it’s going to take to slow us down,” Thomas said.
Notes: Missing Monday’s practice were CB Champ Bailey (foot), KR Trindon Holliday (leg), MLB Wesley Woodyard (ankle) and CB Omar Bolden (shoulder).