JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Broncos third-year tight end Julius Thomas began the season with more NCAA tournament trips (two) on his resume than catches in the NFL (one).
Now, the former power forward at Portland State is the key to Denver's record-shattering offense, freeing up Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, especially in the red zone.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound late-bloomer is also a bull's-eye for some of Manning's biggest moments, such as when he caught his 51st touchdown throw that broke Tom Brady's single-season record, one of a dozen touchdown passes he caught this year, breaking Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe's team record for tight ends.
He was Manning's main target in the AFC Championship, too, with eight receptions for 85 yards a week after his two clutch third-down catches helped ice Denver's win over San Diego.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself," Manning said, "that he hasn't played a ton of football."
A giant 100-foot banner of Thomas hangs outside the media hotel in Times Square, an indication of just how far this relative football toddler has come.
"Is my helmet on?" Thomas asked sheepishly Monday while aboard the Cornucopia Majesty ship, docked outside the team hotel across the Hudson River.
"OK, that's good. So, I won't get recognized too much," Thomas said. "That's a lot of people walking by seeing that thing."
He might want to get used to the spotlight.
With the wintry weather and Seattle's stingy secondary sure to stifle some of Manning's other options, Thomas could be Denver's X-factor in the Super Bowl.
"No, this isn't something that I imagined doing when I was 20 years old getting ready to play in the NCAA tournament," Thomas said. "I wasn't thinking, 'Man, if you just fast-forward that clock a little bit, you'll be competing in the biggest game in America.' It's just a blessing to be here. I've been very blessed in my athletic career, so I'm going to enjoy it."
Thomas played just one year of football in college after exhausting his eligibility on the hardwood. He tried to line up with the receivers on his first day of practice but was ushered over to the tight ends group.
"I was like, 'What? Hold on, I don't know about all that,'" Thomas recounted. "But Coach (Nigel) Burton, he sat me down and we talked about it, and he told me that he felt if I played tight end I'd be able to create matchup problems."
Sure enough, he caught 29 passes for 453 yards and earned All-Big Sky Conference first-team honors in 2010, and he caught a touchdown pass and the attention of scouts at the East-West Shrine Game.
"I really thank him for helping me decide to play tight end," Thomas said. "It was a great move on his part to not let me play receiver. I've loved playing tight end ever since."
Broncos boss John Elway said Thomas reminds him of Sharpe, who was his co-pilot when he was leading the Broncos to Super Bowl titles from the huddle.
"It was like Shannon, who do you cover Shannon with? A corner? Or do you cover him with a safety or a linebacker," Elway asked. "So, the matchups were always very favorable."
Thomas' only obstacle was staying healthy.
He got hurt on his first catch as a pro, hobbling off the field with a high right ankle sprain on Sept. 18, 2011.
When Manning picked Denver as his destination that following spring, Thomas was among a handful of guys who gathered on local high school fields for clandestine workouts during the lockout, but soon he needed surgery and wouldn't catch a single pass in 2012.
He gained confidence, however, running with the scout team and capitalized on extra time with Manning last offseason when it was Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen who were hurt to gain his quarterback's confidence, too.
He was pretty sure only friends and family picked him up in fantasy football leagues before his five-catch, 161-yard, two-touchdown performance against Baltimore in the NFL opener on Sept. 5 — 729 days since his first NFL reception.
He finished with 65 receptions for 778 yards and added 14 receptions for 161 yards in the postseason. All the while, he flashes some of the same moves on the football field that he used to showcase on the basketball floor, where he was a bully on the blocks.
Shielding a defensive back to give the quarterback an opening, he said, is just like posting up a player under the basket to give the point guard a clear passing lane.
Tight ends with power forward in their DNA are matchup nightmares because they're faster than linebackers and bigger than safeties, said Thomas' position coach, Clancy Barone, who's also tutored the alpha hoopster-turned-gridiron great, Antonio Gates.
What set Thomas apart was being such a quick study after walking on as a college senior.
"We knew he was very grown-up football-wise," Barone said. "What's the best way to put this, he wasn't immature as a football player. He wasn't like your typical guy with the big eyes that say, 'This is all so new to me.' He's a guy that you could tell knew football. He had studied football, and he was acting like a pro already. That's a rare find."