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John Elway likes Julius Thomas but not as much as Jimmy Graham

Julius Thomas and Peyton Manning
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Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) talks with Julius Thomas during Super Bowl XLVIII. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Denver Broncos general manager John Elway has had the golden touch since taking over the team following the dark days of the Josh McDaniels era.

Even with Peyton Manning perhaps walking up to the 18th tee of his career, Elway and the Broncos remain in a strong and enviable position. Yes, the team faces a few looming contract situations with Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas due to hit free agency following this season, but as Elway told USA Today's Lindsay Jones from a golf course in Nevada, the team has opened negotiations with both players and stand in a good position with both.

"Nothing is going to get done before camp, but we'll keep talking to them in camp," Elway said.

Demaryius Thomas is the priority. He's one of the elite wide receivers in the game at age 26, with back-to-back 1,400-yard seasons, 14 touchdowns in 2013 and a monster postseason with 306 receiving yards and three touchdowns in three games.

The Broncos have no intentions of losing him. They also would like to keep Julius Thomas, who broke out last season with 65 catches, 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013 after the 2011 fourth-rounder barely made a dent in his first two seasons.

But if anyone thinks that his contract parameters were affected by the four-year, $40 million deal recently given to New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Elway says you're not thinking like he is.

"Even though Julius had a tremendous year for us, he's only [played] 23 games," Elway said. "We want Julius to be a Bronco for a long time, and we think he has tremendous upside, but he's not at that level."

Notice the word missing in Elway's statement? Yet. Elway could have caboosed his statement with "he's not at that level yet," so it makes you wonder if the Broncos view Julius Thomas as a very good but hardly transcendent player. Manning helped make Thomas better, and he improved over the course of last season in several phases of the game. But Thomas also made mental mistakes at times, which visibly frustrated Manning more than once, and has a ways to go to become a complete player.

You almost wonder if the contract given out to St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook (five years, $35 million) two years ago isn't more of the measuring stick for Thomas when he hits the free-agent market. If a deal happens for either player, it likely would be sooner rather than later — or not until we flip to 2015.

“I’m never going to go into the season, but the first couple of weeks, we can continue to talk about it," Elway said of negotiations. "After the second week of the preseason, we’ll want to have had something done, one way or another.”

Although if the Broncos can come to an accord with Demaryius Thomas prior to or during this season, Julius Thomas — also, like Graham, a former college hoopster turned tight end — could be facing a Graham-like faceoff as the Broncos' franchise player. After all, as we've learned, NFL teams are not scared to use the tag on players even if they don't consider them to be among the elite members of their teams.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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