ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- One man's problem is another's opportunity.
With Denver Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen still sidelined after recent arthroscopic knee surgery, three-year veteran Julius Thomas is getting a chance to show what he can do.
Thomas, hindered by ankle injuries much of his career, was the star of the Broncos' OTA workouts on Thursday, catching two passes from quarterback Peyton Manning, including one down the seam in which he beat cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Rahim Moore.
Thomas' growth was going to be slow even if he stayed healthy. He played only one season of college football at Portland State, where he spent most of his spare time playing basketball.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder showed enough promise in one season and one week at the 2011 East-West Shrine Game to be a fourth-round pick, and was poised to play extensively before suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2 of the 2011 season.
He never healed completely and underwent off-season ankle surgery. That hindered his progress in 2012. Because of injuries and the 2011 lockout, Thomas had never even worked in an organized team activities before May 20.
Given a window of opportunity, he has wasted little time impressing perhaps the most important voice on the offense.
"If you can't complete a ball to Julius as a quarterback, something is wrong with you," Manning said of the big tight end. "He has a great wingspan and great size and jumping ability. I think he's just continuing to get better for us."
Dreessen was healthy enough to participate in the first OTA session on May 20 but was not on the field Thursday after the surgery
Third-year veteran Nate Irving has received the first crack at the open middle linebacker position, and so far has done enough to satisfy Fox, who described Irving's play as "good" through the Broncos' first five OTAs.
Irving's chances to play the last two years have been minimal. He struggled to learn the system in his rookie season of 2011, then was moved from middle linebacker to strong-side linebacker behind Von Miller a year later before being moved back.
"Good. He's a guy that was a third-round draft pick that really, in Nate's defense, has not had a great opportunity yet," Fox said. "He'll get that this year. I see great growth in him already."
Stewart Bradley and Steven Johnson are also expected to take their turns at middle linebacker in the coming months, but for now, the first shot belongs to Irving -- even though he doesn't see any significance in being first man up.
"It doesn't mean anything, because all it is, is the opportunity," Irving said. "They didn't give me the spot, they didn't tell me, 'It's yours to lose,' or anything like that. They just gave me the opportunity, and with the opportunity, I'm looking to take advantage of it. I don't want to just go out and just lay an egg and just roll over and give it up."
Running back Willis McGahee is the only Bronco who hasn't been seen anywhere on the field during the two OTA sessions that were open to the media.
Other players recovering from injury have been seen working out or taking mental repetitions; that group includes safety Quinton Carter, center J.D. Walton, guard Chris Kuper, running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Quanterus Smith.
McGahee had knee surgery late last season after tearing his medial collateral ligament in a Week 11 win over San Diego.
"Well, certainly, I think it's the kind of situation where the players that are here, you're excited about those guys that are here and you work hard with the players that are here," Manning said. "The players that are not here, there are individual and specific situations. Whether there it is a business decision being made on Willis' part on his side or on the Broncos' side, that is kind of to be determined."
McGahee's future is up in the air after the Broncos drafted Wisconsin running back Montee Ball with their second-round pick in April's draft. With Ball, 2012 third-rounder Ronnie Hillman, Moreno and ex-Charger Jacob Hester among the other running backs, the Broncos appear to be in position to not need McGahee, even though he led the team in rushing each of the past two years.
"There's no question that Willis was a big help to me last year and our team," Manning said. "We'll see how it plays out these next few weeks."