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The Modern Evolution of the Tight End: Starring Julius Thomas and Antonio Gates

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COMMENTARY | By all accounts, Julius Thomas had a breakout season with the Denver Broncos this year. Going back to his previous injury riddled two years, Thomas had showed flashes in training camps and other organized team activities that led some in the know who saw his raw talent to knight him "The Next Antonio Gates", whatever that means.

I say "whatever that means" not in disdain, but in a sort of startled awakening. How could one be the "next" anyone? On the surface, it seems like a compliment, but what if the old isn't quite ready to be brushed aside in favor of the new? What if old reliable still has a little gas left in the tank?

Do you know the guy second from the right on the Evolution diagram? He's got a spear, he's walking upright, and he probably thinks he's the final version in his chain of evolution. Only, he isn't, and Father Time waits for no man, and not even for a player the stature of Antonio Gates.

With the retirement of Hall of Fame bound Tony Gonzalez, Gates now becomes the standard bearing legacy act at an evolving position. He becomes the patriarch in a long lineage of athletically gifted players at the position, not beginning with but starting to become obvious with names like Shannon Sharpe, Gonzalez, and Gates himself and continuing to evolve with names like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Denver's emerging superstar, Thomas.

Thomas made history in several ways in his breakout 2013 campaign, notching his name in the record book as the recipient of quarterback Peyton Manning's record fifty-first touchdown pass of the season against the Houston Texans as well as earning his first career Pro Bowl invitation on the back of twelve touchdown receptions (itself a team record, breaking Sharpe's previous record of 10, which he accomplished twice).

"Orange Julius" has proven a valuable asset in Denver after two consecutive injury-shortened campaigns that saw him bring in only one reception before erupting this season with 65 catches for 788 yards and the aforementioned twelve trips to the endzone. His immense role on the league's highest scoring offense was further underscored during a brief midseason injury hiatus which caused him to miss the New England game and second contest against the Kansas City Chiefs and saw the team not struggle, but clearly miss his presence.

Gates returned to form this season after a string of three somewhat disappointing seasons under performing expectations, bringing in 77 catches for 872 yards and 4 TDs (yardage and reception totals were personal bests dating back to 2009).

Surrounded by better statistical seasons by other, younger contemporaries, many pegged Gates as being past his prime. But he proved both durable and consistent this season, equipping Philip Rivers with his most reliable and experienced downfield weapon.

Both tight ends compliment broader offensive schemes in similar ways, opening up the center of the field and stretching coverages downfield.

Both Gates and Thomas have basketball backgrounds that have transitioned seamlessly to the NFL. They both possess similar builds and levels of measurable athleticism. Gates has already started etching his name in the record books at the position on an all-time scale, and if he can sustain even a fraction of his 2013 production Thomas could very well join him on those all-time lists in a decade or more.

What was on display in Sunday afternoon's game was two players at varying spots in their evolution as players and in the evolution of the position. It seems apparent which one has his better days ahead rather than behind him.

Gates was nearly invisible in Sunday's Divisional Round game in Denver, hauling in just two receptions for ten yards in a game that saw the Denver defense hold strong for the first three quarters.

On the flip side, Thomas came up huge with six catches for 76 yards. And though he lost a fumble in the first half, he rebounded (no pun intended) to make a pair of huge third down receptions on the team's final drive to help put them in their victory formation to run out the clock and advance to face New England in next week's AFC Championship Game.

Since Thomas missed the previous matchup this season between the two teams, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots choose to defend him.

LB Jamie Collins had a terrific game against Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon and his role did see him drop into coverage at times on Colts TE Coby Fleener. Collins had a sack and an interception in the game. Fleener was targeted a team high eleven times but brought in only six catches due to Collins' stout coverage.

In the biggest game of his career to date, Julius Thomas came up big. And as he continues to develop into one of the league's premiere tight ends, his impact will only increase on an already potent offense.

Andrew Majors lives in Denver and is an award-winning journalist who currently works as a content strategist at a digital marketing firm. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewMajors.

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