For years, I've said that college basketball is full of potential NFL tight ends, guys athletic enough to play football, but not big enough to play down low in the NBA.

Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates made the transition, and so did Jimmy Graham.

Now we have Denver's Julius Thomas, the latest to make the move from the college hardwood to the NFL field with star power.

Thomas burst onto the scene early in 2013 after having one catch in his first two seasons with the Broncos, and I expect he will play a big role in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks.

A former all-conference basketball player at Portland State, he didn't play football until his final year at the school in 2010. He caught 29 passes and the Broncos traded up to get him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.

In Thomas' first two seasons with the team, his head was spinning and his ankles were hurting. He was learning how to read coverage and how to run routes, but his ankles limited him to the one catch.

So when he burst onto the scene with a breakout game in the 2013 opener against the Ravens, it caught a lot of people off guard. It sent fantasy owners scrambling. The Broncos had an idea what they had back in the summer when I visited with the team. They expected he would be a big part of their offense, but I don't even think they saw his 66-catch, 12-touchdown season.

Thomas was the perfect tight end for the Peyton Manning-led offense, a mismatch of sorts for linebackers and defensive backs alike, a player who could be lined up wide or in-line to create the one-on-one situations.

Now 250 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, Thomas looks more like a tight end than a basketball player. Unfortunately, he still blocks like a basketball player. He really struggles to get push in the run game, although he does make the effort.

But that's not his value. Nor will it be his value against Seattle. His value will come in the passing game.

I asked an NFL defensive back who has lined up against Thomas what makes the tight end so hard to defend.

"His height and length," the player said. "His route running is so-so, but if the ball is around him he will catch it. He can't block, so that's when you have to take advantage of him on first and second down. Great player."