One of the loudest roars of Monday's Broncos practice came when TE Julius Thomas headed downfield on a post route, broke away from a defender and caught a well-placed, 40-yard pass from QB Brock Osweiler.

This was what the Broncos hoped to see when they took a fourth-round draft flier last year on the former Portland State basketball star whose athleticism was as obvious as his football experience was scant. Thomas had played one season of football since his freshman year of high school, and his blocking and route-running needed refinement. But everything seemed on track as a rookie until he suffered an ankle injury last September against the Bengals -- an injury that simply wouldn't heal.

"Originally I figured it would be a couple of weeks. We tried that, and that didn't work," Thomas said. "It just been so long."

He finally succumbed to the need for surgery in March, missed all of the offseason practices, and was slowly brought back to full-scale work. He's recently worked in full-contact, full-team periods -- which led to Monday's downfield reception.

"It's just encouraging to be able to make the plays that your mind knows it can make, and now your body's starting to catch up to that level," Thomas said.

But it's not all the way there. Thomas admits the ankle is still at "about 80 percent."

"I definitely have a lot more strength still to build in that leg from the ankle all the way up to the hip," Thomas said. "But it's coming along. It feels better than it did at any point post-injury last year. So I'm encouraged."

Barring injuries to starters Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, Thomas should have time to heal -- and to continue refining his game. The two free-agent pickups are already entrenched, and with offensive tackle Chris Clark set to be the third tight end on short-yardage plays, the opportunities for Thomas to contribute could be few.

"I'm just going to do what's expected of me and wait for my chance to get an opportunity," Thomas said.

For up-to-the-minute Broncos updates, follow Andrew Mason on Twitter at @CBSSportsNFLDEN and @MaxBroncos.