Some might call last season a breakout year for Julius Thomas in fantasy football. After hauling in just four total catches in his first two seasons as a Denver Bronco, he slashed a 65/788/12 line in 2013. Thomas missed two games due to a minor knee injury, otherwise we could have seen another score along with 50 yards and five catches added to his total.
Still, Thomas finished 2013 as the third-best TE through Week 16, according to Fantasy Pros. In 2014, Thomas will ascend into that elite scoring range only occupied by Jimmy Graham and a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
Aside from 2013 and the one season he played college football at Portland State, Thomas has played just 50 snaps of football in his life. As another former basketball player turned football player, including his first two developmental years on the Broncos, Thomas is entering his fifth season ever playing football. As he continued to get repetitions, the game of football will become second nature to him. This season he will have to think about his responsibilities on any given play less than the last one. Thinking less is good.
Learning the game should help his ability to get open, but his size/speed combination is the basis of his immense upside. At 6-foot-5 and now up to 250 pounds, Thomas runs a blazing 4.64 40-yard dash with a 35.5-inch vertical. This unique combination allows him to threaten defenses up the seam vertically, and also makes difficult to defend on oft-used routes like the back shoulder throw.
Becoming the second option in a Peyton Manning offense is even better than you might expect. In 2013, Eric Decker was peppered with 135 targets, which were good for the second-most on the team behind Demaryius Thomas. Only 12 wide receivers in the entire NFL were targeted more than Decker was. While we can certainly expect some regression from the Broncos’ record-setting 2013 offense, they are a team that bucks run/pass trends—but I will get to that a little later.
With Decker now a member of the New York Jets, someone else needs to emerge as Manning’s second option in the passing game. The Broncos signed Emanuel Sanders to replace Decker, but there is likely to be a transition period for Sanders from a production standpoint as he learns Adam Gase’s offensive scheme. Also, one can make a sound argument that Thomas is a superior talent to Sanders and any other passing game option that remains on the roster.
Last season, Thomas was targeted just 88 times and tallied just 436 snaps in route. Eight other tight ends racked up more targets and 13 tight ends had more snaps in route. Thomas was just fourth option in the passing game from a target standpoint, and he finished a considerable amount behind Thomas (138), Decker (135), and Wes Welker (109).
Thomas’ biggest impact could come inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. In 2013, Decker led the team in red zone targets with 23, and he converted 7 of those targets into touchdowns. Decker’s targets are up for grabs, and Thomas might be the best option to take them.
Thomas’ unique height, vertical, and hand size set him apart from any passing game option aside from the other Thomas. Inside the 20-yard line, these three traits are often common in the most productive performers based on the limited route combinations that are available.
In addition, if tight end Virgil Green can continue to progress as a player, the offense will have the option to feature 12 personnel, or two tight end formations. This would allow Thomas to kick out to the slot while Green to serves as the inline tight end. Thomas scored four of his 12 touchdowns in the slot in 2013. More importantly, Manning threw a combined 27 red zone passes to his slot receivers Welker and Andre Caldwell in 2013. With more opportunities in the slot, Thomas could become the first option on more plays designed inside the red zone.
Thomas’ reliability as a pass catcher will likely persuade Manning to feature him more. In 2013, Thomas finished with the fifth-best drop rate among all tight ends who played 50% of their team’s snaps or more. He dropped just four out of 69 passes deemed catchable by our game charters, finishing with just a 5.88 percent drop rate.
Thomas’ unique hand size makes him a great bet to improve on that number. His 10 1/4-inch hands place him in the 71st percentile among all tight ends who have entered the draft dating back to 199, according to Mock Draftable.
Improvement As A Blocker
During one of the rare dead periods of NFL action that we are in now until training camps get underway, quotes are often exaggerated. Most in the fantasy community took away Thomas’ quote about “being used more creatively” from FOX Sports’ Thomas piece this week, but he never specifically mentions the passing game. If you actually read through the featured piece in its entirety, you might come away with a different take.
Thomas goes on to talk about being more comfortable in pass protections and run schemes, which should allow the team to be more versatile in the run game. But here’s the clincher.
“I did a lot in the pass game, and I’m sure there are some extra wrinkles we can do with it,” Thomas said. “But there are other aspects of playing the position that I’ve improved, and it gives our team more flexibility.”
After finishing last season with a (-11.9) run-blocking grade, it shouldn’t be too difficult to improve. However, if he has truly made a major leap as a run blocker, it can open up some possibilities for more fantasy points.
More snaps means more opportunities. With Manning at the helm, there is always an opportunity for any run play to be changed to a pass before the play clock winds down. In 2013, Thomas was on the field for just 921 of 1,232 total offensive snaps. That number factors in the two games Thomas missed, but even so, becoming a complete tight end will help keep Thomas on the field for almost every snap in 2014.
A Passing Philosophy
The Broncos are a pass-first team and they won’t change their ways based on the circumstances of any individual game. Mike Clay found that the Broncos passed the ball on a league average rate of 61 percent of the time in 2013, even though they should have been one of the most run-heavy teams in the league. According to Clay’s research, they called a pass 55 percent of the time while ahead on the scoreboard, good for the ninth highest in the league. They were also the second-most pass heavy offense when tied and fifth-most when trailing.
With a schedule that features the NFC West and AFC East instead of the NFC East and AFC South, the Broncos could find themselves tied or trailing more often in 2014. Expect Manning to continue to throw the ball and take advantage of mismatches in the passing game.
With talent, opportunity, and situation all on his side heading into 2014, Thomas has the potential to land somewhere in the top 20 for all non-skill position players. Outside of the elite options at running back, wide receiver and tight end, there may not be a single player with more upside when factoring in positional scarcity. Thomas has the opportunity to join that elite range of tight ends who outscore their opponent’s tight end by a considerable margin on a weekly basis.
If you want to know any of my other evaluations on skill position players, continue the conversation, or yell at me for something I missed, you can find me on Twitter @DanSchneier_NFL. You can also add me to your network on Google+ to find all of my past material.