Free Agent Profile: Julius Thomas
If you weren’t a Denver Broncos fan, odds are you had never heard of the name Julius Thomas prior to the Thursday night opener of the 2013 season. That is usually the case with most players drafted in the low rounds who barely see playing time (50 snaps in two season) and weren’t renowned in college.
After a 110-yard, two-touchdown performance on that night against the Ravens, that all changed. Every single fantasy player put in a waiver claim for Thomas by Monday morning and a touchdown-catching star was born.
By now you’re likely familiar with his basketball background as a Portland State power forward. Transitioning from basketball to football after NBA dreams are dashed is a trend made famous by Antonio Gates who averaged over 20 points per game in his final season at Kent State before giving it up for football full time.
What is different about Thomas’ story, though, is that football was a less backup plan and more an afterthought. Almost all the tight ends that are known for making the switch (Gates, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, etc.) were all prep football stars before concentrating on basketball in college. Thomas, on the other hand, never played a down in high school. When he stepped onto the Portland State football field in 2010 it was the first time he donned pads and a helmet. In that year of FCS football he caught 29 passes for 453 yards in the Big Sky Conference and the rest is history.
The reason Thomas will get paid handsomely is because he is the prototypical “too fast for linebackers, too big for corners” type of tight end. There are only a handful of them in this league that fit that profile while also having the coordination it takes to make contested catches in the NFL. That limited supply should make for considerable demand.
At the combine in 2011 Thomas posted a 35.5inch vertical and ran a 4.68 40-yard dash all while measuring in at 6-foot-5 and 246 pounds. Those workout numbers are all superb and have translated to the field. With his speed he’s able to get downfield quick enough to allow the quarterback to throw the post or deep out in rhythm like they would to a wide out. That explosion also shines through in his work after the catch where he led all tight ends with at least 50 catches in 2013 (5.9 YAC). It’s a receiving skillset few can match.
As a blocker Thomas is far from the prototype. The recent renaissance of the receiving tight end has made run and pass blocking an afterthought at the position and this was clear in Thomas’ 2013 season. That year his –11.5 run blocking grade was the second-worst at the position. While he was overpowered at times, the bulk of his grade came from shoddy form. Thomas frequently overextended himself and took poor angles of attack, whiffing on far too many simple blocks. That’s why his improvement to a +0.1 grade last year is encouraging.
He cut down on his number of -1.0 graded run blocks from 22 in 2013 to just seven a year ago with vast improvements in technique. It’s also worth noting that it didn’t come as the result of a Grahamesque switch to mostly wide receiver. He still spent 493 of his 715 snaps inline last season. At his size he’ll never be a crushing blocker you can trust to handle a defensive end on every play, but is willing and capable still provides value with his receiving skills.
His raw numbers are exceptional. In his breakout season he had 788 yards on 65 catches with 12 touchdowns and four drops. Last year, through 10 weeks he had 423 yards on 38 catches with 12 touchdowns and two drops (on pace for 61 receptions for 677 yards and three touchdowns) before a high ankle sprain left him limited through the rest of the season and he ended with just 489 yards on 43 receptions with four scores.
While those numbers look exceptional for a tight end — especially the 24 touchdown catches which were second-most over the last two seasons– they really don’t tell the whole story. Thomas was in one of the most favorable situations in the NFL the last two seasons with Peyton Manning as his quarterback in a pass-heavy attack. As you can see below, his rate stats would seem to bear that out.
As a percentage of their teams’ overall receiving yards and touchdowns, the numbers posted by fellow tight ends Charles Clay (transition tagged) and Jordan Cameron (free agent) torch Thomas’ standout season. There is still solid performance there from Thomas, with two straight years of Top-10 receiving grades. It’s just that volume of passes and quality of quarterback seem to be enormous factors in the production of tight ends. Almost anywhere else Thomas signs will likely be a step down in both elements.
So the multimillion dollar question now is what level of player are we going to get and how much is that worth? There are a couple of concerns outside of his production that need to be addressed, the biggest of which is his injury history. Last season a high ankle sprain rendered Thomas nearly useless for the last six weeks of the season and the postseason. An ankle injury also forced him to miss considerable time his rookie season. Add in two missed games from 2013 after a knee sprain and there is officially an injury red flag here.
The other reason for pause comes from a BSN Denver story with damning words from an anonymous Broncos teammate. The quote is as follows, “Julius is here to get his money and get out. That’s just how some guys are. He didn’t grow up playing this game and it’s just not in his DNA to put it all out there.” While this quote could be completely unfounded and there has been nothing out there to corroborate it, it’s definitely not a good mark to have hanging over your head entering free agency
While there are multiple concerns, the reasons for optimism outweigh them considerably. Thomas is only 26-years-old with just five years of playing experience. Most guys have that much playing time after high school. Because of that, you can expect considerably more development as a blocker and a pass catcher than others at the same stage in their careers. The logical conclusion is that his peak playing days will be over the next three to four seasons.
Like almost any tight end sans maybe Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, he’s not going to turn a mediocre passing attack into an imposing one overnight like a top-level receiver, but he could easily be the missing piece in an established passing game that pushes it over the edge.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner