Will Julius Thomas Return to Form?

It’s the off-season, which gives us a chance to study, think and make projections. Today, my pitch is for Julius Thomas as a sleeper tight end this season in Miami. I know what Jaguars fans are gonna say, “He was sleeping the last two years in Jacksonville.” And that’s fair. But let me plead my case.

I’ll admit it, I’m an unabashed Denver Broncos fan, so I have a soft spot in my heart for Thomas. He was a great and productive player for Denver, and I was sad when he left. And for good reason.
Thomas was drafted in 2011, and while he had some talent and potential in the pre-season, that never translated during his rookie season. He grabbed one pass for seven yards. He was another pre-season hype player in 2012, but due to injuries he didn’t even play a game in 2012. But that promise was still there.

Thomas didn’t have a huge college resume, at least not for football. He went to Portland State, where he set records as a basketball player. On the football field, he played just one season — 2010 — where he caught 29 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns. People said he had Antonio Gates potential coming out of college, and as a Broncos fan I was interested to see him realize that potential.

Heading into the 2013 season, with Peyton Manning at the helm and Adam Gase running the offense, something seemed different. He looked sharp in the pre-season, and was a sleeper for me. I took him near the end of every draft I could and, finally, my faith was rewarded.

Thomas, finally healthy, grabbed 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. The Broncos finished that season making a trip to the Super Bowl, and in the Post-Season, Thomas grabbed 18 passes for 188 yards in three games as the Broncos fell short. He also earned his first Pro Bowl berth for his work.

In 2014, Thomas followed up his breakout season with another strong campaign. Health was again an issue, as Thomas played in only 13 games, starting 10, but he grabbed 43 passes for 489 yards and another 12 touchdowns. In the Broncos’ lone playoff game that season, he grabbed six passes for 53 yards, and again earned a Pro Bowl berth.

Back-to-back 12 touchdown seasons made Thomas an attractive option in free agency, and he quickly parlayed that into a five-year, $46 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

After two break out seasons and a rich free agent contract, expectations were high for Julius Thomas in 2015. Actual production didn’t match those expectations. As has been the case his whole career, injuries played a role, as Thomas only played in 12 games, starting 11. He had 46 receptions for 455 yards and five touchdowns on 80 targets. Of course, that’s what happens when you move from Peyton Manning to Blake Bortles, from the high-powered offense in Denver to the young group in Jacksonville and, most importantly, leave behind Adam Gase.

But let’s put that into perspective. While 2015 didn’t match the lofty heights of his 2014 season in terms of touchdowns (falling from 12 to five), Thomas did record three more receptions and just 34 fewer yards. That difference dropped Thomas from seventh in tight end scoring to 15th in tight end scoring. The biggest difference was the fall off from expectations to reality, though you had to see that coming, too.

But for as disappointing as 2015 was for Thomas owners — and for Thomas himself, as he watched his former team win the Super Bowl while the Jaguars won just four games — 2016 was a complete disaster. (I know, I owned him on two teams.) Injuries limited him to nine games, starting six, and just 30 receptions for 281 yards and four touchdowns. That left him an unrosterable 30th in tight end scoring.

It also led to his departure from the Jaguars, and reason for renewed optimism in 2017.

There is one reason I’m excited about Thomas in 2017 — Adam Gase, the head coach and offensive architect in Miami. And for good reason.

Even if you were to dismiss 2013 and 2014 as being largely a credit to Manning, it’s impossible to dismiss the fact that Gase likes to use the tight end. In 2015, he was demoted to offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. (Yes, I know it was the same job title but, c’mon man, it was the freakin’ Bears and Jay Cutler. If that’s not a demotion…) There he had Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller. And they combined to be pretty decent.

Bennett, who was hampered with injuries, caught 53 passes for 439 yards and three TDs in 11 games. Miller, who played in 15 and started 15, caught 34 balls for 439 yards and five touchdowns. That is a combined TE production of 87 receptions for 878 yards and eight touchdowns. Tell me you wouldn’t take that on your team. And that was with Cutler at the helm, not Manning.

The other inescapable fact is that Gase didn’t have that kind of production available to him in Miami in 2016. Jordan Cameron was supposed to have a resurgence, but another concussion limited him to three games and ended his career. He had just eight receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown. Three other players — Dion Sims, MarQueis Gray and Dominique Jones — logged time at the position, combining for 47 receptions, 491 yards and five touchdowns. Not terrible production, but not to the level of tight end production in a Gase offense the three previous seasons.

In a move that was purely about moving on, the Jaguars traded Thomas to the Dolphins in March for a seventh round draft choice in 2017. It served to get the Jags out from under Thomas’ contract, and gives the talented, but injury-prone, tight end a chance to have a resurgence.

But, more importantly, it reunites him with Gase, the man who helped afford him 24 touchdown catches in two seasons in Denver. And now, if you’re smart, you should have him on your draft radar.
Now, this comes with a couple caveats. First, Thomas has never played 16 games in a season, and I don’t see that changing now. But if he can give you 10–14 games, he can offer decent upside and production.

Second, don’t get this as me saying you should expect either top five production at the position or 12 touchdowns in 2017. Both are possible, neither are likely. Let’s be real. And you need to be realistic in the draft capital you use on Thomas. He is not Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed or Tyler Eifert, three injury prone players whose ceiling is so high you might reach in the early or middle rounds.
But, if Thomas can stay healthy, that Chicago 2015 season is a good target. While I don’t see Thomas getting 80-plus receptions, getting 50–55 receptions for 550–700 yards and six to nine TDs is certainly possible. As is production that puts him in the eight to 12 range. And given his last two years in Jacksonville, his draft stock means he’s available late in drafts (14th round or later). Getting potential top-10 production at a volatile position in the last three to four rounds of a draft is a steal.
Hence, I see Thomas as a potential sleeper. I think the combination of Gase and his TE-friendly offense combined with a player that’s off the radar creates a chance for value. And finding value late in drafts is what it’s all about when it comes to winning your fantasy football season.

For those that like to punt the position of tight end, or those looking for sneaky value, you could do worse than Thomas.


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