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Of all the ‘Rewind’ studies I’ve done this year, this one may have been the most disappointing. Some of that is due to my heightened expectations. I expected to see, on the 2015 tape, Julius Thomas showing signs of becoming a possible breakout tight end again for fantasy 2016…that 2015 was just a detour due to his hand injury and joining a new team/offense. It ‘seemed’ like JT had a halfway decent run with the Jags as the season went on, after getting back from a hand injury in Week 5 – he had four TDs in his final seven games in 2015, and 4.4 catches per game in that span as well. Fairly nice numbers out of the tight end spot. However, I have to be honest, I walked away rattled by what I saw on tape from 2015…I now carry a negative bias on Thomas for 2016. Not totally, negative…well, let me explain…
Here are the three bullet points I walked away with after watching every target of Thomas’s from 2015:
1: Julius Thomas is not a great tight end weapon, not in the sense that he would be considered elite at the tight end position – for the NFL or for fantasy.
2: Nevertheless, Thomas might be a top 5 fantasy tight end in 2016, because…what else is there at tight end in 2016? Thus, the dilemma as to how to value Thomas.
3: Blake Bortles is simply the worst quarterback in the NFL…he and Jameis Winston (assuming Case Keenum isn’t starting). And don’t trot out Bortles’s heavy duty TD pass tally from 2015 as a defense of Blake…I’ll get to that. Actually, Bortles being so stunningly disgusting to my NFL senses is what makes him a decent fantasy QB option…and his receivers as well.
Blake Bortles is a major part of this discussion because he is to blame for some of this. No one, besides Jameis Winston, throws more predetermined/no-read passes than Bortles. He will throw the ball to a receiver no matter how many people are covering him. He’s so inaccurate it’s appalling that anyone praises this guy. It’s not about comparing stats either…he literally flings the ball in desperation, and guys make plays…sometimes…usually, in garbage time against sagging, prevent-ish defenses. Bortles is nothing like the top quarterbacks in the league, who sit in a pocket and pick defenses apart. About half the throws to Thomas last year were ridiculous – way over his head, or thrown to him into double-triple-quadruple coverage. They connected on 57.5% of the targets last season. Thomas averaged 70% connectivity with Peyton Manning in 2013–14.
Bortles is half the issue…
…Thomas is the other half.
I get the sense we all believe Thomas is a ‘B+’ tight end talent, who might could develop into an ‘A’. The more I watch Thomas in detail, the more my tried and true axiom comes into play – tight end production is more about the quarterback than the tight end. There are a few talented tight ends toiling away in statistical anonymity…while Richard Rodgers scores 8 TDs last season. Changing offenses/quarterbacks could take talented tight end ‘nobodies’ and make them ‘somebodies’. Ladarius Green and MyCole Pruitt, I’m looking at you. In reality, Thomas is more of a ‘B-/C+’ tight end talent who is taking a step back working with Bortles (vs. his days with pre-2015 Peyton Manning, the still-great Peyton days). There might be good reason why Denver let Thomas walk away quietly in free agency. They did just win a Super Bowl without him.
In his 12 games played last season, Thomas had less than 30 yards receiving in eight contests…two-thirds of his games with less than 30 yards – that’s awful from a frontline tight end. Minus his best game (vs. San Diego – 9 rec. for 116 yards), Thomas averaged 3.4 catches for 30.8 yards per game over his 11 games last year. Some of this is on Bortles, and some of this is because Thomas isn’t as great as we think/hope he is. Sure, Bortles missed him a bunch, but Thomas also dropped some passes and wasn’t open medium-deep hardly at all. Thomas, to me, looked stiff, awkward, and tentative/disinterested in 2015. I thought he was a little clunky in Denver, but the numbers were great. I thought he was just ‘raw’ (D3 prospect, who was a basketball guy first). In Peyton’s offense, back in the good times, Thomas was left open a bunch and/or had great mismatches…he had a field day. With the Jags, Thomas draws better coverage; he gets attention.
People could retort, “Well, he (Thomas) hurt his hand, joined a new team after missing a lot of practice time…the timing was off, and his hand may have been an issue.” That’s definitely on the table, but it wasn’t like Thomas was playing with a cast. He broke his hand. They didn’t rush him back. It healed. He then played. I’m starting to believe this is an issue with Thomas…that he’s not as good as we might have thought after his sweet Denver run.
It could be that Thomas is a ‘B’ athlete, with ‘C’ skills, who used to play in an ‘A+’ offense with an ‘A’ quarterback.
Now, the equation might be a ‘B’ athlete with ‘C’ skills, playing with a ‘C-D’ quarterback. Oh, and he was shoved $24M guaranteed in a $46M/5-year deal last year. How hard will he fight/work now? Based on what I saw last year, not much.
Thomas is likely going to put up TE1 numbers in fantasy 2016, despite my critiques. The Jags use him like Jimmy Graham – TE/WR. Bortles likes the targets that stand out, so he will ‘see’ Thomas and chuck it his way…and Thomas is going to catch his share. His workload will probably push him to/keep him at TE1 status in 2016. Garbage time might get him to top 5–8 scorer status for a few moments. He’s going to have some 5 catches for 80 yards and a TD games mixed in with too many 2–3 catches for 25 yards type clunkers. I just don’t think he has another gear in Jacksonville. He’s not the new/next Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski. He’s a better-than-average athlete with nice height/size, who plays a little stiff, and sees targets…now playing with a sloppy quarterback.
I originally thought Thomas might be a sure-fire top 5 fantasy tight end this season with a shot to jump to #1 with a little luck. Now, I think he’s more likely destined for back-end top 10–12 tight end production…with occasional blips to suck you in. As a #10–11 ranked/ADP tight end in redrafts/auctions right now, he’s fairly priced. Thinking he’s an emerging top 5 talent to grab in dynasty formats…I’m off that bandwagon…for good, I think. Very unsettling film study of his 2015.