Julius Thomas, a 6 foot 5 inch, 247 pound former basketball player, exploded for 5 catches, 110 yards, and 2 touchdowns in Thursday night's season opener. He was already a trendy sleeper pick after an excellent preseason, and now fantasy owners are questioning whether he's a legitimate option week in and week out, or merely this year’s Kevin Ogletree. For those who don’t remember (and I don’t blame you), in 2012 Ogletree set waiver wires ablaze after a 114 yard, two-touchdown performance in week one, only to never be fantasy-relevant again all season.
How Good Can Thomas be This Season?
The Denver Broncos total Passing Net Expected Points (a metric that measures how much each passing play contributes to scoring after taking into account field position and down/distance) clocked in at 116.84 last season, a feat only 11 teams have been able to reach in the past three seasons. Nine of those 11 teams had a tight end finish in the top 10 in fantasy points, and eight of those were in the top five. If the Broncos merely equal their 2012 offensive efficiency this season (and if Thursday was any indication, they most certainly will), recent history indicates they have an 81 percent chance of having a top-10 tight end. As Denver’s newly anointed starter, Thomas is the guy. Denver's most athletically gifted tight end, Thomas doesn't figure to relinquish his starting duties with Joel Dreessen struggling with a knee issue and Jacob Tamme barely surviving the final cut.
How good was Thomas in the season opener? There were only five games in all of 2012 that a tight end would have outscored the 23 standard fantasy points he racked up. He and Peyton Manning connected three separate times for passing plays of at least 20 yards. In 2012, only Rob Gronkowski averaged more than one 20-plus-yard receptions per game.
Manning’s Tight End Usage
Thomas drew seven targets in game one, good for 17 percent of Manning’s 42 total attempts. Last season, Manning also threw 17 percent of his attempts to tight ends, splitting them fairly evenly between Tamme and Dreessen. This year the targets are highly unlikely to be split as the Broncos will primarily use 3 WR/1 TE sets with the addition of Wes Welker. Manning has never been shy about peppering his tight end with targets; he threw to tight ends 26 percent of the time in his last two seasons with Indianapolis. That was despite operating mostly out of three-wide receiver sets with Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie. Therefore, there is even an outside chance that Thomas’s usage could increase; especially since he’s a superior talent to what Denver had last year in Tamme and Dreessen.
Demaryius and Welker and Decker, Oh My!
Julius Thomas will remain fourth in Manning’s pecking order, behind Demaryius of the same last name, Welker, and Eric Decker (who is an excellent buy low candidate from overreacting owners, by the way). Like most tight ends, he won’t always see consistent targets. However, Denver’s excellent wide receiver trio may be the best thing for him. Defensive coverage has to focus on all of the wide receivers, leaving Thomas in one-on-one match-ups against linebackers and safeties that he’s athletic enough to beat. When Baltimore finally started accounting for Thomas in the second half of Thursday’s game, Manning went off for five touchdowns to the wide receivers. Defending the Bronco offense will be about picking your poison, and Thomas may very well be the poison defenses pick.
The Upside is There
Thomas has a lot of things going for him. He’s capable of big plays, will see a lot of single coverage, and plays in one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses where there will likely be 4,500-plus receiving yards and 35-plus touchdowns to go around. Despite being fourth in line for targets, Thomas has as much upside as you can want in a tight end outside of Jimmy Graham and Gronkowski. If you don’t own the likes of Graham, Gronk, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, or Vernon Davis and are searching for weekly upside at the position, Thomas may be one of your best bets.
So no, I'm not sure he’s likely to be this year’s Kevin Ogletree.