Julius Thomas and Branden Albert Fill Holes on Their New Teams, But Not Well

The Jaguars got a tackle, and the Dolphins got a tight end, but the swap may not mean much in the end.

The time between the end of the Super Bowl and the start of the NFL Draft Combine is one of the closest times the NFL gets to a dead period. Draft talk ramps up, and speculation arises about what could happen in free agency, but not much happens in terms of real, tangible news.

Then, something minor happens that unofficially gets the ball rolling to kick off the offseason.

That’s what we got with whatever the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins have agreed upon in the past few days. In keeping true to the essence of the Jaguars and Dolphins, what could have been a simple transaction has turned into a multi-part drama.

First, the Dolphins were going to release Branden Albert. Then Miami found out there might be some more outside interest for the left tackle -- something they probably should have looked into before deciding to release him -- so they changed course and decided to keep Albert on the roster in an attempt to work out a trade.

The Dolphins found a trade partner in the Jaguars with a swap that was supposed to send Albert to Jacksonville in exchange for tight end Julius Thomas with both players set to rework their contracts.

But that trade never happened. Instead, the Jaguars started working on a trade to acquire Albert from Miami for a late 2018 draft pick -- a deal that has yet to be completed.

The two teams decided to tie the whole thing together with a trade that would send Thomas to Miami for a 2017 late-round draft pick -- a deal that has been agreed upon in principle, a formality now that Thomas has reportedly passed his physical. The physical itself was not exactly a formality because Thomas has yet to play 16 games in a season and has only played in 17 over the past two years.

So after all that, we somewhat got to the same place.

The Jaguars are likely to have a new left tackle, and the Dolphins should expect a new tight end once these deals become official when the new league year starts. Now that we’re here, let’s take a look at what these deals mean.

Thomas and Touchdowns

Thomas’s tenure in Jacksonville ends after a disappointing two seasons. After two breakout years with the Denver Broncos in 2013 and 2014, Thomas hit free agency and signed a five-year, $46 million contract with the Jaguars.

In his Denver days, Thomas got the benefit of playing with MVP-caliber Peyton Manning at quarterback before the 2015 decline and a healthy amount of play near the goal line. Most of the receiving duty down the field fell on the duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but inside the red zone, Thomas was the main target.

Most of his value came inside the 20 during his Denver seasons, but that didn’t translate over to Jacksonville.

His targets and receptions declined each season, and his touchdowns declined by a third from his Denver days. Here is how his seasons compared in the red zone.

Red Zone Stats Team Targets Receptions TD
2013 DEN 19 15 9
2014 DEN 15 13 9
2015 JAX 11 5 3
2016 JAX 7 4 3

Instead of being the go-to player inside the 20, Thomas was fourth on the Jaguars in red zone targets in 2015 and fifth in 2016.

Without the added value of short touchdowns, Thomas didn’t make much of an impact on the field.

He was towards the bottom of tight ends by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric over the past two seasons after being a top-five top tight end by Reception NEP per target in 2013 and the top tight end in 2014.

In 2015, he was 18th among 28 tight ends with 50 or more targets, and in 2016, he was 28th of 32.

Both of Miami’s 2016 tight ends, Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims, are slated to become free agents this offseason. Cameron had a disappointing two seasons with the Dolphins, and Sims never really took over as a passing threat.

However, he was the most efficient player in the red zone for Miami this past season -- though that’s not a high bar to clear.

Jarvis Landry9720.59
DeVante Parker9520.66
Dion Sims7541.48
Damien Williams773-0.32
Kenny Stills6410.31
Jay Ajayi530-0.13

In a vacuum, it’s easy to see why the Dolphins would take a gamble on regaining the presence of Thomas inside the 20. But considering the incoming draft class of tight ends is expected to be quite deep, it’s a little more puzzling to see why Miami would take on Thomas, even if his deal does get redone.

I’m Getting Older, Too

Jacksonville’s need for a left tackle comes because their 2016 starter, Kelvin Beachum is set to become a free agent. Beachum originally signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Jaguars, but the final four years and $40 million of that deal came with an option that Jacksonville declined last week. Heading into his age-28 season, Beachum will be a free agent in a market desperate for offensive lineman.

He did enough to revive his value, as he started 15 games for an offensive line that was the sixth-best in allowing pressure, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders.

Miami was around league average in that area -- 16th -- but Albert struggled, mostly due to injuries. He missed three games during the regular season with two different injuries. He was out Weeks 4 and 5 with an ankle injury then missed Week 12 and was listed as questionable but played in Weeks 13 and 14 with a wrist injury.

Albert will be 33 years old in November, so there’s no guarantee he returns to his previous form, even when healthy. But with the Jaguars needing to fill a vacancy at left tackle, with no dead money remaining on Albert’s contract, and Jacksonville still having a ridiculous amount of cap space, it might not be a bad roll of the dice while the they figure out the long-term future at that position.