Can Demaryius Thomas Rebound and Be a Top-End Fantasy Football Producer?
Whenever I’m feeling uninspired in my writing, I take a spin on the old Wikipedia “random article” roulette and find two different concepts and try to write to the thread between them.
For instance, Lord Tennyson’s most famous bit of poetry, “’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all,” and Marlon Brando’s “I could’ve been a contender” monologue in On the Waterfront both talk about being on top of the world for a brief moment before watching that potential evaporate. They discuss the empty feeling of loss and how to reconcile with that.
The way this connects to fantasy football (and the obvious title of this article) is that Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was once himself atop the fantasy world, lighting it on fire as quarterback Peyton Manning's go-to target in his record-breaking seasons. Since 2014, however, Thomas hasn’t been able to crack the top tier of fantasy wideouts.
With the Broncos’ signing of quarterback Case Keenum this offseason, can a legitimate quarterback presence be the key to reviving Thomas’s fantasy success?
Can Thomas be a top-12 fantasy receiver again in 2018?
Breaking the Mold
What is it that made Demaryius Thomas such a stunning success for fantasy football? And how can he get back to that?
The first question is what we’ll look at in this section, and a simple answer for it is Peyton Manning.
Before Manning arrived in Denver, Thomas was still simply a raw project – albeit a high-end one – out of the same school that had produced Calvin Johnson (who also hadn’t yet fully ascended to his peak potential). Thomas looked to be a surefire pro player, but as these scouting reports from NFL.com and SB Nation note, there were concerns about his sloppy route-running, focus drops, inconsistent blocking, and a broken foot that would sideline him for the Combine. Neither of these sites thought Thomas was a first-round NFL Draft lock, and therefore that there was some concern about dubbing him a future star.
Those concerns seemed to be borne out in his first two seasons, where Thomas played in just 21 games due to foot, ankle, and Achilles’ tendon issues. Between those seasons, he caught just 54 passes for a 49.5 percent catch rate, though he did turn them into an impressive 834 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns. His big-play potential was obvious, but he needed to stay on the field and improve his consistency. Sure, playing with the horrific Kyle Orton/ Tim Tebow timeshare under center wasn’t doing him any favors, but that kind of production was certainly not what the Broncos had in mind when they picked Thomas 22nd overall in the 2010 Draft.
Then Manning showed up. The table below depicts Thomas’s fantasy production in PPR formats from 2012 to present day, with his rankings among wide receivers labeled. The orange-marked years were the seasons where Manning threw at least 500 passes.
When Manning was at the peak of his post-surgery magical powers, Thomas was one of the premier wide receivers in the league. From 2012 to 2014, Thomas averaged more than 150 targets, and nearly 100 catches, 1,500 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns.
With Peyton under center compared to without, it has been night and day for Thomas. Using Rotoviz’s Game Splits app, we can see that from 2011 onward, in the 54 games where Manning attempted at least 25 passes, Thomas averaged 19.8 PPR points. In any other games, Thomas has averaged 13.6 PPR points – or a drop of about one-third of his production – while only seeing about one fewer target per game.
Including Manning’s swan song 2015, Thomas has gone from four WR1 fantasy finishes in a row to back-to-back 16th-best marks, and his annual fantasy points continue to slide ever downward.
Can Thomas’ fantasy fortunes reverse with fresh blood at the helm of the Denver offense?
Keenum is a far cry from Manning, but it seems fair to say that both of them are a few heads and shoulders above the others who have taken snaps under center for the Broncos during Demaryius Thomas' career.
Using numberFire’s Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), a measure of the value that passing plays including drop backs create (see our glossary for more details), we can see just how much the quality of Denver quarterback play has fluctuated over the last few years. The table below shows these passers and compares their average Passing NEP per drop back in recent years.
|Year||Player||Drop Backs||Pass NEP/P||Pass Success %|
|2012-15, 2017||Brock Osweiler||513||0.01||44.8%|
There’s not a lot to say here that isn’t obvious, but for comparison’s sake, the average value of a drop back by Passing NEP since Demaryius Thomas entered the league is 0.07, and the average Passing Success Rate (percent of drop backs creating positive NEP) is 46.2 percent.
Aside from those four glorious years with Manning, the passer quality for Thomas has been weird at best and downright ugly at worst. Only Orton was also remotely near replacement-level, and Thomas played with him so little that it barely matters.
Keenum, however, did break out in a big way in 2017 with the Minnesota Vikings and seems like he could at least get the offense back on track. The table below show’s Keenum’s rates of Passing NEP per play and Passing Success Rate both over the last two years and in 2017 alone (I’ll explain why shortly).
|Year||Player||Drop Backs||Pass NEP/P||Pass Success %|
It’s hard for a quarterback to be much worse than Keenum was with the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, but it’s also much harder to be much worse than the Rams were in 2016. We’ve explained in previous articles why the 2016 Rams sucked, and why Keenum’s breakout occurred despite being so terrible the year before.
I show you these two categories that overlap to give you an idea of what Keenum’s average expectation should be and what his ceiling could be. The average of the last two years gives us an expectation showing an about league-average passer, while his ceiling from last year is about two-thirds of Manning’s average value in Denver.
The quality is there, and it’s compelling to look at the comparison of how Thomas might function in a Keenum-led offense by examining Keenum’s usage of Adam Thielen. NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats help us see how the two have measured up over the last two years, comparing their average separation per target and Targeted Air Yards (the average distance downfield the receiver is when targeted).
|Player||Team||Targ||Avg. Separation||Targ Air Yds.|
There’s very little difference in the average distance downfield (Targeted Air Yards) between Thielen and Thomas. The 0.5 yard difference in average separation could easily be attributed to either the smaller sample size for Thielen or the fact that Thomas is two years older and has played for four years longer in the NFL – he may simply have less explosion due to more mileage on his legs.
Either way, Thomas has been targeted on 23.1 percent of his team’s drop backs over the last two years; Thielen has only been targeted on 13.6 percent of his in the same span of time, and was fantasy football’s WR8 last season.
In 2018, Thomas is going to see targets of a much higher quality than the past three years, while still maintaining a target load of nearly a quarter of his team’s passing plays. While our projections currently have Thomas as a solid WR2 for fantasy, he’s a player you should be highlighting for a potential bounce-back season.
At worst, he’ll continue to be very good. At best, he’ll get to relive his golden years on top of the fantasy world for at least one more season, and that’s a risk worth taking in your draft.