Why Julius Thomas Isn't Worth a Premium Pick in Your Fantasy Football Draft
Basketball players with lots of hype surrounding them have been in the news lately, so I just assume that people are talking about Julius Thomas.
Thomas, a former basketball player who made the transition to the NFL's most hoopster-friendly position, broke onto the scene in the league last season, thriving in the Peyton Manning-led Denver offense and feasting on the ridiculous amount of touchdowns it produced.
As a result, a player who was going at the tail end of some drafts last year (and even wound up on the waiver wire in a few leagues) earned a reputation, and his price has skyrocketed.
Thomas has only been playing anything resembling high-level football since his senior season in college, and even then, he was competing at the FCS level with Portland State.
But if you hop into any fantasy drafts this summer, you'll find him going in the second or third round. Is he set to live up to the hype? Is it wise to buy in on Julius Thomas at his current price?
A Slice of the Pie
Since 1999, there have been 19 tight ends to catch 10 or more touchdown passes in a single season, including Thomas last year. However, of those 19, Thomas had the lowest percentage of his team's overall receiving touchdown production.
Hauling in just over one-fifth of his team's touchdowns in the passing game, Thomas was merely a role player in the prolific Denver offense, rather than being a dominant force like Vernon Davis, who accounted for 13 of his team's 21 passing scores last season.
That raises the question of sustainability. Will Thomas be able to keep up his pace of production in an offense that isn't setting every offensive record in the NFL history book?
Let's consider just what kind of an impact Thomas had on his offense relative to two of the other leading tight ends last year. The following chart shows Thomas along with Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham, and reveals the percentage of their team's overall production for which they were responsible.
As you can see, the Broncos' tight end didn't have a very big overall impact on his offense as compared to the other top tight ends in the league. So who is a recent comparable for Thomas? The news might not thrill you if you've already bought in on Thomas.
Also hailing from a small school, Visanthe Shiancoe shocked everyone in 2008 and 2009 when he caught 7 and then 11 touchdowns for the Minnesota Vikings. The numbers in the chart above show his production as a part of the Minnesota offense in 2009.
Shiancoe was a bit older than Thomas at the time of his breakout (28 as compared to 25), but the amount of impact they had on their offenses during a surge in overall team production with a legendary quarterback under center is very similar. (2009 of course being the year in which Brett Favre had his final productive campaign as an NFL quarterback at age 40.)
So with regression likely ahead of Peyton Manning (you can read more about that here), and the general unsustainability of an offense producing 55 passing touchdowns, the odds aren't in favor of Thomas returning to his double-digit touchdown ways next season without quite a bit of improvement and a serious increase in volume.
A Caveat on Opportunity
There's one thing working in Thomas' favor this year, and that's the departure of Eric Decker. Peyton Manning has lost one of his most consistent and reliable touchdown producers in the red zone, and he's been replaced with Emmanuel Sanders, who isn't the same sort of threat inside the 20.
This will likely lead to increased opportunities for Thomas, who is as big and formidable of a red zone threat as you'll find in the NFL. But how many touchdowns will this equate to? That's the big question surrounding Thomas' value.
We've already accepted the likelihood that the Broncos won't score as many touchdowns next season, and that Thomas' overall productivity should drop. Replacing Decker with Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer means Peyton Manning will have just as many (if not more) options between the 20's as he did last year. But in the red zone, he may favor Julius more often.
So that means Thomas may see a higher percentage of his team's scores, but little or no improvement in yards or receptions overall. Even still, we're not projecting anything in the 15-touchdown range, where he'd need to get to warrant his current cost.
The Issue of Replaceability
Our projections for Thomas account for some of that regression we've mentioned, as we have him scoring only nine touchdowns, good enough to earn our second tight end spot in the rankings.
That doesn't mean you should be drafting him in the second or third round, however. That's because there are other options available at that time, options that hold more value over a potential replacement.
This concept of value over replacement is boiled down into a ranking mechanism we call FireFactor, and it's available in our customizable Draft Kit Cheat Sheet, which you can find here. And if you use this tool, you'll find that in a league with 12 teams and standard scoring, Thomas' value is more at home in the fifth or sixth round, meaning his current ADP is more optimistic than we are about his ability to create value in the early rounds. (And if you change the format to account for a league that doesn't allow tight ends in flex positions, he drops even further.)
That's because he's not projected to outscore the "middle class" tight end this year by all that much, and that middle class should be available for you later in the draft, or after the draft altogether.
Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP currently has Garrett Graham going undrafted. But according to our projections, he and 30 of his fellow tight ends will net you 100 points or more this fantasy season in a PPR league. Graham, who I wrote about in an article about the new Houston offense, will be readily available for you after your draft is over, and streamable on a week-by-week basis if he has a strong matchup.
Even if Thomas does score 12 touchdowns again this season, thanks to his increased role in the red zone, he's only increasing his production to try to meet his current expectations, as he's not "elite" enough of an option at tight end to justify his current draft position and market value without recreating his incredible 2013 season (and then some).
So be smart, and don't buy a stock at the top of it's price range and expect to make a profit on it. Invest wisely with your draft choices, and pick a player set to outperform his potential replacements by a wider margin.