Just How Good Can Julius Thomas Be in 2014?

Week 1 started off with a bang for Julius Thomas. Can he top his already impressive 2013 season?

In 2013, Julius Thomas proved to be one of the best sleepers in fantasy football. Due to doubts about what type of role he would have in the Broncos’ offense and concerns about his lack of football experience, his average draft position prior to last season was just 170.76 per

Owners who selected Thomas saw a tremendous athlete who had a potentially large role in a high-octane passing offense at his fingertips, and they were handsomely rewarded for spending a late pick on him.

Thomas’ yardage total of 788 wasn’t spectacular, but he scored whopping 12 touchdowns and finished as the third overall tight end despite playing just 14 games. As a result of his strong season, his ADP jumped to the top 30 players selected overall, meaning fantasy owners are completely buying into Thomas once again in 2014.

After a Week 1 performance that saw him score three touchdowns in the first half, it begs the question of just how high Thomas can soar this season. Is anything stopping him from being the number-one tight end in fantasy, and perhaps somewhat of a bargain despite his relatively high draft cost? Let’s give it a look.

Peyton Manning and Tight Ends

A good place to start when looking at Thomas’ ceiling is identifying how Peyton Manning uses his tight ends. Manning has had a long, almost entirely healthy career, so we have a relatively large sample size with which to look at.

The cumulative average yearly production of tight ends in a Manning-led offense over the course of his career is 908.8 yards and 8 touchdowns. That translates to nearly 140 standard points, or an above average fantasy starting tight end. However, the NFL has become far more passing-oriented over the past few years, so looking only at Manning’s past four healthy seasons paints an even more optimistic picture of his tight end usage. In his last four seasons, Manning’s tight ends have cumulatively averaged 1,071 yards and 9.75 touchdowns. That’s 165.6 points, or a TE2 finish behind only Jimmy Graham last season.

It’s not totally fair to say that this is a baseline for Thomas’ production this season, as it takes into account all the tight ends in the offense, not just the primary one. With that said, if his usage in Week 1 is any indication, Thomas could realistically represent almost all of the tight end production in Denver this season. In Week 1, he ran 29 routes with the other tight ends on the team combining for 10 routes run. Virgil Green ran nine of those routes, but saw only one target. Meanwhile, Jacob Tamme didn't see a single target on his only pass route of the entire game.

In other words, no tight end was believed to be a threat to Thomas’ role in the offense in 2014, and if the first game is any indication, that line of thinking is exactly right.

A Metrics Man

Everyone knows Thomas’ Week 1 performance was downright silly, but looking at it through the lens of Net Expected Points (NEP) makes it even more impressive.

Only four players had a higher Total NEP than Thomas posted in Week 1. Of those four, three were quarterbacks, a position that has an easier time accumulating impressive NEP totals due to their volume of opportunity, while the other one was Calvin Johnson. Thomas' Reception NEP per target was an off-the-charts 1.90. That was tops amongst Week 1 players with at least four targets.

While it’s fun to look at how ridiculous some week-to-week performances can be, nothing super worthwhile can be gleaned from looking at his NEP numbers after just one week except reaffirming what we already knew: Julius Thomas is good. Really good.

The Good and the Bad

The biggest thing Thomas has going for him in terms of upside in 2014 is the departure of Eric Decker. Decker was one of Manning’s favorite targets over the past two seasons, especially in the red zone. He saw a staggering 23 red zone targets in 2013, compared to Thomas’ 16. The Broncos didn’t go out and sign any additional big-bodied red zone targets this off season, indicating Thomas was due for some serious love near the end zone this season. In Week 1, Thomas snagged two touchdown passes inside the five-yard-line, and an increased role at the goal line could see him outdo his already impressive 12-touchdown 2013 campaign.

On the less optimistic side, numberFire’s own Leo Howell detailed why you shouldn’t be spending an early-round pick on Thomas. One of his main arguments was that among “premium” tight ends, like Thomas, Jimmy Graham, and Vernon Davis, Thomas sees by far the smallest percentage of his teams total yards and touchdowns. His smaller slice of the pie is due to the abundance of options in the Broncos’ offense, and it’s generally never a good sign when your early-round pick isn’t the focus of an offense. With that said, Decker’s departure means Thomas has one less player to contend for looks with, and Wes Welker still has another three games left on his suspension.

Tallying Thomas

Overall, the combination of Manning’s consistent usage of tight ends coupled with Thomas’ increased opportunity in the Broncos offense is a recipe for him to have a huge season. He had a big red zone role last season, but it appears he’s set to be the go-to player when the Broncos are around the end zone this season. His player comparables include pessimistic outlooks like Heath Miller’s good-not-great 2007 season, but also gives a glimpse of his immense upside in the comparison to Antonio Gates’ monstrous 2004 season.