Why Teams Should Be Cautious About Julius Thomas in Free Agency

Julius Thomas has scored a lot of touchdowns in a Broncos uniform, but his free agency prospects are not without concerns.

Relatively speaking, tight ends who score a total of 24 touchdowns in two seasons rarely hit the open market.

That’s what makes Julius Thomas a very special case. He’s been an absolute machine in the red zone for the Broncos offense -- commanded by Peyton Manning -- but for a number of reasons, John Elway and Denver’s front office are apprehensive in re-signing the 26-year-old tight end.

Most importantly, the major reason that the Broncos aren’t chomping at the bit to re-up Julius Thomas is because of his extensive injury history.

Before we delve in to Thomas’ past and present injury woes, let’s do a review of his four total seasons in Denver.

Touchdown Prominence

For the context of this article -- and of Thomas’s overall value -- it’s important to keep in mind who has been the quarterback of the Broncos over the past two seasons. That, of course, should go without saying, but it bears repeating that touchdown opportunities and success rate are very dependent on quarterback play and scheme.

While quarterback play is a major slice of the pie, it’s foolish not to give receivers some of the credit as well. Julius Thomas has posted an unbelievably efficient 51.5% red zone touchdown rate in his last two years as a Bronco, which tops the league during that span. Red zone touchdown rate simply measures the amount of touchdowns a player scored inside of the 20-yard line, divided by those situational targets.

But, historically speaking, virtually every pass catcher or running back who has played in a Peyton Manning offense has excelled. Right?

Or has Julius Thomas been exceptionally better than former tight ends that have played with Manning?

To show this, I compiled a list of every tight end who has seen at least 64 targets (4 targets per game) in an offense quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Below are their relative Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) and Target Net Expected Points totals in different years with the Colts and the Broncos.

YearNameRec. NEPTarget NEPRec. NEP/Tgt
2001Marcus Pollard57.6520.440.79
2002Marcus Pollard34.543.450.51
2003Marcus Pollard46.4828.970.82
2005Dallas Clark45.5726.810.88
2006Ben Utecht20.485.850.39
2006Dallas Clark42.2612.510.74
2007Dallas Clark70.9230.650.70
2008Dallas Clark72.0945.130.67
2009Dallas Clark100.7464.070.76
2010Dallas Clark30.8217.590.58
2010Jacob Tamme49.9424.190.54
2012Jacob Tamme50.199.770.59
2013Julius Thomas78.1556.160.87
2014Julius Thomas60.2437.610.97

Julius Thomas fares well overall when compared to former Colts tight ends, but isn't supremely better by any means in terms of cumulative production. He has the second and fifth best seasons solely based on Reception NEP of this bunch but was never head and shoulders above some of Dallas Clark's best seasons in the late-2000s.

On a per-target basis, though, Thomas has posted the best season among Peyton Manning tight ends this year with a Reception NEP per target of 0.97. Clark's 2005 season (0.88) was the only other season that topped his 0.87 from last year, too.

Make no mistake, Julius Thomas has been very good with the Broncos. We can fairly easily say he's been one of the best tight ends Manning has ever had production-wise, especially when breaking things down on a per-target basis, but it's hard to say he unequivocally sets himself apart when considering things in terms of a 16-game season. It's also tough to separate from the fact that Dallas Clark had three seasons with very similar Reception and Target NEP totals as Julius Thomas did in 2013 and 2014.

But, sure, let's not take away from the fact that Julius Thomas has had success at Mile High and that he's a threat in the red zone.

However, when he lands with a new team this spring, he can’t take one of the best quarterbacks of all-time with him. Will his production suffer? Absolutely. How much his stat-line will suffer is the bigger question. Of course, that’s dependent on his landing spot. But, there is a major red flag yet to be planted on Thomas’ free agent prospects.

Major Injury Concerns

It’s fairly well known that Julius Thomas has a pretty extensive history with lower extremity injuries. Since he was drafted in 2011 out of Portland State, he’s had three separate ankle injuries.

Thomas’ NFL injury mishaps began back in 2011 when he suffered an ankle injury on his first career reception. The injury eventually turned into offseason surgery event to repair tore ankle ligaments causing him to miss the entire 2012 season. Then, in 2013, he missed two games due to a sore knee and ankle. This past season, Thomas missed two total games due to yet another sprained ankle on his non-surgically repaired leg, and he seemingly never got back to 100 percent the duration of the season.

An athlete being labeled “injury prone” is always a loose phrase that fans, writers, and analysts often thrown around without fully understanding the meaning. I’m going to stop short of using the injury prone cliché but do want to make note of the fact that Julius Thomas has never made it through an NFL calendar year without landing on an injury report.

What The Future Holds

According to the Denver Post, Julius Thomas’ financial asking price is a deal near $8 million per year. That type of money would place him as the third highest paid tight end in the NFL behind Rob Gronkowski ($9 million per year) and Jimmy Graham ($10 million per year). I’m not quite sure Thomas is worth that type of money.

It’s worth bringing up that there is a fairly big difference in what Gronkowski and Graham are asked to do in their offenses. To create mismatches against out-matched defensive backs, the Patriots and Saints essentially ask their stud tight ends to convert to wide receivers and run a fairly high percentage of their routes out of the slot.

Over the past two seasons, Rob Gronkowski has run 48.9% of his routes from the slot while Jimmy Graham has done so 47.5% of the time. On the other end of the scale, Julius Thomas has moved to the slot just 24.1% of the time. That’s not to say Thomas couldn’t run more slot routes in a new scheme, but it does question his versatility.

If he wants to be paid like a top-three tight end, shouldn’t he be able to move around the field like one? His red zone dominance is surely an asset, but he's not a vertical, field-stretching threat like the highest paid at the tight end position are.

Sure, statistically speaking, Julius Thomas’ production has been great. And there is no denying that he’s been one of the best tight ends in the red zone over the past two years. The problem is that, wherever Thomas lands, he can’t bring Peyton Manning with him. That’s not to say a team wouldn’t pay up for Thomas, and he could very well wind up in a fairly advantageous spot on a team that utilizes his touchdown-making ability.

But Thomas could also get paid his asking price by a team with a lot of cap space such as Jacksonville or Oakland and be in an inefficient offense with young, unstable quarterbacks.

Given his injury concerns, his fairly one-dimensional play so far in his career, and his hefty asking price, smart NFL organizations might stay away from giving Julius Thomas $8 million a year despite his red zone potential.