Why Julius Thomas Can Succeed With the Jacksonville Jaguars

Thomas decided to head to Jacksonville in free agency. How will he impact the passing game?

For too long, the Jacksonville Jaguars have stood by idly in the NFL ranks, watching teams succeed and improve without much of an upward swing of their own.

Well, they're trying to change that. At least that much is certain.

The Jags owned a promising defense in 2014, so it only makes sense that offensive tweaks are necessary in order to capitalize. They began that process by signing tight end Julius Thomas to a multi-year deal, worth a reported $9 million per season.

Is paying up for a tight end worth it for a team that struggled passing the ball like the Jaguars, who ranked last in passing efficiency based on our metrics, did last year?

Let's try to find out.

Thomas's Production

Based on raw production, Thomas's 2014 season can be effectively split in two.

Per-Game SplitsTargetsReceptionsYardsYards/RecTouchdowns
Weeks 1-105.674.2247.0011.131.33
Weeks 11-173.671.6722.0013.200.00

After a 41-17 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders in Week 10, Thomas failed to score a touchdown the rest of the season and caught just five his 11 targets after that point. He did haul in six of his seven targets against the Colts in the playoffs for 53 yards, but he again failed to reach the end zone.

What do the metrics have to say about this declining production?

Thomas's Metrics

Well, in terms of Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), the decline was pretty drastic. NEP, in case you're new to numberFire, is our signature football metric. It centers on the fact that not all production is created equally. For example, a 10-yard reception that nets a first down helps to add to a team's expected scoring outcome but a 10-yard grab on 3rd-and-20 is little more than a stat-padding play. If you need further explanation, check out our glossary.

So, Thomas ended the season with a Reception NEP of 60.24. That ranked 11th among 43 tight ends who caught at least 20 passes. Of course, though, Thomas missed significant time, so what's more telling is his per-target metrics.

Thomas's Reception NEP per target (0.97) was tops in the tight end subset, and the only 60-plus target player in the NFL with a better score was Kenny Stills (1.05). That type of efficiency wasn't exactly new to Thomas, as his per-target Reception NEP of 0.87 ranked fourth among 20-plus catch tight ends in 2013.

But how did the late-season woes impact his torrid pace?

Metrics SplitsRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch Rate
Weeks 1-103856.905141.931.1274.51%
Weeks 11-1753.3411-4.320.3045.45%
Season Total4360.246237.610.9769.35%

I'm really, really not suggesting that we panic as a result of a five-reception sample size, but a Reception NEP per target of 0.30 would have ranked 72nd among the 78 tight ends who caught at least five passes this season (think Cory Harkey production). If this is the efficiency Thomas provides to Jacksonville as a result of injuries, then things will get mighty messy again in Jacksonville.

On the other hand, through Week 10, Orange Julius' -- er...Teal Julius? -- metrics topped the entire league.

Among the 135 players who saw at least 30 targets through Week 10, Thomas's Reception NEP per target (1.12) was best in the league. That means, in a league with big play receivers such as DeSean Jackson, touchdown-makers such as Dez Bryant, and however you would classify Rob Gronkowski, Thomas's efficiency was the best in the NFL.

But I'm being a little facetious. Check out the rest of the top five.

Through Wk 10RecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TarCatch Rate
Julius Thomas3856.905141.931.1274.51%
Malcom Floyd2848.354432.371.1063.64%
Dwayne Allen2642.874032.091.0765.00%
Travis Kelce3447.134441.341.0777.27%
Antonio Gates3558.275539.571.0663.64%

For as outstanding as Thomas was through 10 weeks, he wasn't the only non-Gronkowski or non-Graham to have some eye-opening efficiency numbers. Still, we can't count out Thomas's potential of being a truly elite per-target threat. After all, Travis Kelce, for example, was nearly as efficient as Thomas was through Week 10 while playing with Alex Smith, who ranked 11th in Passing NEP at the time.

The Verdict

There's no reason or way to stick some arbitrary grade on the Thomas signing before the ink dries or he plays some games in Jacksonville, but the signing certainly seems to possess both a high ceiling and a low floor.

If Thomas' injuries remain to nag him, and if Blake Bortles, whose Passing NEP of -97.97 was far and away the worst in the NFL this year, can't improve his efficiency, then signing Thomas may prove fruitless. However, given that wide receivers can play well with poor quarterback efficiency, we can't write off his potential based solely on Bortles or assume Thomas only succeeded because of Peyton Manning. I know, I know. Manning obviously helped, but good receivers have played with struggling quarterbacks before.

If Thomas stays healthy, which is admittedly a big "if," then there's no reason to think that he can't be one of the most efficient tight ends in the NFL despite making the massive downgrade from Manning to Bortles, a -265.44-point drop in Passing NEP based on this year. It won't be easy, but it's certainly not impossible.