Can Julius Thomas Be Trusted as a Fantasy Football Asset?

Can Julius Thomas again be a key to fantasy football championships?

It’s very difficult for me to shake the idea of Julius Thomas being hyper-dependent on touchdown scoring for his fantasy production, going back to his days with (a mostly healthy) Peyton Manning tossing him the football.

To that point, during the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Denver, 24 of his 108 receptions went for touchdowns. That’s a realistically unsustainable 22.2 percent touchdown rate.

Don’t get me wrong. Touchdowns are the magic elixir that powers nearly every successful fantasy football squad, but it’s important to remember that touchdown production can be extremely volatile, especially for tight ends.

The efficiency of an offense trickles down to every pass-catching position, making it easy to explain why Thomas found the end zone so often in Denver. Now in Jacksonville, Thomas doesn’t have that efficiency to lean on -- the Jaguars currently rank 29th in offensive efficiency according to our metrics here at numberFire.

He had his most productive game of the season last week against San Diego, posting a 9-catch, 116-yard, 1-touchdown stat line.

Is he on track to becoming a fantasy asset we can trust heading into the fantasy playoffs? 

A Change In Scenery

The Jacksonville passing game was a disaster last season with Blake Bortles posting the worst Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) mark of any quarterback since the 2009 season.

Despite making marked improvements this season, the Jaguars still rank 28th in the league in passing efficiency (0.36), meaning that, in an age where the passing game drives nearly every NFL offense, Bortles barely adds positive points to his team’s total over expectation.

The chart below shows the difference in passing-game efficiency between the 2014 Denver Broncos and the 2015 Jacksonville Jaguars through 12 weeks of each respective season:

Team Pass Plays Adjusted Passing NEP Adjusted Passing NEP/Play
2014 Broncos 460 146.94 0.30
2015 Jaguars 470 20.65 0.00

It’s clear that the current offensive situation that Thomas finds himself in is much, much worse, meaning that a drop in individual efficiency is intuitive.

Below are Thomas’ respective NEP metrics through 12 weeks of action from both this season and last:

Year Receptions Reception NEP Targets Reception NEP/Target Catch Rate
2014 40 55.57 54 1.03 74.07%
2015 29 26.11 51 0.51 56.86%

Efficiency Matters

When given the choice between two players in a vacuum -- one efficient and one not -- it’s wise to choose the efficient player. This is an obvious statement that favors a player who makes the most of their given opportunities.

Among all tight ends with at least 50 targets in 2015, the only tight end in the top-five in terms of Reception NEP per target to not also be in the top-five in season-long PPR scoring is Benjamin Watson

Thomas’ saving grace could be the fact that Allen Hurns -- second on the team in targets (81) -- may miss playing time as he goes through the league’s concussion protocol. The Jaguars have the sixth-highest pass-to-run ratio, meaning there should continue to be ample target opportunity for Thomas should Hurns miss extended time.

A Crucial Piece of the Fantasy Playoff Puzzle?

At this point in the fantasy football season, we must balance what we have already observed through the first 12 weeks with what we think will happen over the next four. Finding this symmetry is difficult but leads to the ultimate goal of a league championship. 

Taking a peek at Jacksonville’s schedule during Weeks 13 through 16 (Tennessee, Indianapolis, Atlanta and New Orleans) should make Thomas owners lick their chops. All four upcoming opponents rank in the bottom-12 in terms of fantasy points allowed per game to opposing tight ends with New Orleans ranking dead-last.

While trade deadlines have passed in many leagues, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to throw out some offers to get Thomas if the option still exists in your particular league.

It’s highly unlikely we will see Thomas all of a sudden become an efficiency superstar, similar to his previous levels while in Denver. But the combination of his remaining schedule and possible target-share bump make him a very intriguing option at a very volatile, and somewhat desolate, position for fantasy purposes.