Editor’s note: This is a guess post from Justin Becker of Fantasy Football Overdose. You can follow the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Fantasy Football Projections visit Fantasy Football Overdose – a fantasy football blog.
Julius Thomas had some minor hype coming into the 2013 fantasy football season as a mild fantasy sleeper. Naturally, the Denver Broncos drafted him obscurely out of Portland State for a reason in 2011 for a reason. And putting the pieces together, it was at least somewhat possible that Thomas finally realizes his insane potential with Peyton Manning guiding Denver’s potent offense.
But did anyone really see Thomas coming? It’s doubtful. After all, fellow tight end Jacob Tamme was the guy who played with Manning in Indianapolis. He had the experience, the role and the chemistry. Thomas was just some freak athlete who had amazing size. Other than that, he was still a random dude who came from Portland State and had one career catch to his name.
In fact, Thomas was active for just four games in 2012, Peyton Manning’s first season with the Broncos, and he didn’t catch a single ball. Needless to say, it wasn’t entirely logical to predict that Thomas would suddenly launch himself to the number one tight end spot. It’d be even more ridiculous to assume he’d supplant Tamme and all the other tight ends as the main option in the passing game at the position.
Even crazier, would it be, to think that Thomas could make such a big impact that he could even rival the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for targets. Add in slot machine wide receiver Wes Welker, and all of this should have had even the most casual fantasy expect in a straight jacket.
But if anyone did call it, they should get the credit. Heck, let’s label them geniuses right now. Because Thomas didn’t just ascend. He wasn’t just a solid sleeper that panned out. He was a straight up boss in the fantasy realm – and he became one from day one.
That’s right, Thomas wasted absolutely no time in his on-field suggestion that it was time for him to be a part of what would end up being a historic Broncos passing game. Right away in week one, against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens, no less, Thomas ripped off 110 receiving yards and two impressive touchdowns on just five catches.
Surely that was a fluke, though. Not even close. Instead of being a one-hit wonder, Thomas quickly became a must-start TE1 on a weekly basis, churning out seven more touchdowns over the next six contests, while also hauling in 31 more receptions.
Blessed with elite size, speed and overall athleticism, Thomas took the fantasy football world by storm in 2013 and finished his first full season as a starter with 65 receptions, 788 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.
He also did this in just 14 games, as he played through an ankle injury and even missed two games due to injury. He also did this despite sharing the ball with Thomas, Welker and Decker – all of which caught over 70 balls. In fact, had Welker stayed healthy himself (concussion), Julius Thomas would have been in competition with three guys who caught over 80 passes. Throw in running back Knowshon Moreno, and Thomas was part of a five-pack of Broncos that caught at least 60 passes.
Enter the 2014 fantasy scene, and things are about to look even better for Thomas. Once seen as a raw receiver, Thomas is visibly more polished than ever before, while he’s also developed his chemistry with Manning and has Denver’s system down. Provided he stays healthy, there is very little reason to think he can’t chase down career highs across the board.
That’s just the obvious hope, of course. A little bit of logic might actually come into play to help it become a reality.
Naturally, the loss of both Moreno and Decker to free agency frees up a ton of targets in the passing game – over 140 to be more specific. Thomas surely isn’t the only weapon in the passing game to benefit from those two guys leaving. Montee Ball will replace Moreno and Emmanuel Sanders will take over Decker’s old role. But Ball isn’t nearly the proven receiver Moreno was, and Sanders also isn’t quite as good as Decker, and even struggles to stay healthy.
Translation: Thomas is in for an even bigger role in 2014, and that’s a very, very good thing.
Of course, we do have to factor in everything. For one, Peyton Manning is one year older, defenses are going to adjust to Denver’s ridiculously potent passing attack and Thomas is no longer a secret that teams don’t have any tape on to prepare for.
Thomas also still needs work on his fundamentals. When it comes to blocking, route-running and focus on the ball, he’s still not at an elite level. When the ball is in his hands or when he’s near the red-zone, Thomas can be an absolute terror. But for a true leap in overall production, it might take some extra focus and dedication on his part. In addition, all of these other question marks may need to fall in order.
The biggest question mark, though, is Denver’s offensive success in general. As mentioned, defenses will adjust accordingly, while quarterbacks simply don’t produce career years back to back, if we’re going off of history. One quick example – Peyton Manning dropped down to 28 touchdown passes a year after throwing a then-record 50 with the Colts.
Ultimately, there’s nothing to worry about here and the “risks” are merely reaches. In reality, Thomas is an elite athlete who can make plays on the ball and with the ball in his hands. Even when he’s not doing damage with his legs, he can be a force in the red-zone. Truly, even if Thomas somehow had a major role reduction and was simply a guy Manning looked for in the red-zone, he’d still have very good fantasy value as a red-zone threat.
Thomas is more than, though, and the really scary part is we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Because of that, he’s a full-fledged TE1 in fantasy land and shouldn’t last long into drafts. Rob Gronkowski used to be Jimmy Graham’s only competition for the #1 tight end spot. That has changed.