Julius Thomas had an interesting path to the NFL. He played basketball in college at Portland State. After finishing his basketball career, he had one year of eligibility to play football. After an all conference campaign, the Broncos used a fourth round pick on him in 2011.
After two quiet seasons, Thomas blossomed in 2013, posting a 65/788/12 stat line. He had 38 catches, 423 yards, and 12 touchdowns through the first ten weeks of 2014 before suffering an ankle injury against the Rams. Thomas missed three games and didn't seem like himself the rest of the season. after returning. Now the a dynamic receiving tight end set to hit free agency.
I am a big believer in stockpiling receiving tight ends. There aren't many defenders in the league capable of matching up against tight ends built like linebackers with receiver skillsets. The 6'5" 250 pound Thomas was clocked in the 4.6 range in the 40 yard dash coming out of college
Teams win in the NFL by creating mismatches. Thomas is a walking mismatch. He's too big for most defensive backs and too fast for most linebackers to cover. It is difficult to game plan to take away a player like Thomas too. That is because the defense doesn't know where he will line up on a given play. Want to bracket him using a linebacker and a safety? Maybe he splits wide, and you end up with a linebacker in the uncomfortable position essentially playing outside at cornerback. A guy like Thomas lets a team dictate a matchup also. He can be sent out across from cornerbacks.
For a guy as new to the game as Thomas is, I think he has picked up a lot of the nuances at a fast rate. He isn't the greatest route runner in the world, but it has improved markedly. I also think he's a quietly solid pass blocker when left in. Over the last two seasons, he has pass blocked on 199 plays and only been responsible for 6 bad blocks leading to disruptions. One might credit this to Peyton Manning's quick release, but Thomas does a solid job. He knows his assignment and how to push his man to help. Of course, leaving him in to block means Thomas isn't doing what he does best, make an impact as a pass catcher. He is just too athletic for most defenders and doesn't seem bothered by contact on his routes. As a run blocker, he is Cumberland-esque. He struggles to find his assignment and gain leverage, but the days of the tight end being like a sixth offensive lineman are over in the NFL. Would I prefer my tight end block? Yes, but if I have to choose between run blocking and creating mismatches in the passing game, I'm choosing the latter every time. That's what wins in today's NFL.
Also of note is Thomas' effectiveness in the red zone. That's the spot on the field where there isn't much room to operate. Receivers don't have the space they need to gain separation from running routes. The best way to create throwing lanes is to be big. Thomas' 24 touchdowns in the last two season point to a player who is very effective. It also has an impact on the entire red zone offense. A guy like that draws attention. How important can it be? Remember, Thomas was injured in Week 11. Now consider this.
Peyton Manning in the red zone: Weeks 1-12: 78% completion (1st), 97 Total QBR (1st) Weeks 13-17: 39% completion (30th); 18 Total QBR (22nd)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2015
Obviously there were other factors at play such as Manning's injury, but that stat probably does say something about Thomas' impact in the red zone. That's nothing small to consider given the Jets' 2014 red zone issues.
I love Jace Amaro. I think the sky is the limit for him. He has the potential to be a matchup nightmare for defenses. Pair him with Thomas, and you create two matchup nightmares for a defense. You double the tight end effect I mentioned above. For the first time in a long time, it could give the Jets an offense that forces the defense to adjust its approach.
What kind of contract might Thomas be looking at? I don't think he will get Gronkowski or Graham money. If some team is willing to give that, the Jets should walk away. Looking for a contract doppleganger, something in the Witten, Gates, Davis range of a roughly $7-8 million average cap hit would probably be the max. He doesn't have the track records of those players, and he isn't a complete tight end. I think he does have the potential to be a major difference maker as a more featured part of an offense, though. I'd be interested in that range or lower.