Julius Thomas and Sustainable Fantasy Football Production

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Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas

Sep 5, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (80) reacts after scoring his second touchdown reception in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

A much-deserved butt slap is in order for anyone who had the gall to plug Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas into their Week 1 lineups.

Probably he will finish the season’s first week as the top scoring tight end in fantasy football, after five catches, 110 yards, and two touchdowns. I started Thomas in a couple leagues — a not-so-humble brag, I know — and was reminded of the unbridled joy that results from deploying a boom-bust guy and getting the boom.

The question remains: can Thomas sustain any semblance of consistent fantasy production in a Broncos offense stuffed to the gills with pass-catching talent?

Wes Welker predictably absorbed much of the underneath action against the Ravens, hauling in nine passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns. This, however, wouldn’t be the first time Peyton Manning supported an elite fantasy slot wide receiver and a dependable top-tier tight end.

Manning did as much in Indianapolis, when Austin Collie and Dallas Clark were fantasy monsters, often posting solid stat lines in the same game.

Here’s a snapshot of Thomas’s usage against Baltimore. Fantasy points per route run (FPPRR), as a refresher, is a per-route measurement of player’s fantasy production — a much more reliable measure than points per snap, for instance. FPPRR is made possible through Pro Football Focus‘ compilation of route running data.

Player Pass plays Routes Run Targets Catches FPPRR
Julius Thomas     45      26      7      5    .88

 

That FPPRR is downright silly. That’ll happen when two of your five catches go for scores.

Thomas’s routes run are a bit on the disturbing side, as most elite tight ends run more than 30 routes per game, though not all. Dennis Pitta, last year’s No. 7 fantasy tight end, ran just 24.8 routes per contest. Jason Witten led all tight ends in 2012 with 39.4 routes run per game. That’s ridiculous.

Below is a look at Manning’s tight ends’ production over his past four seasons. I’ve combined Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen in 2012 (they were in a route-running timeshare) and Clark and Tamme in 2010, as Clark missed 10 games that year.

Player(s) Year Fantasy Points TE Rank Routes/Game
Dallas Clark 2008 118 TE3 28.2
Dallas Clark 2009 171 TE2 31.5
Clark and Tamme 2010 140 TE2 35.8
Tamme and Dreessen 2012 133 TE4 36.2

 

That, I must say, was an encouraging little exercise. Even fantasy obsessives should be shocked by the combined production of Dreeseen and Tamme last year, as neither was fantasy relevant.

It seems unlikely at best that Thomas will plunge into a value-destroying tight end timeshare even when Tamme and Dreessen are at full health, as Denver beat writers said time and again this summer that Thomas stood out in training camp, sometimes appearing to be a larger version of Demaryius Thomas.

The per-game tight end fantasy production for Manning’s tight ends has been remarkably consistent too.

Player(s) Year FF points/game FPPRR
Clark 2008 7.9 .26
Clark 2009 10.7 .23
Tamme and Clark 2010 8.7 .24
Tamme and Dreessen 2012 8.6 .23

 

Offensive pace shouldn’t be overlooked in Thomas’s long-term fantasy projections. The Broncos ran 74 plays from scrimmage Thursday night — a startlingly high number that could have eclipsed 80 if they hadn’t built a huge lead in the second half.

The more plays, the merrier, especially in an offense oozing with weapons. Manning’s frantic pace, if it keeps up, plays right into Thomas’s hands. His opportunity, in other words, could be kept afloat by mere play volume.

Thomas played all 74 of Denver’s offensive snaps in the opener, more than any skill position player other than Manning.

Selling high on Thomas might be worthwhile if you can bring back a chunk of fantasy profit, so don’t discount it just because Thomas made you feel so damn smart against Baltimore.

For those who wrongfully charge that the tight end position is shallow in fantasy football, and have subsequently pooh-poohed Thomas’s Week 1 performance as little more than an aberration and a bit of good luck, I think the above numbers say otherwise.

C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.
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