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A Closer Look at Denver Broncos Sleeper Tight End Julius Thomas

Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas
Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas

June 11, 2013; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (80) warms up during mini camp drills at the Broncos training facility. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There are late-round tight end sleepers, and then there’s Julius Thomas.

Our choice of cheap — almost free — tight ends who will prove fantasy football viable for at least some of the upcoming season. From Rob Housler to Zach Sudfeld to Fred Davis and Brandon Pettigrew, there is no shortage of streamable tight ends available in the 11th, 12th, and 13th rounds.

Enter Thomas, the Denver Broncos’ third year tight end out of Portland State University who stems from the lineage of basketball-player-turned-footballers like Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, and Antonio Gates.

Thomas doesn’t even have an average draft position on Fantasy Football Calculator. He’s being taken as a flier in the deepest of re-draft leagues.

Thomas, in the absence of Broncos’ tight end Joel Dreessen — who is struggling with a knee injury — has inherited the team’s “F” tight end position. It’s Denver’s “F” tight end that runs routes, catches passes, and has at least some fantasy relevance.

I’d like to work through Thomas’s fantasy points per route run (FPPRR) potential, drawing conclusions from how the Broncos used their tight ends in Peyton Manning’s first season in Denver.

FPPRR is a truer measurement of tight end production, since it measures fantasy production on a per-route basis, not a per-opportunity basis. Remember: some tight ends are asked to block much more than others, so measuring fantasy worthiness on a per-snap basis is also misleading.

FPPRR is made possible through Pro Football Focus’s compilation of route running data from 2008-2012.

DEN tight end Targets Routes Run FPPRR
Joel Dreessen 57 288 .23
Jacob Tamme 80 294 .23

Both Broncos tight ends posted FPPRR numbers beyond the .21 that we look for in useable fantasy commodities. That’s the good news.

The bad news: The veritable timeshare between Denver’s tight ends put a hard cap on the fantasy ceiling of both guys. Thirty-one tight ends ran more routes than Tamme in 2012, and 32 ran more than Dreessen.

Thomas, if he takes on the team’s “F” tight end spot, would need to run around 400 routes in 2013 to have any sort of top-15 upside. It’s hard to say if he’ll get that chance, or if it’ll matter with Wes Welker absorbing so much of the middle-of-the-field action from Manning.

Here are Thomas’s numbers after two preseason games. Take them with a healthy grain of salt, and an understanding that this is just about as small a sample size as you can examine.

DEN tight end Targets Receptions Yards Routes
Julius Thomas 8 8 105 33

I’d be careful not to turn my degenerate nose up at these numbers, however, as the preseason can teach us a lot about what might be coming in the regular season. That’s doubly true for unknown fantasy commodities like Thomas.

Thomas has posted a .31 FPPRR in two preseason games, for the record.

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said the team’s plan is to get Thomas “as many reps as possible” in the offense’s pass catching tight end position. Tamme, it should be noted, is also on the shelf with a lingering leg injury. It seems that Thomas will have every opportunity to seize the job.

There’s still not much hope for Thomas becoming a route-running glutton this year, so let’s move through his fantasy outcomes should he become that “F” spot starter.

DEN tight end Routes Run FPPRR Fantasy points TE rank
Julius Thomas 291 .23 66.9 26th
Julius Thomas 291 .25 72.8 22nd
Julius Thomas 291 .30 87.3 15th

Manning’s willingness to throw the ball through tight windows to Thomas in two preseason games – and his comments about the tight end’s role in the Denver offense — makes me think the lowest projection should be tossed aside.

Affording Thomas a .30 FPPRR is a little generous, but possible.

I think it’s clear that unless Thomas is installed as a reliable part of the Broncos offense, which could very well throw the ball with more frequency as their defense and running game sputter early on, he won’t be an every-week starter. Rather, he’s shaping up as a reliable streaming option that could, with time, morph into a plug-and-play guy.

It’s dangerous to assume Thomas will run 400 routes — the number he’d need to reach to provide any level of useful weekly fantasy production.

Thomas, in re-draft is a worthwhile flier for those with deep benches. Otherwise, he should be ready and waiting on your local waiver wire come the bye-weeks.

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