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2014 Outlook for Julius Thomas: Biggest 2013 Breakouts

This breakouts and busts series will run all through fantasy football draft prep season.  We'll be counting down from 10 for the top breakouts and busts from the 2013 fantasy football season.  We previously looked at Jordan Cameron (6), Julian Edelman (7), Zach Stacy (8), Ryan Matthews (9), and Michael Floyd (10).

Another Breakout Player Coming From The Tight End Position

It seems that a recurring theme for this year's breakout players is that many of them are coming out of the Tight End position.  This position has evolved so quickly in the past few years that it has become a point of emphasis for some of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.  The Denver Broncos had arguably the best trio of wide receivers in the league last year, and had Peyton Manning throwing them the ball.  It was without question that they would be dynamic, explosive, and nearly unstoppable.  They shattered even the highest of expectations, and some of that credit goes to the emergence of Tight End Julius Thomas.


Julius Thomas

RotoBaller-Fantasy-Football-Advice-Julius-ThomasComing out of college, Thomas was as raw as could be.  As you've probably heard on ESPN during every highlight they show of him, he only began to play college football in 2010, at Portland State of all places.  He was a four year basketball player, and showed the skills of one on the football field. He was impressive  and had quick feet, great size and speed, he showed awesome vertical movement, and he had great hands.  He was always considered an exciting "move" tight end prospect, and he just needed to understand the game better in order to evolve (a feat easier said than done).  In his first two years, he made little to no impact as he nursed rather severe ankle injuries which cut into his time to learn the Broncos offense.  While the future was bright, expectation had to be tempered.  In 2012, his second season in the NFL, and his first playing with Peyton Manning, he played a total of four games and had zero catches, playing behind the untalented Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen.  In 2013, he was finally healthy, and showed the world what he could do.


The Stats

Thomas shot out of the cannon to start the season.  In his first game, he reeled in 110 yards on five catches and scored two touchdowns, one of the two times he achieved those stats.  In total for the year, he had 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on 65 catches and 89 targets, good for top 10 in each category (3rd in TDs) in just 14 games played.  He was also ranked 9th in plays of 20 yards or more, and had the longest catch of the year for a tight end for 74 yards.  He averaged 56.3 yards per game, good for 5th in the league.


The Analysis

A lot of experts begged Thomas as a deep sleeper last year because of his pure athletic talent and situation.  He had almost no competition in camp, and was finally healthy for the first time in a long time.  He exceeded almost all expectations, and put on a show of pure athleticism on almost every play.  His vertical movement was as good as advertised, as Manning could just throw the ball anywhere and Thomas could catch it over any defensive back. He also had the speed to beat linebacker coverage, a defensive scheme he saw very frequently due to the weapons surrounding him. He would never face the teams best cover man because of the sheer talent around him.  Manning looked for Thomas often, and wasn't afraid to throw a deep ball in tight coverage his way.  He was also his primary red zone target on multiple occasions over Demaryius Thomas and plus red zone receiver Eric Decker.  When Wes Welker missed time, Thomas was able to step up and produce.  It was clear that Manning showed a lot of trust in Julius Thomas, and defenses just couldn't figure him out.  He still has to improve his game a bit, as he was taken off the field on a lot of early down plays due to his limited blocking ability.  He also still struggled with some zone defenses and plus coverage linebackers.  His stats, however, would have been even better if he wasn't the 3rd and sometimes 4th target for Peyton Manning.


Looking Ahead

There is so much to love about Julius Thomas.  As long as Peyton Manning is the Broncos quarterback, any starter on that offense is a must own.  For 2014, the outlook is even brighter for Thomas. Without Eric Decker, he moves up to Manning's second or third option behind Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker (Emmanuel Sanders will not compete with him).  Many experts are also expecting a decline in production from the entire Broncos offense, but there really isn't much evidence to support that.  As long as Peyton Manning's neck is healthy, it's fair to expect something around 5000-5300 yards passing for the Broncos team.  Without Decker stealing end zone looks and taking receptions, look for Thomas's target number to increase from 89 to roughly 110 over a 16 game season.  If he is able to stay healthy, he could top 1000 yards and catch anywhere between 8 and 15 touchdowns.  Those would be impressive numbers for a receiver and are elite for a tight end.  I'd draft Thomas as an elite talent, and take him right after Jimmy Graham (and Rob Gronkowski if he is fully healthy, but they are similar injury risks).

Looking ahead for dynasty owners, Brock Osweiler has shown well in preseason action, and the Broncos have repeatedly said that he is the quarterback of the future.  As long as Peyton Manning is the quarterback and Julius Thomas's ankle holds up, he is a top four option.  When Osweiler becomes the quarterback, Thomas may face some regression, but still should be one of the strongest option of all the tight ends.