Why Julius Thomas should get a big deal somewhere

According to the DP and Atlanta JC, the Jaguars and Falcons are expected to be among the suitors for pending free agent Julius Thomas.

Also at the DP, Troy Renck presents some excellent thoughts about how Broncos Country continues to bury their soon-to-be-former unique threat:

Julius Thomas makes an easy villain.

He failed to score a touchdown after Nov. 9 last season. An ankle injury compromised him at practice and in games. He served as nothing more than a decoy. It left the tight end an easy target for wrath, criticism enhanced by his pending free agency.

Thomas turned down a Broncos offer for $8 million per season several months ago, concerned about how the deal was structured. NFL contracts are monopoly money, forcing players to seek hefty guaranteed signing bonuses and easily reachable roster and workout incentives.

The Broncos believe their offer was fair. Thomas didn't accept it, though, and talks stalled. Thomas will become an unrestricted free agent March 10, dramatically reducing the chance he returns to Denver.

Move on.

That remains the knee-jerk reaction of many vocal fans, talk-show callers, tweeters and bloggers understandably frustrated after Thomas' disappointing second half.

The title of Renck's column is Julius Thomas' loss will be measured inside red zone, and it's an appropriate one. It's nearly impossible to overstate how much of a touchdown threat Julius Thomas has been for the past two seasons in Denver.

Check this out:

2014 Receivers, 40 or more targets, ranked by TD%

Rk   Tm Tgt Rec Rec % Yds Yds/Tgt Y/R TD TD%
1 Julius Thomas DEN 62 43 69.35% 489 7.89 11.4 12 19.35%
2 Martavis Bryant PIT 48 26 54.17% 549 11.44 21.1 8 16.67%
3 Dwayne Allen IND 50 29 58.00% 395 7.90 13.6 8 16.00%
4 Ahmad Bradshaw IND 47 38 80.85% 300 6.38 7.9 6 12.77%
5 Antonio Gates SDG 98 69 70.41% 821 8.38 11.9 12 12.24%
6 Terrance Williams DAL 66 37 56.06% 621 9.41 16.8 8 12.12%
7 Torrey Smith BAL 92 49 53.26% 767 8.34 15.7 11 11.96%
8 Dez Bryant DAL 136 88 64.71% 1320 9.71 15 16 11.76%
9 Mike Evans TAM 122 68 55.74% 1051 8.61 15.5 12 9.84%
10 Randall Cobb GNB 127 91 71.65% 1287 10.13 14.1 12 9.45%
11 Odell Beckham NYG 130 91 70.00% 1305 10.04 14.3 12 9.23%
12 Rob Gronkowski NWE 131 82 62.60% 1124 8.58 13.7 12 9.16%
13t Mike Wallace MIA 115 67 58.26% 862 7.50 12.9 10 8.70%
13t Coby Fleener IND 92 51 55.43% 774 8.41 15.2 8 8.70%
15 Jordy Nelson GNB 151 98 64.90% 1519 10.06 15.5 13 8.61%
16t Jamaal Charles KAN 59 40 67.80% 291 4.93 7.3 5 8.47%
16t Arian Foster HOU 59 38 64.41% 327 5.54 8.6 5 8.47%
18 Marshawn Lynch SEA 48 37 77.08% 367 7.65 9.9 4 8.33%
19 Cole Beasley DAL 49 37 75.51% 420 8.57 11.4 4 8.16%
20t Jimmy Graham NOR 125 85 68.00% 889 7.11 10.5 10 8.00%
20t Theo Riddick DET 50 34 68.00% 316 6.32 9.3 4 8.00%
22 Jordan Matthews PHI 103 67 65.05% 872 8.47 13 8 7.77%
23 Eddie Royal SDG 91 62 68.13% 778 8.55 12.5 7 7.69%
24 Brandon Marshall CHI 106 61 57.55% 721 6.80 11.8 8 7.55%
25 Luke Willson SEA 40 22 55.00% 362 9.05 16.5 3 7.50%

That last column, TD%, ranks receivers who were targeted at least 40 times in 2014 (there were 162 such players) by how well they converted those targets into touchdowns. Of the 62 times Julius Thomas was targeted in 2014, 12 went for touchdowns. At 19.35%, Julius was ridiculously efficient at converting his opportunities into scores. Only seven players had a TD% better than half of Thomas's.

Touchdowns are a fickle statistic, though. So, where did Julius rank in 2013? Let's take a look:

2013 Receivers, 40 or more targets, ranked by TD%

Rk   Tm Tgt ▾ Rec Rec % Yds Yds/Tgt Y/R TD TD/Tgt
1 Vernon Davis SFO 84 52 61.90% 850 10.12 16.3 13 15.48%
2 Julius Thomas DEN 90 65 72.22% 788 8.76 12.1 12 13.33%
3 Jerricho Cotchery PIT 76 46 60.53% 602 7.92 13.1 10 13.16%
4 Marvin Jones CIN 80 51 63.75% 712 8.90 14 10 12.50%
5t Eddie Royal SDG 68 47 69.12% 631 9.28 13.4 8 11.76%
5t Brent Celek PHI 51 32 62.75% 502 9.84 15.7 6 11.76%
7 Jimmy Graham NOR 142 86 60.56% 1215 8.56 14.1 16 11.27%
8t Kenny Stills NOR 50 32 64.00% 641 12.82 20 5 10.00%
8t Jeff Cumberland NYJ 40 26 65.00% 398 9.95 15.3 4 10.00%
10 Demaryius Thomas DEN 142 92 64.79% 1430 10.07 15.5 14 9.86%
11t Riley Cooper PHI 84 47 55.95% 835 9.94 17.8 8 9.52%
11t Justin Hunter TEN 42 18 42.86% 354 8.43 19.7 4 9.52%
13 Earl Bennett CHI 43 32 74.42% 243 5.65 7.6 4 9.30%
14 Wes Welker DEN 111 73 65.77% 778 7.01 10.7 10 9.01%
15 Zach Miller SEA 56 33 58.93% 387 6.91 11.7 5 8.93%
16t Lance Kendricks STL 46 32 69.57% 258 5.61 8.1 4 8.70%
16t Tiquan Underwood TAM 46 24 52.17% 440 9.57 18.3 4 8.70%
18 Marlon Brown BAL 82 49 59.76% 524 6.39 10.7 7 8.54%
19t Randall Cobb GNB 47 31 65.96% 433 9.21 14 4 8.51%
19t Marcedes Lewis JAX 47 25 53.19% 359 7.64 14.4 4 8.51%
21 Dez Bryant DAL 159 93 58.49% 1233 7.75 13.3 13 8.18%
22 Eric Decker DEN 136 87 63.97% 1288 9.47 14.8 11 8.09%
23t Calvin Johnson DET 156 84 53.85% 1492 9.56 17.8 12 7.69%
23t Rueben Randle NYG 78 41 52.56% 611 7.83 14.9 6 7.69%
23t Chris Johnson TEN 52 42 80.77% 345 6.63 8.2 4 7.69%

He was second in the league, to Vernon Davis. Only four other players (in bold) made the top 25 in both 2013 and 2014. Touchdowns are a fickle stat, but that wasn't the case for Julius Thomas over the past two seasons. In no way does this mean that Julius is going to repeat his performance in 2015 or any other year thereafter. But it does highlight just how lethal a weapon he was for Denver in 2013 and 2014, because that seems to have been lost in the fans' wrath that Renck mentions.

Now, I'm not into projecting statistics, and won't do so here. But it's worth noting that Julius was one of several major weapons for Denver's offense in 2013 and 2014. Even prior to his latest injury, Thomas just didn't see that many targets, mainly because Emmanuel Sanders proved such a prolific receiver for Denver. Anyway, where was I going with this? Well, Julius probably isn't going to go somewhere else, be targeted 100-120 times per season, and maintain these same rates of production.

Yes, Julius also benefited from the presence of Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, and Wes Welker, helping him get open more easily than he might among a lesser receiving corps. But he's still a huge and athletic player with terrific hands. Health willing, he's going to put up big numbers elsewhere. Sure, his ankle problems may give some teams pause, but we're not talking about major knee injuries here.

Earlier, I argued that Julius is a better blocker than he's given credit for, and here, showed how uniquely efficient he's been at converting targets into touchdowns. So, what's my point?

Mainly, I wanted to consider whether Thomas is worth becoming one of the highest paid tight ends in the league. When adding in that he'll be 27 this summer, is still growing as a football player, and is an unrestricted free agent, I don't see why not.

Let's not forget that the salary cap looks like it will increase by at least 7.5%, from $133M to $143M. This is no small matter. Someone has to reset the bar within each position group every year or two, and it may just be Thomas's turn to do so. Let's say Julius gets a deal from Jacksonville or Atlanta that makes him the league's third highest paid tight end behind Jimmy Graham ($10M/year) and Rob Gronkowski ($9M). Does that mean his new team thinks Julius is the third best tight end in the NFL?

Remember - New Orleans tagged Graham last year, while Gronk was extended with a couple years left on his rookie deal. In essence, neither player reached unrestricted free agency, while it is almost certain that Julius will.

NFL contracts are about timing and opportunity, not necessarily about every player being slotted into the salary he deserves relative to his play and to his peers. Julius is young, he's a UFA at a young age and coming off a pair of 12-touchdown seasons, and he isn't coming off a major injury. And, the cap is increasing by a significant amount. Thomas is primed for a big contract, perhaps one of the biggest ever given to a tight end. Broncos Country is apparently going to collectively claim he's undeserving.

But you know what? Next year, the tight ends scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency include Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Marcedes Lewis, Greg Olsen, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen. Perhaps that glut will mean no tight end gets a massive deal. But it's more likely that Davis, Olsen, and Allen are going to be hot commodities. Next thing you know, Julius might be the fifth or sixth highest paid tight end in the league, and then Martellus Bennett and Travis Kelce will hit the market a year later, and Julius will get pushed down even farther.

This is the way of the NFL, folks.

All of that said, I don't think it makes sense for the Broncos to give Thomas that contract, given their caponomic and roster situations, and the change in coaching staff. But I wish Julius well wherever he ends up, and continue to baffle at the way so many fans feel they have to tear him down on his way out the door.

Doug is IAOFM’s resident newsman and spelling czar. Follow him on Twitter @IAOFM

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