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.
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%
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|
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.