Julius Thomas was the unquestioned waiver wire star of Week 1. He generated some buzz late in the preseason, causing many owners to target him in late-drafting leagues, but he was largely unowned heading into the Broncos' drubbing of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in Week 1. He's universally owned now, but can his owners expect him to be a reliable, weekly starter? After all, there are a lot of mouths to feed in Denver, and there are only so many yards and touchdowns to go around, even with Peyton Manning at the helm.
I believe owners will be able to count on Thomas, because of the way the Broncos use him, as well as his decision-making when running option routes. Thomas had three big plays in the first half against Baltimore -- the two touchdowns and a 44-yard reception. He was lined up exactly the same way on those three plays, standing up a bit wider than the spot where a traditional tight end would be in a three-point stance, but not quite where a slot receiver begins a play.
He didn't have a option on his first touchdown. He simply burned the defense with an out and up on a play where the Broncos were able to take away safety help from linebacker Daryl Smith, who played as if he expected help over the top. His next two catches, though, were both perfectly run option routes, in which he read the defense's leverage, ran the correct route to open space, and made game-changing plays.
Here's the pre-snap alignment on the first big play, a 44-yard catch to set up 1st-and-10 on the Baltimore 23-yard-line: (All images are screen shots of All-22 film.)
That's Thomas, No. 80, lined up outside the left tackle. Terrell Suggs is directly over him, with linebacker Josh Bynes more likely to draw coverage. Indeed, as the ball is snapped, Suggs blitzes and Bynes drops into coverage. Bynes plays inside and jumps the dig run by Demaryius Thomas. Thomas has an option to either break to the sideline or go up the seam, depending on Bynes' leverage. The tight end properly reads the coverage, and takes exactly with it gives him: the out. He was able to break one tackle, resulting in a huge gain:
On the next play, Thomas is lined up in the same spot, on the left side of the line, standing up a step or two off the tackle. Bynes is forced to cover Montee Ball, as he immediately comes out of the backfield and runs a route straight at the middle of the defense. That leaves safety Michael Huff to play Thomas one-on-one with a deep safety. Here is the beginning of that play:
You can see Huff at the top left of the picture, already well outside Thomas. This gives him his first indication this time, it will likely be the seam that's open. When the play begins, Huff stays on Thomas' outside hip. With Bynes occupied by Ball, meaning no one can drop underneath his route, the seam is wide open for Thomas. Here's the play as it develops:
Unfortunately Huff falls out of the picture a bit in the first shot, but you can see his helmet in the top left portion. He remains outside Thomas, giving him the seam. In the next two shots, you can see Thomas has read Huff's leverage perfectly, staying inside and going right up the wide open seam. At this point, it's a layup for Manning.
While Ball and the other receivers had different responsibilities on these two plays, Thomas had the exact same option on both of them. It may look like a different play, but the way the defense played it determined the route Thomas ran. Jason Witten has crafted a Hall of Fame career by mastering the option route. The fact that Thomas seems to have it down by his sixth career game is striking. It also means that despite all the other weapons at Manning's disposal, Thomas will remain a key part of the offense all season.
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