Adam wanted the apple. Julius Thomas wanted the money. In both cases, their rapaciousness got them banned from Eden. In Thomas’s case, it also meant landing in Jacksonville. The move may have been good for his bank account, but it will be a disaster for his fantasy value.
Thomas rose to real-life and fantasy prominence in 2013 as a key member of one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. The Broncos, spurred by Peyton Manning, set an NFL record by scoring 606 points that season; that comes out to 37.9 points per game, meaning that there were typically at least four or five touchdowns to spread around among Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and RB Knowshon Moreno. The tight end Thomas got his fair share of those scores, hitting paydirt 12 times. He finished the season ranked third at his position, trailing only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.
Denver’s offense wasn’t nearly as electric last year as it was in 2013, but it was still second in the NFL in points with 482, or 30.1 per game. Thomas again racked up the touchdowns, finding the end zone 12 more times. After scoring 24 touchdowns in two seasons, Thomas—rightfully so—wanted to get paid. The Broncos—rightfully so—had higher priorities. Thus, Thomas inked a 5-year, $46-million deal with the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars in the offseason. That’s where the story of “Julius Thomas, fantasy star,” takes an unfortunate turn.
Thomas ranked third among tight ends in standard-scoring fantasy leagues in 2013 and seventh last year. In the two seasons combined, Graham was the only tight end who scored more than Thomas’s 271.7 points. Of course, he did that with Peyton Manning in one of the best offensive environments in NFL history. He’s now at the opposite end of the spectrum with Bortles and the Jaguars. That wouldn’t necessarily be a death sentence for every pass-catcher, but over the last two seasons, Thomas was one of the most environment-dependent fantasy stars in the league.
During his two seasons as Denver’s starting tight end, Thomas had 24 touchdowns in 27 games, or .89 scores per game. In the same timeframe, Graham had .84 touchdowns per game and Rob Gronkowski had .73 per game. We can flip it over to receivers, and Thomas measures up nearly as well. Touchdown machine Dez Bryant, who has reached the end zone 29 times in the last two seasons, has scored .91 times per game. Jordy Nelson, who, you know, only plays with the best quarterback in football, has .83 touchdowns per game, and that doesn’t include the games when Aaron Rodgers was injured in 2013. Demaryius Thomas, while playing alongside Julius, scored .78 touchdowns per game. Calvin Johnson had .74, and Antonio Brown had .66. Bryant was the only pass-catcher to have a higher touchdown rate than Thomas in the last two seasons, and he’s arguably the No. 1 fantasy receiver this season.
Thomas is now part of a Jacksonville offense that doesn’t quite measure up to the one that helped him earn all that money the Jaguars threw at him in the offseason. The Broncos scored 126 touchdowns in the last two seasons. The Jaguars scored 47, meaning they didn’t even double up Thomas’s total from 2013 and '14 combined. That’s bad news for the tight end, whose value was entirely touchdown-dependent. Thomas was a monster in the red zone for Manning, but he was almost an afterthought on all other areas of the field. He had 65 catches for 788 yards in 2013, which ranked eighth among tight ends. Last year, he caught 43 balls for just 489 yards, a pathetic total that had him behind the likes of Scott Chandler, Niles Paul and Mychal Rivera. To be fair, Thomas missed three games due to injury, but 37.6 yards per game isn’t going to get the job done if Thomas isn’t also scoring 10 or more touchdowns. It’s awfully hard to imagine that happening for him with the Jaguars.
Now, there are ways in which the offensive environment in Jacksonville, while much worse on the whole, is actually better for Thomas individually. Bortles doesn’t have nearly the quality of weapons out wide that Manning did in the last two years. Instead of fighting for looks with Demaryius Thomas, Decker (in 2013) and Emmanuel Sanders (in '14), he’ll be competing with Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns. Robinson has legitimate breakout potential this season, but clearly this group doesn’t measure up to what Thomas left behind in Denver. The running game, with T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson, may not steal away as many touchdowns as Moreno and C.J. Anderson did in 2013 and 2014, respectively. In short, Thomas will be more of a focal point in Jacksonville than he was in Denver.
Add it all up, however, and it’s hard to get excited about Thomas’ fantasy value this season. Had he remained in Denver, he probably would have been a top-five option, right alongside Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen and Martellus Bennett, trailing the Gronk-Graham tier. With the Jaguars, however, he falls to the backend of the TE1 class, and could actually be no more than a glorified backup. Tight ends I’d take before him include Jordan Cameron, Delanie Walker and his replacement in Denver, Owen Daniels.