Julius Thomas leads the NFL in touchdown receptions with 12; no small feat for a player who has missed two games. On the other hand, Virgil Green is tied for last in the NFL, as he has yet to catch a touchdown pass.
As tight ends go, Thomas and Green are polar opposites. On one hand, Thomas is the finesse pass-catching tight end that opposing defenses dread facing. On the other, Green is a mauling blocking tight end that sets the edge in the running game and helps protect Peyton Manning.
Yet, in games where Green has started (excluding the Seattle game where he left early due to injury) the team is undefeated with eight wins. In the four games Green missed due to injury (including Seattle), the Broncos recorded a single win (against the Oakland Raiders). In all four contests, Thomas saw an uptick in snaps as a blocker, which turned out to be a detriment to the team.
With the Broncos back-to-back impressive wins against tough opponents, I'm going to take a deeper look at the impact of both players. In those victories, the Broncos ran for 201 and 214 yards, respectively. Both games represent the team's highest totals of the season.
Coincidentally, both wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins came without Thomas, who was inactive, due to injury. That brings the Broncos record to 7-3 when Thomas has started and played a major role. These losses should not be construed as soley Thomas' fault. After all, he is the kind of tight end many teams covet, and yet, the Broncos have seemingly had more success when their blocking tight end has been on the field.
If we take a closer look at the Broncos three losses, the numbers reveal deeper evidence. Against the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots, the Broncos ran for a total of 107 yards on 47 carries, gaining just 2.28 yards per carry. To put that into perspective, without Green, the team averaged about 16 carries per loss for roughly 36 yards each game. When you look at those numbers, it's no wonder the team lost in each of those contests.
In contrast, in the nine games the Broncos have won (Green started eight), they have averaged 134 yards rushing, while averaging 4.37 yards per tote. What is also important to consider, is that the team has been more willing to run the ball with Green in the lineup, averaging 31 carries per game. What is curious about these numbers is Green's role within the offense.
In the games Green has been active, he has played 242, of a possible 652 snaps, or 37% of the teams offensive snaps, in those games. When we break up his snaps by play type, his role becomes more clear, with 2 carries and 45 passing routes run.
Green has been a run blocker on 159 snaps and a pass blocker on 35 snaps. So when Green is in the game, it's a safe assumption that the Broncos are going to run the ball. In the team's two most productive running games, Green saw an increase in snaps with Thomas injured, playing 119-of-160 plays.
In contrast, of the 607 snaps Thomas has played, 305 have been blocking snaps, which accounts for roughly half of his snaps. His impact is seen as a receiver, as he is more of a liability as a blocker, than an asset.
Why does any of this matter? First off, both players are set to become free agents, following the season, with Thomas in search of a sizable raise in pay. Which of these two players is key to the Broncos success? While the boost Thomas brings to the passing game cannot be under-valued, Green's impact on the run game could be more important, if the Broncos are to seriously contend for the Super Bowl.