When the Denver Broncos selected Julius Thomas in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft, many felt that they’d gotten a steal. The basketball star out of Portland State had only played one year of organized football before he got drafted.
Yet, when the 6-foot-5 Thomas ran a 4.64 40-yard dash and led his position in both the broad jump and the 60 yard shuttle at the 2011 NFL Combine, scouts began to salivate over the young tight end’s potential.
Despite losing his rookie season (and his second) to an ankle injury, Thomas has largely been the explosive redzone weapon the Broncos thought he could be in the passing game. In his two mostly active NFL seasons, he’s amassed 109 receptions, 1,282 receiving yards, and a remarkable 24 receiving touchdowns.
He’s a fantasy football player’s dream come true. However, when you turn on the game tape, you see a very different Julius Thomas. The “Orange Julius” version seen on the stat sheet is a dominant scorer, who can outmatch and overpower nearly any linebacker or safety defensive coordinators dispatch to try to cover him. The Thomas on the tape is a lost, impatient buffoon who, while certainly athletic, has little to no interest in sacrificing himself for his teammates in the running game.
Pro Football Focus ranks him as the No. 13 overall tight end in the NFL, and a shameful No. 33 among tight ends in run blocking. For someone with the physical size and obvious talent of Julius Thomas, those numbers are unacceptable. Frankly, they point to a lack of intangible desire and passion in a good part of Thomas’ game. When he isn’t catching touchdowns, Thomas doesn’t seem to care. To put it bluntly: Thomas is soft. If the Broncos want to become a more physical, run-oriented offense, they must cut ties with him this off-season.
Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with about Julius Thomas is not that he’s incapable of blocking, it’s that he simply seems unwilling to do it. “This guy can’t block the sun out of his eyes," Broncos Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe said of Thomas during the season. “It’s embarrassing.”
Yet, Pro Football Focus ranks him No. 11 in pass protection. In fact, protecting Peyton Manning is one of the stronger aspects of his game. So, clearly, he’s capable of executing basic blocking techniques. The issue becomes when Thomas has to get aggressive with defenders and use his strength to open holes in the running game.
His inability and unwillingness to just “go hit” is evident on film. Part of his issue may be related to a lack of effort in the weight room. Despite his size, Thomas just isn’t all that strong. At the 2011 combine, he finished dead last among tight ends in the bench press with just sixteen repetitions.
Compare that to fellow Broncos teammate Virgil Green and Cleveland’s star tight end Jordan Cameron, who both finished well ahead of him with 23. On the field, Thomas is essentially a tweener: too clumsy and slow to be an effective receiver, and too weak to become a complete tight end.
If Thomas ever hopes to enter the upper echelon of NFL tight ends, he must become a stronger, more aggressive football player. The Broncos have given him four seasons to do so. He hasn’t come through. It doesn’t really matter, though. They don’t need him anyway.
Without Thomas, the Broncos offense gains toughness and physicality without losing much offensive production. Thomas missed four games this season with an ankle injury suffered during a 7-22 loss to the St. Louis Rams. If the ultimate goal of an offense is to score points, the Broncos didn’t miss him during that time.
In the thirteen games Thomas played this year, including the divisional playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Denver scored an average of 29.3 points per game. In the four games the Broncos played with Thomas on the inactive list, they scored 28.5 points per game. Not what one might call a “dramatic difference.”
Once the Broncos cut ties with Thomas, presuming they replace him with a complete tight end like Baltimore free agent and Gary Kubiak protégé, Owen Daniels, they’ll instantly gain toughness and reliability in the running game, without losing much offensive production, if they lose any at all. Of course, the question of offensive production in 2015 has much to do with the Broncos future at the quarterback position.
Julius Thomas owes Peyton Manning a Buick. Without Manning, Thomas likely would have joined the long list of talented NFL players who never put up quality numbers. Manning has made a career out of making players like Thomas into superstars. Trevor Insley, Mike Roberg, Tom Santi, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzales, Dallas Clark, Joel Dreessen.
All of them had career years with #18 as their quarterback. Even defensive tackle Mitch Unrein caught a touchdown pass from Manning in 2012. While Thomas is certainly more physically gifted than many of those has-beens, his statistical greatness must be credited, in large part, to the greatness of his quarterback.
While Tom Brady doesn’t do everything right, there are two things about him you can’t question: his resume, and his approach to the game.
“To me, football is so much about mental toughness, it's digging deep, it's doing whatever you need to do to help a team win.” Brady once said.
If the Broncos want 2015 to end for them the way 2014 ended for Brady’s New England Patriots, they need as much mental toughness as they can get. Julius Thomas provides no mental toughness: he lacks the physical strength to ever become a complete NFL tight end, he’s a liability in the run game, and he’s a product of his quarterback. The Broncos will almost certainly watch him walk out the door in March. That’ll be one departure fans in the Mile High City shouldn’t be disappointed by.