Julius Thomas is Denver's mismatch beast; 10 things to watch


Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 7, beginning with an emerging terror at the tight end position and continuing with 10 more things to watch below.

Each week, the cut-up arrives for Julius Thomas of the most recent big plays made by NFL tight ends. Thomas has been watching what he considers instructional videos of the likes of Antonio Gates and Jason Witten since he was leaving Portland State and cobbled together a highlight reel from the 2010 season. He continues the practice now, during the season, hoping to glean the nuances of a position he is coming to dominate.

But when his habit began, it was before the 2011 NFL Draft, when the converted basketball player was desperate to learn the position after playing just one collegiate football season. The Denver Broncos drafted Thomas in the fourth round that spring, and three years later, while Thomas is still studying the league's other tight ends -- he likes how creatively Marc Trestman is using Martellus Bennett in Chicago -- NFL defensive coordinators probably view Thomas' own tape as a horror film.

In a league in which tight end has emerged as the most intriguing offensive position, Thomas might already be the most dangerous one of them. He has nine receiving touchdowns this year -- the most in the NFL, the most for a tight end in a team's first five games in league history, and tied (with Calvin Johnson in 2011) for the most by any player in a team's first five games. That puts him on pace for 29 touchdowns -- which would shatter the single-season record for tight ends (Rob Gronkowski's 17 for New England in 2011) and the NFL record for receiving TDs at any position (Randy Moss' 23, also for New England, in 2007).

During the summer, Thomas admitted that only recently -- this past offseason, in fact -- he started to feel fully comfortable with football, getting by during his breakout 2013 campaign on athleticism and self-confidence, both of which he possesses in abundance. In an interview this week, Thomas said Broncos coaches made it a priority to figure out ways to consistently feed him the ball. The result: Only Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have been targeted more often by Peyton Manning this season. (Wes Welker is fourth on that list.) And Julius Thomas, at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, is Manning's preferred target in the red zone. Thomas has seven red-zone receiving touchdowns this season, the most in the NFL.

"I feel excited and encouraged every game because I know we'll be creative to get me looks," Thomas said. "I think our coaches understand I can do a lot of things to help out our team. I'm getting better. I'm learning more. There are so many ways they can use me."

Thomas doesn't dread blocking, but he has worked hard to hone his route-running, his goal being that there will be no difference between him and receivers in terms of route precision.

"I want to be as polished, to make sure I'm able to win one-on-one matchups," Thomas said. "So that coaches know Julius knows what to do."

The storyline that will dominate Sunday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers -- and perhaps next Thursday's against the San Diego Chargers -- is Manning's toppling of Brett Favre's career touchdowns record. Manning needs three more to break the record of 508, a more-formidable-than-it-seems task against two defenses that get pressure with their fronts to force quick throws and whose scoring defenses both entered this week in the top six. Thomas has never heard Manning mention the record.

While the Broncos are ranked third in scoring offense through five games, they have not yet been the overwhelming power they were last season. Denver's posting 29.4 points per game, 8.5 fewer than the unit averaged in its record-setting 2013 season. Thomas thinks the offense will eventually be better than it was last season -- he watches the scout team in practice and thinks about how many good players are there -- but the problem right now might be an overabundance of quality options.

"We haven't been playing up to our potential or the way we feel we should be playing," Thomas said. "We haven't been executing the way we need to and it's keeping us from putting up the numbers we have to. It's getting into a groove, getting everybody on the same page. We do so much. It takes a while to learn it. Emmanuel is new, guys who switched positions, our system is really complex. Everybody can practice for it, but there are still things that come up and it's, 'OK, how do we treat this?' I'm confident we're going to get it."

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Thomas has, from all appearances, already gotten it. Last week against the New York Jets, Thomas scored twice, and after the second touchdown, he was caught screaming, "It's so easy!" Thomas was not wrong -- he was lined up on the outside of the formation and ran to the post unhindered by any meaningful defense. Thomas has been mocked by teammates this week, because they know he trash talks in practice to get an edge.

"It's no disrespect to my opponent," Thomas said. "You're in the moment, you want to have the mindset you can score at will. If you don't have that, it holds you back."

Here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 7 schedule plays out:

1) The scoring explosion -- again. Teams have scored 479 touchdowns through Week 6, the most at this point of any season in NFL history -- 13 more than were scored last year, which had the previous high. Of those 479 touchdowns, 303 have been scored on passes, also the most at this point ever and 14 more touchdown passes than at this point in 2013. The number has been steadily rising over the last four seasons -- in 2011, there were 268 touchdown passes through the first six weeks, 35 fewer than now (a difference that averages out to more than one per team).

2) The penalty explosion -- again. On a likely related note to No. 1, there have been 195 more penalties called at this point in the season than in 2013. The big point of emphasis -- defensive holding -- has been called more than twice as often, a whopping 147 times compared to 70 last year. Through six weeks, each game is averaging two more penalties called than in contests last season.

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3) Can DeMarco Murray's body hold up? Dallas' fourth-year running back leads the league in offensive touches (180) and rushes (159, 43 ahead of LeSean McCoy), and he has more rushing yards on first down (594) than any other player has total rushing yards -- on all downs. All of this raises questions about whether Murray, who missed time with injuries in each of his first three NFL campaigns, can sustain such a heavy workload all season. The Cowboys probably won't ease off this week against the Giants. New York allowed 203 yards rushing to Philadelphia last week.

4) St. Louis' pass rush has disappeared. The Rams, who finished third in the league with 53 sacks last season, have managed just one sack in 2014, making them the first team since 1964 with one or fewer sacks through five games. Since 1970, the fewest sacks by one team is 10 -- posted by the 2008 Chiefs, who finished 2-14. The Rams probably won't fatten their numbers against Seattle. Russell Wilson has been sacked 11 times, but the Seahawks will likely lean on the run. They average 149.8 rushing yards, second in the league, while the Rams have allowed at least 120 rushing yards in four of five games.

5) Did the bye help the Saints' defense get its act together? They enter Week 7 ranked 28th in scoring D and have allowed at least 26 points in four of their five games -- including all three road losses, heading into this week's trip to Detroit. The Detroit offense is 27th in scoring, though, and with Calvin Johnson struggling with an ankle injury, Matthew Stafford has completed just one pass of at least 15 yards in the air over the last two weeks.

6) This is a very good time for the Browns to start life without their O-line anchor, Alex Mack. Beginning with Jacksonville, the Browns face three teams who currently combine for one victory this season. Mack started the first 85 games of his career before suffering a broken fibula last Sunday. The Browns have the third-ranked running attack in the league, allowing Brian Hoyer to have the highest quarterback rating on play-action passes (138.9). Hoyer also has a 55.8 completion percentage on passes of at least 15 yards in the air, the highest in the NFL.

7) Can the Redskins score some points against Tennessee? With Robert Griffin III's return from injury uncertain and coach Jay Gruden adamant that he will not bench Kirk Cousins, what does Washington do to score more than the 17 points they are averaging in the last three games (10 points fewer per game than the first three)? It isn't all Cousins' fault. The running game has managed fewer than 90 yards in four straight games -- in the entire 2013 season, Washington had just three games under 100 rushing yards.

8) The Chargers' defense might be the most difficult-to-figure unit in the game. San Diego's allowing just 15.2 points per game, although four of their five wins came against the offensively-challenged Bills, Jaguars, Jets and Raiders. And the Bolts have 12 sacks, even though Dwight Freeney is the only player with two. They are allowing 209.3 passing yards per game, and they'll have to defend a lot of short passes from Chiefs QB Alex Smith -- he averages just 6.5 yards in the air on his passes, lowest in the league.

9) What is with the Steelers' offense? It is sixth in yards, and Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are currently ranked second in rushing yards and receiving yards, respectively. But the Steelers are 23rd in scoring. One problem: Pittsburgh's offense has two red-zone giveaways this season (only the Giants have more, with three). The Steelers will have to be extra careful in the red zone on Monday night. The Texans lead the league with four red-zone takeaways.

10) Can anybody here make a field goal? Field goal percentage league-wide is down two percent from last season, to 84.6. The league is averaging slightly more attempts of at least 50 yards -- there was an average of 8.4 such attempts each week last season, compared to 8.8 such attempts this season -- and slightly fewer of 40 to 49 yards (18.0 per week in 2013, 17.7 in '14). The Detroit Lions are the big drag on the numbers. They have missed 10 of 15 field goal attempts, which is more than any team missed all of 2013, and their 33.3 percent rate is more than 30 points below the next-to-worst field goal team (the Cincinnati Bengals, at 64.7 percent).

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.



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