Every season, we do our best to predict who the big sleepers and breakout candidates are going to be. Every season, we get a few of them wrong -- very wrong. But just because a certain player goes bust one year doesn't mean they'll be a bust forever. Welcome to "Bust-a-Move", where we're breaking down some of 2015's biggest fantasy football disappointments to determine if you can expect some stat sheet salvation in 2016.
I feel like I've spent an inordinate amount of time writing about tight ends this offseason. While I'd like to pass the blame for this to various members of the Fantasy Stronghold, I really have to put the onus on myself. But it has given me an interesting glimpse into a position that is equal parts deep and shallow; it's top heavy all while boasting plenty of potential further down the ranks.
Somewhere in the middle of all this sits Julius Thomas. Another in a line of former basketball players to make the switch to professional football (did you know Antonio Gates played college basketball? Shocking, I know.), Thomas burst onto the scene in 2013 with 788 yards and 12 touchdowns while playing for the Broncos. After two big seasons in the Mile High City, Thomas moved to Jacksonville where there was plenty of skepticism about whether the tight end could succeed without Peyton Manning slinging the rock.
After one season, the skeptics look like they have something to crow about. Or do they? A broken finger prevented him from getting preseason work in a new offense. It also apparently impacted Thomas' conditioning since he looked out of shape for a good portion of the season.
What happened to the Julius Thomas who was a surefire top-five fantasy tight end? Did he get left behind in Colorado? Or is he just Schrödinger's Tight End -- simultaneously good and not good? I finish this offseason's Bust-a-Move series by looking at tape for the answer.
What went wrong
As I mentioned earlier, Thomas was injured and not in the best shape when he first hit the field for the Jags last season. That's not how you win. It was apparent early in the season that the missed work in training camp and the preseason was having a negative impact. Thomas was listed on last season's roster at 260 pounds compared to the 250 pounds he played at during his final season with the Broncos. The difference was a noticeable lack of agility.
That lack of agility was especially apparent when Thomas was faced with man coverage. Because the Jaguars moved him all over the field (nearly 59 percent of his snaps came as either a slot receiver or out wide), it placed him in a number of one-on-one situations with opposing defenders. Generally, the result was less than good. It's not a surprise that a tight end would struggle to gain separation from a defensive back, but Thomas frequently had trouble winning against linebackers as well. That's a matchup you'd hope your athletic, multi-sport tight end could win more often than not.
But it wasn't always this way. Check out Thomas getting off the line against LaRon Landry in 2014.
Man, those were the days.
What must improve
Like so many of the players I've profiled in this season's Bust-a-Move series, getting healthy is going to be key for Thomas rebounding this season. Speaking of rebounding ... did you know Thomas played college basketball? Bet you didn't.
I'm kidding. Everyone has heard that ad nauseum. But part of what helped Thomas excel in Denver, as well as when he was successful in Jacksonville last year, was his ability to use his basketball talents to post up in the holes of zone defenses. Admittedly that's not totally within his control, but the more he can take advantage of those situations, the more productive he'll be.
Along those same lines, Thomas did a better than average job of boxing out and making himself available when passing plays turned into scramble drills. If he's better conditioned this year, he'll be an even bigger beast to deal with in those situations.
But the biggest thing that could help Thomas is just being present. Not in the zen yoga sort of way (though that couldn't hurt), but in the just being on the field and working with the team sort of way. Hearing reports that Thomas is working with Blake Bortles in the offseason is certainly encouraging. Let's hope it pays some dividends during the regular season.
What we expect
Having Peyton Manning as your quarterback is definitely an ingredient for success, but no one should pretend that Thomas isn't a talent. It's not completely fair or accurate to compare him to Gronk, but let's say that when he's healthy that he's Gronk-ish. If the Jaguars continue to line him up in multiple spots across the formation, he could end up being a tough matchup for a lot of defenses.
Then there's the opportunity for Thomas to be a quality red zone target for Bortles. Allen Robinson did yeoman's work in that space last year, but he could lose some opportunities to the tight end this year. Perhaps the biggest potential victim could be Allen Hurns who could see a big regression if Thomas is as advertised this season. Funneling 120 or more targets to the tight end this year doesn't seem like a stretch.
Verdict: Last year looks like it was an anomaly for Thomas. He might not have the same type of numbers he had in Denver's high-flying offense, but there's no reason to believe he can't be a top 10 fantasy tight end this year. Considering his current 11th round draft price on NFL.com, the reward far outweighs the risk.