Most fans and local media consider Julius Thomas' first four games with the Jacksonville Jaguars a disappointment, which is fair. Julius has totaled only 116 yards on 13 receptions during that span.
Thomas, the Jaguars' 2015 big-name free agent splash, has produced just enough to be considered the fourth (or fifth!) most valuable skill player on the team. Julius was supposed to be the versatile plug-in that ignited the Jaguars' passing attack. Instead, Thomas has almost become an afterthought.
A few fans will connect this lack of production with the emergence of second-year wide receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson. A few more will attach Thomas' ineffectiveness to a perceived lack of effort on Thomas' part, as well as a rumored weight gain.
I'm really in no position to speak on what factors might be affecting Julius' play. All I have at my disposal is game film, and digging to draw conclusions on a player's effort play-by-play can be a slippery slope.
The game film does, however, highlight areas of inconsistency and adversity in Julius' game. Likewise, the film shows areas of strength -- areas that make our Julius Thomas look a lot like the Julius Thomas that caught our eye in Denver.
I went through each of Thomas' snaps from the New York Jets game, probing to uncover situations in which Julius was able to make an impact on the play. I came away with six plays -- all of them conjoining to paint a picture of inconsistency.
And, perhaps in some cases, a portrait of optimism.
Here's the first play -- one that depicts a shortcoming Julius hasn't been known for in the past.
Early in the game, the Jaguars have Julius Thomas lined up out wide. Even with his tight-end build, Julius has always enjoyed the agility of a outside route-runner. It's one of the traits that make him a special athlete, and something the Jets are forced to respect on defense. The cornerback lined up over Thomas plays way off. Julius is going to run a short crossing route.
Blake Bortles' eyes are attached to Julius from the time the ball is snapped to the time the ball arrives in Thomas' lap. Don't mistake this attention as staring down a wide receiver, though -- Blake is drawing the inside defender towards the sideline.
Bortles does a fantastic job pulling the inside defender out. Blake then fits a perfect pass into the middle of the open zone. The ball, however, squirts right through Thomas' hands.
Watching this play live induced a "here we go again" type of feeling in my stomach. Julius sees opportunities to make a play, but seems to have trouble finishing. Whether it's completing a route or catching a ball, Thomas has battled with inconsistency. This is probably the biggest source of fan disappointment so far.
But these scenarios don't paint the entire picture.
Against the Jets, the Jaguars appeared to move more towards the direction of manufactured plays to get Julius involved. It almost worked.
Here's an example.
I love this play. In his first three games, Julius absorbed a lot of the stick routes and underneath zones as he worked to get back up to speed. In this situation, however, the Jaguars are sending Julius deep on a play that is very reminiscent of Thomas' days with the Denver Broncos. Julius lines up as an in-line tight end. His route is outlined in orange.
At the snap, Thomas stays in to block from his in-line position. There is a play-action element, which helps Julius sell his initial plant.
As the play begins to unfold, Julius dips across the middle. Unfortunately, before Thomas' route can fully develop, Bortles receives a face full of pressure form the edge.
Julius Thomas runs a great route. He explodes upward and looks back for the ball. Unfortunately, the ball lands 10 yards short of Thomas due to pressure on the quarterback.
I mean it -- the play above is a great play. Bortles and Thomas, understandably, have struggled with missed connections and broken routes in the their first few games together. Manufactured plays like the one above help break down the barrier and unlock big play potential.
Unfortunately, that play became a missed opportunity. And so did this next one.
Pre-snap, Thomas stands at the point in front of wide receivers Bryan Walters and Allen Hurns. The corner presses up on Thomas. It's a mismatch favoring Thomas.
At the snap, Thomas straight up lifts the cornerback off of the ground and pushes him away from the underneath routes.
Then, Thomas turns the corner inside by fighting past him.
Finally, in classic Julius Thomas fashion, he explodes around his defender. He separates himself, and Bortles looks in his direction, but the pass is swatted at the line of scrimmage.
It's a damn shame, too.
From the endzone shot, you can barely see Thomas, at the top of the frame, speeding away from his defender. Another missed opportunity. What would have been a huge play goes largely unnoticed.
Julius still has that speed.
The issue with Julius Thomas, to me, seems to be less about if he still has "it," and more about why he isn't showing "it" on a consistent basis.
Thomas can still separate himself from defenders -- linebackers and corners alike. The evidence is in the film. The problem is, there are times when Thomas appears lethargic, and other moments where he just doesn't play like himself.
Here's a play we expect Thomas to win more times than not.
Julius Thomas is lined up out wide, in the redzone, in single coverage, with the defending cornerback pressing. I mean, come on. This is a dream scenario for offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Thomas is going to run a go-fade.
Here's the first issue -- Thomas isn't able to create separation with the jab inside. Julius' double moves have proved deadly in the past, but on this occasion, the corner doesn't twist his hips.
The cornerback stays disciplined and is able to ride Thomas into the endzone. Bortles' ball is already in the air.
Thomas gets a shot at the catch, but is unable to pull it in. The defender is in great position.
The ball falls to the ground.
While you love seeing the Jaguars take these chances, it's a little concerning that Thomas is having trouble separating himself and pulling the ball in.
Of course, it would be unfair to expect Julius to turn every opportunity into a great play. Perhaps, though, it would be fair to expect Thomas to make a few more athletic plays than team veteran Marcedes Lewis.
Here is Marcedes' big catch from Sunday's game:
Julius Thomas is on the sideline for this play. 10-year veteran blocking tight-end Marcedes Lewis fills his role as a receiving option. His seam route is in orange.
At the snap, Marcedes takes off, force-feeding the defender his dust in the process. That's right. Marcedes Lewis blows past the cornerback.
When Bortles tosses the jump-ball his way, Lewis climbs the latter to snatch it. Great play down the seam, 27-yard gain. Now that is a Julius Thomas play.
All three of my loyal readers probably remember how much I hyped up Marcedes Lewis in the offseason. The truth is, Marcedes hasn't uncovered much production this season either. But even I will admit -- when Marcedes Lewis is out-Julius Thomas-ing Julius Thomas, something is probably a little off.
Of course, even Marcedes Lewis is capable of a few big plays every season. Thomas is the player we all expected to make an immediate, consistent impact.
So far, that impact hasn't shown up on the stat sheet or in the win column. But is Thomas making an impact in other areas?
Thomas is far more than an exceptional athletic specimen. He's also an attention-absorber -- he carries a unique ability to absorb defenders and drag coverage.
When Julius arrived in Jacksonville, there was a lot of discussion about potential double-teams and opportunities that might open up for other receivers. Here's a great example of one of those opportunities:
Blake Bortles' three-play, 72-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter took 17 seconds and ended with a 20-yard Bryan Walters touchdown catch. And Thomas helped make this touchdown possible. Thomas' (red) and Walters' (yellow) routes are drawn out above.
As the play develops, Thomas takes the intermediate crossing route. Walters crosses behind him. The deep safety is immediately sucked into Thomas, leaving a window open for a Bortles-to-Walters connection.
By the time Walters catches the ball in the endzone, Julius has drawn a triple-team. A lack of safety help has put Walters' defender in an impossible position. Touchdown Jaguars.
Thomas might not be drawing as much attention as he did in Denver, but he is undoubtably still a factor in the success of those around him. Going forward, the Jaguars most likely want to see more situations like the one above. But to create these scenarios, you need the right formula -- a formula that will hopefully write itself as Julius Thomas continues to absorb more reps as a member of the Jaguars.
Judging by the Jets game, it's pretty clear to me that the Jaguars know how to use Julius Thomas. The team is trying their hardest to tap into Thomas' utility as a pass catcher, utilizing Thomas' versatility to create big play opportunities.
Moving forward, you'd like to see the Jaguars and Julius Thomas capitalize on more of these opportunities. Meanwhile, the things that some people believe are holding Thomas back -- conditioning, injury, appetite, weight of his paycheck -- will continue to be storylines.
Personally, I think Julius flashed in the Jets game. Hopefully, these flashes will show up in the stat column sooner rather than later.