The Jaguars' ever-present need for a pass-catching tight end is a topic that resurfaces every offseason. Even though the Jags are already overspending at the position, the team's outrageous amount of 2015 cap space allows for some big splashes in free agency. Jacksonville can afford to pay a high-priority free agent. But however pressing some might think the Jags' need for a top TE is, does it rationalize climbing to the top of the mountain to throw money at the peak?
Julius Thomas is an FA tight end who is going to get paid this offseason. He turned down an 8 million dollar offer from his Broncos, electing to try to become one of the highest paid players at his position somewhere else. If the Jaguars were to make a legitimate run at Thomas, chances are they'd be paying for one of the most expensive tight-ends in the league. From a Jags' perspective, it's hard to determine if Thomas is worth the money compared to other, more economical FA TE options. It's easy, however, to break down what makes JT a high-priority free agent target.
Plays like the one I've broken down below are the reason that Thomas will get paid. His take-off speed is absolutely silly for how big he is.
Here, the Broncos line up against the Chargers in 2013. It's a very standard 11 personnel look, meaning Thomas is the lone tight-end.
Eric Decker takes off up the right side, probably running toward his Jets paycheck. For some reason, the defense follows him to NY, leaving Thomas all alone in the flat.
This is the moment that Thomas receives the pass. Notice how his body is already revolving while he goes to plant his left foot. While it isn't necessarily textbook to start your take-off before securing the ball, JT's momentum allows him to face the ball while catching and take off vertically down the field all in the same motion.
Not a millisecond after catching the ball, Thomas is accelerating downfield.
Not much to pick apart at this point. His speed allows him the get to the edge and outrun the defense for a 74-yard touchdown.
74-yard burners are enough of a reason to label an offensive FA as "high-priority." But if you look back to the beginning of the play, there's also a reason to label Thomas as a "high-liability."
This angle gives a better view of JT's posture before the snap. He isn't in a three-point stance. He's upright, he's a chess piece, and the ball is very likely going to him. Any other play call here - a run play, perhaps - leaves Thomas on the field as a liability. Thomas had a very hard time getting any push in the run game during his breakout 2013 season. The Broncos didn't even bother with him in 2014, subbing in Virgil Green for run packages.
No one is going to make the argument that you have to manufacture touches for a tight end like Julius Thomas. But it should be noted that he didn't start playing tight end until his senior year in college, and really struggles at some of the key components to being dominant at the position.
However, Thomas won't be paid to three-point and block for a franchise running back. Through his two fantasy-number seasons, Julius has taken strides to absorb more into his tight end position without losing a step. Good tight ends are too quick for linebackers, and too big for secondaries. Julius Thomas, however, is too quick for everybody.
Just over a month ago, the Broncos lost to the Colts in the divisional round as their offense sputtered. Here is one of the better plays from that game, featuring Julius Thomas in a loaded two tight end set.
Here you can see Thomas set up in a traditional three-point stance. His hand is on the ground, his ass is squatted, and he's still going to leave the Colts' LaRon Laundry in the dust.
This is the moment that the ball is snapped. JT accelerates out of his stance, once again sprinting out to the flat.
Peyton immediately looks towards Thomas. Laundry probably thinks Thomas is looking back for the ball, but Thomas is actually going to make a quick cut up-field.
This is the moment that the ball is thrown. JT burns Laundry around the corner.
Here, you can see the ball in the air. Thomas is now placing himself underneath the pass while simultaneous feeding LaRon Laundry his dust.
When Thomas catches the ball at full sprint, he has now completely separated himself from Laundry.
But JT's speed doesn't paint the entire picture. Thomas also enjoys a basketball frame, sturdy enough to win in the redzone by creating his own position and high-pointing the ball. This is the area that has led to his fantasy numbers during the past two years. Thomas can be lined up wide, in the backfield, or in his habitual tight end capacity. He's always going to be a size mismatch.
This is also something to be cautious of while evaluating him. Collectively, Peyton Manning's tight ends have always been efficient, averaging just over 900 yards and 12 TDs per year. Individually, Thomas most often comes alive in the redzone. Not to mention, 5 of his first 9 TDs in 2014 (before his dry spell) came from Denver lining him up wide. This is where his extraordinary TD stats come from, and this is where his "athletic freak" reputation was born. It almost sounds crazy, but we don't know if Thomas could be plugged into a traditional tight end role and produce nearly the same numbers.
That's why, for the sake of this break down, I've abstained from analyzing these TD trips. His ability to high-point the ball and out-rebound someone in the endzone is noteworthy, but for Thomas to earn his money, he needs to win in all capacities all over the field.
To do this, Thomas employs his size. Julius is stupid fast, but his build and ability to utilize his own body while catching a football might just be more impressive than his speed. Here's an example, below.
Some fans have fallen in love with the way Thomas can run a seam route. That's attributed to his quickness. What I like about this particular play, however, is the way he finishes. Above, play-action is going to allow Thomas to slip behind the linebackers.
At this point, Thomas is the safety's responsibility. And that isn't going to end well for the Chargers.
Thomas shows good awareness to get to the open part of the field. The safety creeps up, hoping to cut him off. Peyton starts winding up to throw.
This is the first time Thomas looks back for the ball, which is almost upon him. The safety tries to close as fast as he can, but he is way outmatched.
It's hard to get a good angle, but Thomas actually plants his feet and drops his hips as he recognizes the ball coming down to him. This isn't a catch, it's a rebound. Thomas is boxing out the safety.
Thomas secures the ball as he goes to the ground. The safety never had a chance.
The various athletic traits that Julius Thomas enjoys are not often found bundled together into one player. As far as tight ends go, Thomas sits among the cream of the crop in terms of production. Still, other off-ball areas of his game need work for him become a complete tight end. But that doesn't mean he won't get better.
There are plenty of reasons to assign Thomas to a team like the Jaguars. Offensive production has been - and will continue to be - a scrutinized component of the young team's development. Thomas has shown the ability to put up numbers, and plugging him into a struggling offense could be a way for the Jaguars to take another step towards being consistently competitive.
The only remaining question is whether or not the Jaguars would be willing to pay Thomas. There are other tight end options in the FA pool, and many could end up being a more rounded, economical fit. The money that Thomas commands is equivalent to a pretty decent downtown aquarium; is he really worth it?