Julius Thomas: Early MFL10 Value or Wasted Pick?

Mar 14, 2017
Julius Thomas: Early MFL10 Value or Wasted Pick?

Twenty-one TEs are going higher than Julius Thomas in MFL10s as of this (very early) writing. Any time a team goes out of its way to trade for a skill position of need, it deserves further exploration in fantasy circles. However, TEs changing teams haven't provided fantasy returns in the recent past -- of the 36 TEs to finish in the top-12 over the last three years, only one -- Martellus Bennett on the '16 Patriots -- did so in his first year with a new team.

Can Julius Thomas buck the trend?

At first glance, the answer is no -- the Dolphins ranked 27th in TE fantasy scoring last season, while Thomas has finished 16th and 19th in PPR points per game over the last two seasons in Jacksonville. But the question we need to ask ourselves with a late-round pick such as Thomas is this: does he have TE1 upside in his range of outcomes? There are a few signs that point to yes.

The Dolphins Don't Have a Go-to Guy Where it Matters Most

We know opportunity is king for a pass-catcher, and at first glance it looks like Thomas' chances may be limited on a Dolphins offense that attempted 467 passes last season, second-fewest in the league, and will be returning its top three WRs, who occupied a 64.0% share of the team's targets. The Dolphins targeted TEs only 4.56 times per game last season, but that seems more to do with personnel than Adam Gase's philosophy. Gase's Bears finished with the eighth-fewest pass attempts in 2015, but with able pass-catchers Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller on the roster, the team targeted TEs 8.19 times per game. Also keep in mind that low pass attempt figures are likely in for some natural regression to the mean.

Just as important as raw targets are red zone targets -- we know the avenue to a worthwhile fantasy scoring week for a TE usually comes from scoring a TD. Coincidentally, the Dolphins could use a good red zone target, which is an area where Thomas has excelled:

Player Career Red Zone TD Rate
Julius Thomas 45.3%
Jarvis Landry 21.7%
Kenny Stills 17.6%
DeVante Parker 17.6%

Thomas' career red zone TD rate is more than double any of the Dolphins other starting receivers. And yes, it was inflated by a ridiculous 52.9% career rate with Peyton Manning, but it was still a stellar 33.3% with Blake Bortles (the NFL average in 2016 was 22.8%). Put simply, Thomas is the best option in the red zone for a team that saw it's leader in red zone TD catches from last season -- Dion Sims with four -- sign with the Bears in free agency. It's pretty clear Gase's offense didn't have a go-to guy in the red zone a year ago:

Dolphins Red Zone Receiving, 2016
Receiver Tgt Tgt Market Share Rec TD
Jarvis Landry 9 18.0% 7 2
DeVante Parker 8 16.0% 5 2
Damien Williams 7 14.0% 7 3
Dion Sims 7 14.0% 5 4
Kenny Stills 6 12.0% 4 1
Jay Ajayi 5 10.0% 3 0
Leonte Carroo 2 4.0% 2 1
MarQueis Gray 2 4.0% 1 0
Jordan Cameron 1 2.0% 1 1
Kenyan Drake 1 2.0% 1 0
Dominique Jones 1 2.0% 1 1
Arian Foster 1 2.0% 0 0
Totals 50 37 15

It's no secret that Thomas is a below-average blocker, yet the Dolphins still chose to give him what amounts to a 2-year, $12 million contract after restructuring his previous deal, so we can reasonably surmise that the intention, at least as of now, is to give Thomas a major role as a receiving specialist. That role will likely be in the red zone, where Thomas seemingly has a clear path to becoming Miami's top option.

It's a Big "If"...But If Thomas Can Stay Healthy...

One way to find hidden upside is to draft players whose value has been depressed due to injury. Injuries are volatile occurrences, and just as the possibility exists that a player could get seriously injured, the possibility also exists that a player could stay healthy. Thomas has been on the unlucky end of injuries over the past four years, and it has clearly affected his play:

Julius Thomas, 2013-16
Games Tar/G Rec/G Yd/G TD/G Catch % Yd/Tar PPR FP/G
Healthy 30 6.0 4.2 45.3 0.81 70.0% 7.55 13.6
On Injury Report 17 5.8 3.1 35.8 0.47 53.4% 6.17 9.5

Thomas also missed another 17 games altogether due to injury during that span, so all in all, he has played injury-free in only 30 of a possible 64 games over the past four seasons. Is Thomas injury-prone? He could be. Or he could just be unlucky. It's impossible to say with any certainty. He could very well have another injury-marred season in 2017 -- or simply be less explosive after a fractured tailbone last year and ankle injuries in 2014 -- but that's already baked into his current ADP. If things break right and he stays relatively healthy, the data shows us he has a good shot at landing on the high end of his range of outcomes.

Thomas has also proven he can be a consistent player when he does suit up -- his year-to-year CV of fantasy points (17.0%) ranks 11th of 36 qualified TEs over the last three years. And even in a tumultuous 2016, he still ranked as the seventh most consistent of 24 qualified TEs in week-to-week CV (56.7%).

The Reward Outweighs the Risk

When you're drafting a TE2 in MFL10s, the floor is usually going to be low, so what you're really looking for is an avenue to a high ceiling. By drafting Thomas at his current ADP, you're getting a TE with legitimate TE1 upside who could be his team's top target in the red zone, and you're getting him after nearly every owner has already drafted two TEs. You're also getting a player who was thought to be good enough to be drafted in MFL best-ball leagues as the TE4 in 2015 and TE10 on 2016 on a Jaguars team whose QB, offense, and offensive coordinator aren't as good is Miami's should be in 2017, barring anything unforeseen. While it's clear Thomas' draft stock was buoyed due to recency bias of back-to-back 12-TD seasons with Peyton Manning in 2013-14, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Entering his age-29 season, Thomas may not be a great dynasty target, but he should have at least one more season of near-peak production in him, and makes for a fine late-round best-ball target in the early stages of the offseason.

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