Do the Broncos really need Julius Thomas back?

It seems like the season just ended and next year is right around the corner. Before you know it we will be seeing rookies drafted to their new NFL homes and drooling over who we think will be this year’s Odell Beckham Jr and Jeremy Hill. Not long after that we will be mock drafting, not because our real drafts end up anything like them, but because it’s just fantasy football season and that’s what we do!

So before teams start signing free agents in less than a month and selecting their future stars in Chicago at the end of April, let’s explore one of the league’s elite tight ends; Julius Thomas.

It looks like he won’t be returning to the Denver Broncos in 2015, but do the Broncos really need him back? And more importantly as fantasy football players, can another tight end thrive in Denver?

Julius has caught 12 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, that can’t be overlooked. However Peyton Manning has an array of weapons including the other Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders who had a career year in 2014, and a promising young wide out in Cody Latimer. Not to mention he has a rising star in the backfield in CJ Anderson. So what would it look like in the fantasy landscape if a new TE1 came into play in Denver? Let’s examine.

First off Peyton will throw touchdowns to whoever is at tight end. He can help turn any pass catcher, wide out or tight end, into a serviceable fantasy option, if not a fantasy stud. Manning has had 5 main guys play tight end for him since his rookie season in 1998:

  1. Ken Dilger
  2. Marcus Pollard
  3. Dallas Clark
  4. Jacob Tamme
  5. Julius Thomas

Let’s start off with his first tight end, Ken Dilger. He was Manning’s tight end from 98 to 2000. In Manning’s rookie season, Dilger caught 31 passes for 303 yards and 1 touchdown. Nothing spectacular but a rookie quarterback helped Dilger reach just under his career average in catches (35) and touchdowns (2) per season. Dilger’s numbers increased in each of the 3 seasons he played with Peyton. Catches increasing from 31 to 40 to a career high 47 in 2000. His yardage went up substantially each year posting 303 year one, 479 year two, and 538 year three which happens to be his second best season in terms of yards in his 10 year career.

Marcus Pollard took over as Manning’s top tight end in 2001 and was the man at the position in Indy for the next 3 years. In 2001 his first season in which he garnered the most looks (73 targets; second most of his career) by Manning at the tight end spot, Pollard set career highs in receptions (47), yards (739), and touchdowns (8). Obviously those numbers didn’t increase the following two years, but Pollard averaged 43 catches, 586 yards, and 6 touchdowns in the 3 years with Peyton under center. That’s 94 points per year in standard scoring which would have made Pollard a top 12 finisher at the position last season. Pollard did finish in the top 7 among tight ends in each of his 3 years, including number 2 his first season with Manning in 2001.

Peyton’s 3rd tight end of consistency was perhaps the one he had the most chemistry with, Dallas Clark. Clark was Manning’s go-to tight end for 6 seasons from 2004 until 2009. If we don’t count his injury shortened 2006 (when he still managed 30 catches for 367 yards and 4 scores), Clark’s receptions and yards increased each year with him hitting the 50+ catch plateau 3 times in those 5 seasons. Clark set a career high in touchdown receptions with 11 in 2007. Since that year only 8 times has a tight end surpassed 11 touchdown catches, and 2 of those times was Julius Thomas with Mr. Manning throwing to him. Clark also set career marks in catches and yards in 2009 with 100 for 1106. In those last 3 years Clark averaged 132 fantasy points per year, which is top 5 production in fantasy football today. He finished in the top 12 tight ends in 4 of his 5 non-injury seasons, and top 5 3 straight seasons from 07-09.

Jacob Tamme helped bridge the gap for Manning from Indianapolis to Denver. In 2010 while with the Colts, Tamme reached career highs in the 3 major stat categories for pass-catchers going 67-631-4. After the missed 2011 campaign, Manning returned in 2012 in the Mile High City and a familiar face, Tamme, was there at tight end. While being his top end that first year in Denver, Tamme caught 52 passes for 555 yards and 2 scores. Hell even Joel Dreesen, the TE2 of the squad, set a career high in receptions with 41 for 356 and 5 scores with Peyton in 2012.

Finally we get to his latest target at tight end, Julius Thomas. Thomas set career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns in 2013, his first season playing with Manning. He caught 65 balls for 788 yards and 12 scores that year. Last season, injury hit Julius causing him to miss 4 games, and noticeably limited him the last 3 games he played in, but he still managed to catch 12 touchdowns again (43 catches and 489 yards). He was a top 7 tight end both years, finished 3rd in 2013.

So of Manning’s top 5 tight ends of his 16-year career, they averaged 47 catches for 577 yards and 6 touchdowns in their first season with Peyton throwing to them. That equates to 93 standard fantasy points, or 140 in PPR formats. 3 of the aforementioned tight ends set career highs in catches, yards, AND touchdowns in their first year as top targets at the position in Peyton’s offense. Outside of Tamme, the other 4 guys finished top 7 or better in at least 1 season with Manning, and 3 of them finished top 3 at least once.

Peyton obviously has mass impact on the tight end position since, he’s you know, throwing them the ball. What about new head coach Gary Kubiak? Kubiak isn’t talked about as a tight end whisperer like Norv Turner has been the past few years, but the numbers coach Kubiak gets out of his tight ends is nothing to sneeze at.

Since 2006 Kubiak has been the head coach of the Texans and, most recently, the offensive coordinator for the Ravens. So how did these teams fair pre, during, and post Kubiak?

In 2005, the year before Kubiak arrived in Houston, the Texans tight ends combined for 28 catches, 216 yards and no touchdowns. That’s 3 tight ends COMBINED in a FULL SEASON! Those numbers are sad for a single tight end let alone a platoon of them. How did coach Kubiak do his first season coaching the team, and using 2 of the 3 ends from the previous regime? In 2006 in his rookie stint with Houston, Kubiak was able to get his tight end trio to combine for 56 catches, 539 yards, and 7 scores. That’s double the receptions, almost two and a half times the yards, and better than a 700% increase in touchdown production. His top TE of the bunch, Owen Daniels, finished as the 14th best TE that season (the Texans top TE the year before Kubiak arrived ranked 49th at the end of 2005) racking up 350 yards and 5 trips to pay dirt himself, or 65 fantasy points.

In his final year with the Texans in 2013, Kubiak had another trio of TEs combine to reach 92 catches for 1041 yards and 9 touchdowns. That included Garrett Graham reaching career numbers in all 3 of those categories that season with 49 for 545 and 5 scores. All 3 of his tight ends that year, Graham, Owen Daniels, and Ryan Griffin all finished in the top 50 among tight ends, with Graham the best at 16th. That same season in Baltimore, pre-Kubiak, the Ravens tight ends all put together posted 76 catches for 785 yards and 5 touchdowns. Dallas Clark was the best finisher at the position for Baltimore in 2013 but ended up a measly 32nd at seasons end among all TEs in fantasy scoring.

2014 brought Kubiak to Baltimore as the OC, so how did the ends in Houston do after Gary left? Well Texans TEs managed just 32 catches for 316 yards and 3 scores in 2014. That’s a 66% DECREASE in production with 2 of the same 3 TEs (Graham and Griffin) in Houston. Owen Daniels came to the Ravens with Kubiak and he and 3 other TEs in Baltimore combined for 74 receptions 773 yards and 5 touchdowns. While the teams total numbers at the position looked almost identical the season before and season with Kubiak, Owen Daniels finished as the 18th best TE with 76 points at the end of the year last year. Houston’s best TE in terms of fantasy points? Graham with 25, 25! That’s a third of Daniels production, good for 49th best TE.

Which brings us to the ultimate question, from a fantasy perspective, do the Broncos really need Julius Thomas back? Or can someone else come in and turn out fantasy numbers with Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak, which make us say they did it again? It seems to me that with Manning and Kubiak working magic with tight end after tight end that whoever comes in to play the position in 2015, they will be fantasy relevant and will be available at a much cheaper price than Julius Thomas was either last season (early 3rd round ADP) or this coming year. So in a simple word, no. No the Broncos don’t need Julius Thomas back at the tight end position when it comes to the fantasy football world. Will it hurt in the real NFL world? Odds are yes, but for us fantasy lovers the numbers don’t lie, and the numbers say Manning and Kubiak can make whomever their TE1 is lining up in orange and blue come September a relevant fantasy name for fantasy drafts.

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