Julius Thomas and the Tight End Market

With the report today that Julius Thomas turned down a contract offer that would pay him $8 million a season I thought it would be a good time to look at Thomas, who I have felt would end up as one of the most overpaid players in free agency this year. We can also look at some other players that I have been down on somewhat and see where they may rank as well.

Thomas has two big advantages as he enters free agency which have likely driven the perception about him. One is that he plays in a Denver offense that throws the ball often which helps pad stats for players on the team. The second is that he is a terrific red zone player and ends up on the highlight reels for many of the Broncos game reviews since he is often catching touchdown passes.  That has helped him be selected to two Pro Bowls. Negatively Thomas is always an injury risk and has only played in 36 games over a four year period.

To view Thomas’ stats somewhat more in context I pulled up every player (in part using Pro Football References handy tools) that recorded more than 500 yards receiving combined over the last two years. 39 players made the cut. I adjusted all the numbers on a per game basis to eliminate the missed games aspect for most players. Those numbers are then compared to their teams’ passing statistics during the same timeframe to help identify the player’s importance to the offense and their production relative to the others on the team.

% of Team Targets

Thomas ranks 19th among the group in team usage as he has accounted for 14.1% of the team looks over the last two seasons. That is slightly above the average of 13.7%. The highest percentage use belonged to Rob Gronkowski at 23.2% followed closely by Greg Olsen at 23.0%.

Thomas would track alongside players such as Jermaine Gresham(14.9%), Coby Fleener (14.4%), Kyle Rudolph (14.2%), Garrett Graham (14.0%), and Mychal Rivera (13.9%).

 % of Team Yardage.

Thomas accounts for 15% of the Broncos yardage when healthy. That ranks 19th and is below the average of 15.7%. The best players in the past in this category were Gronkowski (30.4%), Olsen (27.8%), Travis Kelce (24.9%), and Jordan Cameron (22.9%).

The comparable range players to Thomas would be Rudolph (15.4%), Marcedes Lewis (14.8%), and Mychal Rivera (14.2%).

% of Team Touchdowns

This is the category where Thomas makes his money. Thomas accounts for 29.9% of touchdowns over the last two seasons, which ranks 6th.  Vernon Davis was the best in this regard at 40.4% of 49ers passing scores on a per game basis. Comparables are Cameron (30.3%) and  Rudolph (26.9%). Average production is just under 19%.

Total Rank

If we add simply determine percent above or below average in the three categories and sum them up to determine a ranking we get the following:

Player%Tgt/G% Yard/G% TD/G% Above/Below Average
Rob Gronkowski15.9%23.2%30.4%272%
Greg Olsen23.0%23.0%27.8%181%
Jimmy Graham20.4%20.4%21.7%179%
Vernon Davis14.8%16.4%20.0%161%
Jordan Cameron14.0%18.0%22.9%138%
Delanie Walker18.4%19.6%22.6%121%
Antonio Gates19.0%19.0%20.1%101%
Travis Kelce8.4%15.8%24.9%92%
Jason Witten18.9%18.9%20.1%65%
Martellus Bennett18.7%18.7%20.7%63%
Jared Cook18.0%18.0%20.0%60%
Julius Thomas11.9%14.1%15.0%57%
Owen Daniels10.1%16.2%16.3%51%
Marcedes Lewis6.8%11.4%14.8%50%
Charles Clay15.6%16.7%19.9%49%
Kyle Rudolph7.5%14.2%15.4%44%
Jordan Reed10.7%17.1%19.8%18%
Coby Fleener14.4%14.4%16.0%5%
Mychal Rivera13.9%13.9%14.2%0%
Jermaine Gresham13.5%14.9%13.4%-7%
Garrett Graham10.5%14.0%13.8%-7%
Scott Chandler13.7%13.7%17.2%-23%
Jeff Cumberland8.9%9.2%11.3%-29%
Heath Miller14.2%15.1%16.3%-48%
Tim Wright9.7%9.7%12.0%-49%
Zach Ertz12.9%12.9%13.8%-54%
Lance Kendricks8.2%8.5%8.2%-69%
Brandon Myers9.8%10.5%11.0%-95%
Brent Celek9.0%9.0%9.9%-108%
Larry Donnell8.3%8.3%8.3%-120%
John Carlson9.2%10.2%10.6%-128%
Luke Willson7.8%8.0%10.1%-130%
Clay Harbor6.1%6.7%10.0%-131%
Andrew Quarless9.0%9.0%7.4%-145%
Rob Housler6.5%7.4%8.5%-178%
Ladarius Green4.9%5.2%7.6%-186%
Niles Paul5.2%5.3%7.4%-199%

Based on these numbers Thomas would look to be a good but not great player for the Broncos. For a team to make the leap of faith on him on a mega money contract they have to believe that he can be a far bigger part of their offense that he is in Denver and that the Red Zone productivity will continue.

There are really no other statistics that will jump out in favor of Thomas. Looking at other areas where he could stand out like catch rate, yards per completion, yards per target and so on, he’s average or below average.

I ran a similar analysis of all players since 2007 that combined for over 500 yards across two seasons that were in his same age group (25 and 26 years old) and he ranked similarly- 12th out of 37 names and it was almost solely based on his touchdowns which were very good. He performed better at that age that some players who would eventually sign higher contracts such as Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett, and Heath Miller (though Miller is an exceptional blocker), but none of the players that were or are market setters. So I’m not sure there is anything that should really indicate a player who will play exceptionally better down the line.

The Marketplace

Here is what our veteran Tight End market looks like when plotting a player’s current annual contract value vs the value over average I calculated above.

Tight end salaries

Using that chart we can apply a rough formula to a general range that the free agents should fall into.

Jordan Cameron$6,814,144
Julius Thomas$5,317,305
Owen Daniels$5,217,071
Charles Clay$5,172,278
Jermaine Gresham$4,148,105
Lance Kendricks$2,998,572
Niles Paul$582,974

None of these numbers are meant to be firm numbers but they should be a guideline for valuation and in Thomas’ case it is way below the $8 million he turned down. A number of factors should cause a team to build a contract above or below these figures.

Cameron’s value is almost exclusively based on one year and his overall numbers are not incredibly impressive if the ineptitude of the Browns offense is taken out of the equation. My feeling is a team would not approach that number since it is taking a leap that good numbers on a bad team will have an equivalent impact. That’s how teams like Rams ended up overpaying for Jared Cook, is one of the big negatives of the market.

Thomas is in a similar spot except his gross numbers are more impressive than Cameron’s because of the team he plays on and clearly the narrative on Thomas doesn’t come close to matching the actual productivity. Lewis is one of the best comparisons I could come up with for Thomas because he wasn’t a great yardage type but had the big TD’s to earn the huge contract.  As their team got worse and worse so did Lewis and the big question is if Thomas’ regular TD production drops to 6 or 7 a year with a new team would they be happy paying $9M a year? That answer is a clear no.

Daniels clearly has the most overstated value because he will be 33 and also has battled injuries, but he would be a valuable asset for the Ravens.  Clay might be an interesting target because he comes with no buzz and should be well under a reasonable price. He is also a bit younger. Gresham and Kendricks are players that have to sell their situations as negatives if they hope to increase their asking price.

But as is usually the case in free agency, you always should proceed with caution for questionable players where projected improvements are reasons for big price increases. The Broncos have the best understanding of Thomas’ value to their team since he has played in their offense but for anyone else it is nothing more than a vision. That’s the same vision that landed Percy Harvin and Mike Wallace huge contracts that their teams couldn’t wait to get rid of. Buyer beware.