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.

NFL Stock Down: Week 8


Every Monday during the season we will take a look back at three players who are entering important stages of their contract that may have hurt their stock in upcoming negotiations with their play on Sunday. In addition we will also look at one player signed in the offseason to a new contract that did not live up to the expectations that his contract sets for the player.

Stock Down

Hakeem Nicks– Nicks took a one year deal with the Indianapolis Colts to turn the perception around that he wasn’t worth big receiver money. It seemed like a great pairing since we all know Nicks has talent and the Colts system puts up great numbers, but Nicks has been a dud and the ship has sailed at being paid anywhere near a top end number 2, let alone number 1 receiver. Nicks produced just 1 reception despite being targeted 6 times this week.

Michael Vick– One would think Vick was using this season to hope to land one more starting job down the line, but in his second appearance of the year Vick continued to show many of the bad traits he showed in his final years in Philadelphia. Vick completed just 50% of his passes and turned the ball over three times in relief of Geno Smith. Vick should get his chance to start the rest of the season and he has to do better than this to prolong his career.

Jordan Cameron– Cameron had his breakout game a few weeks ago and then proceeded to go back to looking like just another guy again. Cameron has a chance to cash in as a potential difference maker at the position, but he needs to do more than a few catches and not being very useful as a blocker when used on the line.


New Contract Disappointment Of The Week

Lamarr Houston– The biggest risk in free agency is how a player will react once they get paid big money and in the case of the Bears and Houston it looks like they grabbed the guy who stopped playing with the contract. The Bears defense has been a joke all season and nothing was more of a joke than Houston getting injured while celebrating a sack down by a billion points.  Houston has made no impact this season- that sack was just his first and he has only 11 tackles on the year. In his contract year he produced 69 tackles and 6 sacks.


NFL Stock Up: Week 6


Every Monday during the season we will take a look back at three players who are entering important stages of their contract that may have helped their stock in upcoming negotiations with their play on Sunday. In addition we will also look at one player signed in the offseason to a new contract that exceeded all expectations and provided exceptional value to his team.

Stock Up

Cam Newton– I’ve been hard on Newton this year but he has not put together two very solid games and this past Sunday put together probably his most dominating performance since his rookie season. Newton looked like the guy the Panthers drafted for the first time in ages, throwing for 280+ yards and adding another 107 on the ground.  He was a one man show against what was supposed to be a dominant defense.

Jordan Cameron– Cameron has been injured most of the season, but exploded against the Steelers to the tune of 102 yards on just three receptions. The Browns look to have a nice young core of talent and loads of cap space much of which should go towards extending the young tight end before his drives his asking price higher.

Ndamukong Suh– The Lions are having a great year on defense and Suh is a major part of why that is the case. With the Buccaneers struggling Suh has seemingly locked down the best available defensive tackle award from Gerald McCoy. With two more sacks on Sunday Suh is pretty much hammering home that he is worth whatever outlandish price he wants.


New Contract Player Of The Week

Jay Cutler– Another player I am usually negative on, Cutler went into a hostile environment in what was essentially a must win game and had his most complete game of the season. The Bears will need more of this in the future if they want to stay in the race through week 17.