Turbulent Tight End: How Julius Thomas Could Impact the Dolphins Offense
The Dolphins spent the later part of last week engaged in a strange tango, tangled in reports of players being cut, potential trades, and later a retraction of that player’s release. However, the team’s decisions have now come into focus.
Many were blindsided by reports that the Dolphins planned on cutting Branden Albert, who was the team’s starting LT in 2016. With needs mounting across the roster, it seemed to make little sense to create another void. However, the team then was given the opportunity to fill one of their most substantial needs while still having a chance to jump into the Laremy Tunsil era at left tackle.
On Sunday, news broke that the Dolphins planned on trading Branden Albert to the Jaguars in exchange for TE Julius Thomas. Thomas was one of the centerpieces of Adam Gase’s high-flying offense in Denver, catching 24 TDs from 2013-2014. While it has since been reported that the Albert trade and a deal for Thomas would be two separate transactions, it’s clear that there is a connection between the two moves between Miami and Jacksonville.
Now, it’s time to sort out what this trade means for the Dolphins and how the opening move of their offseason will shape their efforts to build ahead of 2017.
Breaking Down Julius Thomas’ Glory Days:
Julius Thomas’ greatest asset is something the Dolphins sorely lacked at the tight end position: explosiveness.
Thomas was selected by Denver for his athletic ability; the team saw another raw, former basketball player who transitioned to the gridiron and needed to be coached into a position. During his time under Mike McCoy, and later Adam Gase with the Broncos, Thomas developed a skillset that allowed him to make plays, catching passes from Peyton Manning in the team’s pass-happy attack.
On the play above, Julius Thomas’ athleticism is on full display. Facing a linebacker blitz, Peyton Manning knows that he’ll have Julius Thomas open over the middle on a post route. Once the pressure comes barreling in, Thomas has already gained enough separation from the safety to make a huge play.
In that same game, Thomas showed his ability to make defenders pay on a route that has become synonymous with the athleticism of the TE position: the seam.
The Broncos’ offense takes advantage of indecision at the safety position; Barry Church is caught second-guessing himself as Julius Thomas barrels downfield. Once Thomas passes a critical point, Manning delivers a strike up the seam to his tight end. Had Manning been able to put the ball out in front of Thomas, he could’ve taken the play all of the way to the house.
Even if Church hadn’t hesitated in coverage, Julius Thomas has the speed to put distance between himself and slower safeties.
In Adam Gase’s offense, the goal is always to get the tight end isolated with one player in coverage. Linebackers and safeties can’t keep up, while cornerbacks don’t have the size to defend a large target.
On the play above, the Broncos call for a receiver on the opposite side of the play to draw coverage away from the tight end. This means that Thomas has an easy assignment and simply has to gain space from a linebacker. He does so easily, and the Broncos cash in with a big play.
Even in the red zone, these mismatches become very apparent:
Thomas, once again, gains a step on the linebacker and is able to score an easy touchdown.
The Dolphins’ latest acquisition also represents a clear upgrade in terms of yards after the catch. Here’s an example on a play that the Dolphins utilized frequently in 2016:
The receiver outside draws coverage away while the QB flips the pass out to the TE before the LB can get there in coverage. Then, Thomas shows off his speed and acceleration by hitting the first-down marker.
Strong play from at tight end will also help the Dolphins utilize Ryan Tannehill to his maximum potential. Ryan Tannehill has the ability to deliver the ball into tight windows and has very little fear when asked to attack small areas in the defense.
On the play above, the running back’s underneath route holds the linebacker, creating a gap in the middle of the defense. Thomas has a step on the corner, and Manning has a throwing lane thanks to the presence of the RB. Manning slips the ball in between the corner and the safety, and Thomas makes the last defender miss for a TD.
Adam Gase’s tendency to get creative with formations also requires a TE who can, for all intents and purposes, function as a wide receiver.
This is a play traditionally called for quicker receivers who can gain separation, or larger targets who can catch contested passes. It isn’t a route that the defense would traditionally expect the tight end to run, giving an edge to the offense.
Sometimes, Gase can get really, really creative with the TE position.
Dolphins fans shouldn’t complain about adding another weapon to Adam Gase’s bag of tricks.
What Went Wrong in Jacksonville:
As far as red flags go, injuries are by far the most worrisome. In Jacksonville, Julius Thomas was unable to stay healthy, constantly missing games due to various medical issues throughout his stay in northern Florida.
Thomas was hampered at different intervals by elbow, back, and ankle injuries. Miami’s last big acquisition at tight end also came with injury concerns, as Jordan Cameron arrived as an if-he-can-stay-healthy option for the Dolphins’ offense.
Julius Thomas is in a different boat than Jordan Cameron: Cameron’s issues arose from concussions, obviously a frightening issue that can recur for players. Thomas is having problems in the opposite way; his injuries are impacting different areas seemingly every week.
Some attribute this to bad luck, while others believe it will be a recurring issue for the talented tight end. I tend to side towards the latter; Thomas has never played a full 16 games, coming close in 2014 with 14. Since that 14-appearance campaign, he hasn’t appeared in more than 10 games in any single year.
While this seems like a problem, the Dolphins do have plenty of depth at the position. Had the team drafted a tight end early, one could assume that it would be in response to letting Dion Sims walk. However, with injury concerns surrounding Thomas, they’ll likely lean on Dion Sims and MarQueis Gray (who is under contract) to shoulder the load at some point.
When Thomas was available to play in Jacksonville, three issues often plagued him: Blake Bortles’ inconsistency, his own inconsistency, and poor scheme.
Bortles’ inconsistency is well documented and doesn’t need to be expanded on.
Thomas’ own inconsistency was also a factor. When he was on the field, concentration drops proved to be an issue. Here are two examples from a 2015 meeting with Houston:
(Even when Julius Thomas did catch the ball, it looked as if he had grown sluggish in Jacksonville. He’ll have to get back down to the playing weight from his Denver days to rebound in Miami.)
One thing you’ll notice about both of these drops is that they came near the line of scrimmage. This is often where the Jaguars’ coaches elected to employ Julius Thomas, sending him out in the flat.
Successful NFL teams always find a way to maximize all of the talent on their roster. With 53 players to divvy up your salary cap amongst, a resource as expensive as Julius Thomas can’t go underutilized.
However, the Jaguars did, at times, help Thomas find ways to make plays.
If a team is going to use the dynamic tight end underneath, the best way to do so is over the middle, exploiting the cushion that linebackers give (hoping to avoid being burnt deep up the seam).
The play above is an example of this; San Diego’s linebackers sit back, and it helps net the Jaguars some chunk yardage.
Later in that same game, the Jaguars had all three of the aforementioned problems reversed, finally showing the full potential of Julius Thomas as a weapon.
Much like during the long reception in Denver’s matchup with Dallas, Julius Thomas is able to gain separation from one-on-one coverage. Blake Bortles finally hits his mark, and Julius Thomas is able to turn the play into a big gain.
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to blame either the Jaguars or Julius Thomas for the failed tenure. Thomas’ injuries kept him off the field and, when he was able to play, the team’s inconsistent performance (from not only Blake Borltes, but also the coaches) cost them dearly.
Before Jacksonville had gone after a weapon like Julius Thomas, it would have been wise to make sure that the coaching staff had established a foundation that allowed their existing weapons to make plays and succeed.
What the Trade Means for the Dolphins Going Forward:
The Dolphins will need to tread carefully at tight end in the coming weeks.
Julius Thomas’ current contract is not sustainable. He’s on the books for over $8M in 2017, which would hamper Miami’s ability to sign top-tier free agents. However, there’s plenty of incentive for Thomas to restructure. Currently, his contract allows for him to be released in 2018 for $7.4 million in cap relief (off of a $9.8M hit with $2.4M in dead money). In 2019, he would be cut for over $10M in cap relief.
If Julius Thomas restructures, the Dolphins could have money to lock up Dion Sims. While Sims isn’t a No. 1 TE, he’ll be a necessary piece paired with MarQueis Gray in the event of an injury to Thomas.
The Dolphins can’t afford to put too much money into the TE position; they currently have massive needs on the offensive line that likely have reached the top of the offseason priority list. With Laremy Tunsil sliding out to LT, the Dolphins will need two quality starting guards in addition to depth at the position. Mike Pouncey’s injury history is highly concerning, and the Dolphins will need to be certain that they have a quality option in case the star center is unavailable.
Concern is warranted as to whether or not the $8.3M it would cost to have Thomas on the roster could be better spent in other areas. Without Thomas taking a major pay cut, the answer is that it could. The Dolphins will need to pay two top-tier guards, and then acquire depth players at key positions. All the while, the team will be focusing on re-signing Kenny Stills and Dion Sims, which would be tough if Thomas remains at his current cap number.
Until contract numbers are released for Thomas’ restructured deal, it will be impossible to analyze how much, if at all, the acquisition will impact Miami’s plans. However, it appears that they are wisely setting themselves up to keep the floor of this transaction as high as possible, taking on very little risk.
As a whole, it’s hard to feel that this trade is a substantial negative. The best-case scenario is that Thomas is a contributor from the tight end position, becoming an asset for Miami. The worst-case scenario is that Thomas costs the Dolphins a chance at top-shelf free agents and is gone in 2018.
At the end of the day, trading a player you planned on releasing for a potentially-substantial contributor wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world as the Dolphins look to continue assembling a winning roster.