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Player Faceoff: Julius Thomas, Miami

Two staffers go head-to-head and discuss Julius Thomas

The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.

High Side: Ari Ingel

After being called "nearly unstoppable" in organized team activities by the Jacksonville press last year, Thomas battled his usual injuries, playing in just nine games, and then had to deal with the horrible quarterback play of Blake Bortles. Change can be a good thing though, and Thomas is back playing with Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, with whom Thomas caught 24 touchdowns in just 27 games in Denver under this very offensive system. And, for fantasy purposes, when it comes to tight ends, outside of the top three or four of them, it is all about touchdowns. During those Gase years in 2013 and 2014, Thomas was the 2nd- and 6th-best tight end in the league per Football Outsiders DYAR metric, which classifies a player with holding more value.

This season, noted Dolphins beat reporter Armando Salguero recently stated that he believes Thomas is "going to be a thing" this year, and that the Dolphins have "multiple plays" designed just for him. The talent is there, and hopefully Gase can rekindle the magic. One particular play Gase loved to run is having three receivers wide right, with Thomas alone on the left side, where he can dominate in a one-on-one situation and do what he does best, catch touchdowns. I doubt Thomas has more than 55 catches, but 8+ touchdowns are certainly possible, with the grand caveat, “if he stays healthy.”

Low Side: Matt Waldman

There’s little doubt that a healthy Julius Thomas has the athletic ability of a top fantasy tight end. However, there’s also little doubt that Thomas hasn’t performed like a starting tight end for multiple seasons. Injury has been part of the problem, but so has conditioning, losing Peyton Manning, and the Seattle Seahawks exposing his greatest weakness as a competitor. Until he overcomes the existing negative perceptions of his game and earns a strong pairing with a competent quarterback with a track record of getting the best from tight ends, Thomas’s game isn’t as promising as his name.

Thomas signed a free agent deal with the Jaguars after his success in Denver and despite working with Blake Bortles when Bortles was taking a strong step forward in his development between 2014 and 2015, Thomas faltered. He got hurt, returned out of shape, dropped passes, and lost the confidence of the coaching staff. Professional football players have a minuscule margin for error when it comes to maintaining a competitive advantage and when a player loses that, it can tarnish his reputation around the league. Thomas has to prove that he was worth that Jaguars deal two years ago and he must overcome the perception that he got fat and lazy due to his success in Denver.

Another perception that Thomas created in Denver is that he was a product of Peyton Manning. The Broncos didn’t work hard to keep Thomas in the fold despite his athletic gifts. It leads to the idea that Manning’s ability to find and exploit matchup advantages that led to easy plays for Thomas. Compounding this thought is that Seattle’s pre-Super Bowl scouting yielded information that suggested Thomas did not perform well against physical defenders. The Seahawks built a strategy around hammering Thomas early and often and forcing Manning to grow impatient with the short passing game, which led to mistakes and a championship blow-out of the Broncos. Since that time, Thomas has never worked past the image that he’s soft against physical play.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has never built a strong rapport with a tight end at Texas A&M or Miami. He often overthrew options who got open in the intermediate and deep seam of a defense. Tannehill has also lacked continuity of offensive scheme and/or receiving targets since he has been with the Dolphins. Considering Thomas’ issues, I don’t expect him to have a fast start with the Dolphins, even if reuniting with head coach Adam Gase is a positive. Jarvis Landry owns the middle of the field in Miami’s offense and this spring, DeVante Parker has finally demonstrated he understands what it takes to care for his body and develop the mental side of his game. We haven’t seen Tannehill support more than two fantasy starters in the receiving game, and if there’s three, I expect Kenny Stills to be that third option before Thomas.