Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Julius Thomas is looking to cash in as the top tight end in this year’s free agent class. Unheralded when Denver drafted him in the fourth round in 2011, the former Portland State football and basketball player has developed into one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL.
Thomas played in just nine games in his first two seasons with the Broncos before breaking through in a big way in 2013. The season Peyton Manning also came to town, Thomas exploded for 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up this past season with another 12 scores, although an ankle injury limited him to just 13 games and his other numbers went down (43, 489).
An athletic target with outstanding hands making him one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the league, Thomas could be a difference-maker for a team looking to upgrade at tight end. A return to Denver looks unlikely, so the question must be asked – how will Thomas fare without Manning throwing passes to him?
Here are five potential landing spots (in alphabetical order) for Thomas, whether it’s based on need or available cap space or both, as well as a few other teams to keep an eye on with free agency set to officially begin on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
Everyone knows how good the Falcons’ offense was with Tony Gonzalez a part of it. I’m not saying Thomas is a future Hall of Famer like Gonzalez, but he would have to be considered an upgrade over Levine Toilolo. Atlanta has plenty of cap space to give Matt Ryan another weapon in the passing game.
Jordan Cameron is a free agent, but I think both he and the Browns are ready to move on. Tight end isn’t Cleveland’s biggest need, but the Browns have plenty of cap space and an uncertain situation at quarterback. Whomever ends up under center, he will need targets to throw to and Thomas would fit the bill, especially in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers
As good as the Packers’ offense is, can you imagine what it would be like if it added Thomas to the mix? Green Bay has other positions to address (including trying to re-sign Randall Cobb), so tight end may be more of a luxury than need right now. But oh what a potential luxury it could be for Aaron Rodgers if Thomas were to sign with the Packers.
The Jaguars can pretty much be considered an option for any big free agent because of two things – 1) they have plenty of holes to fill and 2) they have plenty of cap space. That said, Thomas also makes a lot of sense because of what his presence could mean to the development of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. Call it a win-win for both the team and player.
With Marshawn Lynch back in the fold, the Seahawks’ focus this offseason will shift to signing Russell Wilson and other key players to long-term contracts. However, that doesn’t mean the team won’t look at adding some new pieces too. Thomas would definitely give Seattle’s passing game a different element.
Other Teams to Watch
Rex Ryan has his running back in LeSean McCoy, but Thomas could be the next Pro Bowler to join the new-look Buffalo Bills. Adding Thomas to the offense would make things easier on both the quarterback and the likes of McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Waktins … With Andre Johnson seemingly on his way out, the Houston Texans probably need a wide receiver more than a tight end. However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas wouldn’t fit nicely in head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense… The Oakland Raiders already have a young tight end in Mychal Rivera and much bigger holes to fill elsewhere. But since they have so much cap space and apparently are itching to spend it, they at least need to be mentioned here.
The Packers are certainly intriguing, given the quarterback similarities, but I don’t think they can offer Thomas enough money to make it worth his while. And if it’s all about the money, then it’s a two-horse race between the Jaguars and Raiders. However, I also like the Falcons’ and Seahawks’ chances. Seattle would give Thomas a chance to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender not far from where he played his college ball, while Atlanta has been a good place for tight ends to thrive. In the end, I think the Jaguars will simply present Thomas with an offer he can’t refuse.