You don't have to look very hard into last night's NFL season-opening clash to find the clubhouse leader for top fantasy football waiver claim.
The Denver Broncos' 49-27 abject destruction of the Baltimore Ravens was filled with elite fantasy performances. You had to feel for anyone in your league who had to play against Peyton Manning, Wes Welker or Demaryius Thomas—unless you're one of the lucky souls who owned one, two or all three.
Manning had possibly the greatest individual game of his career, throwing for 462 yards and tying the NFL record with seven touchdowns. Thomas and Welker were both the recipients of two of those scores, with Thomas going for 161 yards and Welker continuing his PPR one-man show with nine receptions.
We could have seen Thomas' or Welker's stellar outings coming like a lame Jay Leno punchline. It's happened so often it's almost second nature at this point.
What no one expected—at least outside of the Broncos locker room, apparently—was Julius Thomas' leap to the national forefront of every fantasy football discussion. Thomas made five catches for 110 yards on Thursday night, grabbing Manning's first two touchdown tosses in the first half. The Ravens secondary struggled mightily with defending 6'5", 250-pound tight end, as he worked in the middle of the field to produce by far the most impressive outing of his career.
Before the game, Thomas, a 2011 fourth-round pick out of Portland State, had exactly one catch. It went for five yards. He didn't appear in a game last season. He came into camp gasping for his NFL life. I'm not even sure he had Peyton Manning's cellphone number until Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme suffered injuries that kept them out of pretty much the whole summer.
But as has been the case so many times in NFL history, the "next man up" may have just Wally Pipp'd his way to a starting position. Thomas was super impressive during preseason, leading all Denver receivers with 12 receptions and tying with Demaryius Thomas with 123 yards; Thursday wasn't totally out of left field.
Where the situation gets murky is in assessing just how good Julius Thomas can be going forward. He's an obvious waiver pickup. Depending on how your league's waiver transactions run, Thomas could already be scooped up by the time the rest of the NFL kicks off its 2013 season.
While that availability seems good on the surface, it actually makes the decision far more difficult. In traditional waiver formats, it will probably cost a top-five waiver priority to land him. In leagues that use FAAB (free agent acquisition budget), teams still have all of their money left. Every league has that one guy who will overpay by $5-10 just to get the guy making waves in the first week.
Jumping after Thomas and sacrificing your waiver priority or FAAB money is a risky strategy in leagues where Thursday players will be available.
In a more standard waiver process—where Thursday players are immediately placed into the standard Week 2 pool of players—that's where Thomas becomes a better option. Owners will have the entire weekend to watch the games, assess the waiver priority chain—most notably where Thomas fits behind the at least one running back who asserts himself this week—and then make an informed decision.
Either way, Thomas should be at least a solid starter at tight end in nearly all formats.
Make no mistake, Manning loves throwing to the tight end. He's arguably the O.G. of making the position a valuable fantasy commodity after what he did with Dallas Clark in Indianapolis. Last season Tamme and Dreessen combined for 93 catches, as Manning spread the ball around rather than choosing one particular tight-end target.
Dreessen will be back from injury at some point in the season, but will the split be as straight down the middle this time around? It's impossible to tell without more data; data fantasy football owners won't have when they're making their decisions this week. Fantasy is all about a game of both taking chances and making risks—a dichotomy that makes me at times wish I were back in college trig.
After performances like Thursday, it's fair to assume that (at least for now) Thomas is Manning's top option at tight end.
Two words come to mind when assessing Thomas' fantasy value: cautious optimism. He's a guy whose performance was so strong that you have to pick him up—especially at a position where only one guaranteed elite player exists. There is a chance, an off one mind you, that Thomas bursts onto the scene with a massive 75-catch, 10-touchdown season that no one saw coming.
The more likely scenario is that he winds up as a mid-tier starter. No matter how much Manning likes him, Thomas is still fourth on the totem pole. He's not going to get the targets of Welker, Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker. And when Dreessen finally returns, Thomas is probably going to be looking at a 70-30 split on passes to the tight end.
That uncertainty knocks him down a tier. He's somewhere on the tier just below Vernon Davis, right in with the Kyle Rudolph, Owen Daniels and Greg Olsen trio. These are guys whose numbers on the season will probably look pretty good, but you never know which week they'll break out. Manning isn't throwing seven touchdowns per week, folks.
The advice remains the same as you'll read everywhere: Pick Thomas up unless you're a Jimmy Graham owner.
Just do yourself a favor and don't do too much fawning over a player who will probably finish seventh or eighth at his position. Thomas was brilliant Thursday night, but unless you somehow had him in your lineup, you probably already missed the peak of his fantasy performance.
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