Julius Thomas was drafted because he, like Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints, played on the hardwood in college. Tight ends have undergone an incredible transformation over the years in the NFL, and having someone who can essentially box out defenders and go up for jump balls in the end zone is a huge advantage for any offense.
Thomas is one of those big-bodied players who presents a matchup disaster for any defense.
At 6'5", he's too tall for most cornerbacks and his 250 pounds give him far more mass and strength than corners can usually deal with in a fight-for-the-ball situation.
However, Thomas isn't just a big, strong, blocking tight end. He's a hybrid. With incredible athleticism and great speed, he's just way too fast for most linebackers—the only people on the field who could match up with him physically.
He's even fast enough to run by most safeties.
Just look at his stats, because this is one case where the numbers really don't lie. Sixty-five receptions, 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.
(Some NSFW language in this video.)
Those are wide receiver numbers. If Thomas hadn't been sidelined by injury for two games, he would have had a shot at breaking 1,000 yards this season.
The Denver Broncos have seen this before, and it came with their last Super Bowl run. Shannon Sharpe was one of the original hybrid tight ends, a player with a mouth loud enough to rival his talent on the field. He was outspoken, always grinning and constantly dominating defenses.
And if you think Shannon Sharpe was good—he is in the Hall of Fame, after all—then it's worth noting that Thomas actually broke his record for touchdowns in a season. By two.
The problem for a defense, even a great one like Seattle's, is that the scheme doesn't fit a tight end like this. If you assign a linebacker to him like you traditionally would, he's going to eat him alive with speed. If you put a corner on him, Thomas is going to run him into the ground.
The best way to take him out of the game, for Seattle, would be to put Richard Sherman on him. Sherman is a tall corner at 6"3' and weighs almost 200 pounds. He still gives up two inches and more than 50 pounds to Thomas, but he'd be able to run with him and play the ball.
Sherman's bravado may be a bit over the top, but he is one of the best corners in the game. He could stop Julius one-on-one like no one else in that secondary.
Everyone wants to be in the conversation .... pic.twitter.com/MtjK1PPFZq— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 26, 2014
If you're Pete Carroll, though, Sherman isn't even an option.
Denver has another Thomas, Demaryius, who is arguably a top-five wide receiver in the league. He's soft-spoken, humble and an utterly destructive force after the snap of the ball. He went for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns on the year.
That's where Sherman has to be. There's just no question about it.
Denver loves to run Julius Thomas right up the seam, under the safeties. This means that, if you roll the safeties out to give support over the top against Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Julius is going to have a field day.
If you keep them in, you have constant one-on-one situations on the outside.
You also have Wes Welker running free with either a linebacker or a nickel corner.
These are all matchups that Peyton Manning loves.
Another huge advantage that Julius brings is that he gives Manning the ability to throw the ball in around two seconds. According to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, Manning took 2.34 seconds on average after the snap to throw the ball this season.
A defensive lineman, if he's totally unblocked, needs about 1.5 seconds to get to the quarterback when he's in shotgun, as Manning often is.
Seattle's defense loves to pressure the quarterback, but you can't get there if the ball is gone in two seconds. Manning has the lowest sack total in the NFL this year and he's been missing Ryan Clady—Denver's best lineman—for most of the season.
If the line can block for an average of, say, one measly second, Seattle's vaunted pass rush won't get there. It doesn't matter how athletic and talented the Seahawks' pass-rushers are or how well they know what Denver's offense wants to do. There just isn't time.
Ask any other team to play Denver this year. In most games, Manning doesn't even get hit, let alone sacked.
Even Cliff Avril, one of Seattle's premier pass-rushers, knows it.
"They have a good O-line, but the majority of it comes from Peyton Manning, the timing of everything. If you get the ball out fast enough, there will never be pressure. So most of it is Peyton Manning," he told Condotta.
Julius Thomas is a huge part of the reason that Manning can get the ball out that fast. The corners can hit Demaryius and Decker at the line all day, and Manning can just dump the ball off to Thomas. It might not look like much, but Thomas averages 12.1 yards per catch, so that's a first down every time.
Even if he just gets five yards per catch, that keeps the chains moving.
It also forces the defense to shift to cover him. It has to. That opens up the rest of the field. It's not like Manning has a shortage of options, and he's the best in the game—the best ever, I'd argue—at finding mismatches that he likes.
At the end of the day, the Seahawks are going to have to choose. Do they try to cover Julius Thomas and open the rest of the field up that much more or do they cover everyone else and let him convert first down after first down?
Even if they choose to cover him, do they have anyone on the roster who can actually do it?