Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas may well have been the difference between victory and defeat on Sunday night in Week 12. The athletic pass-catcher sat out of the team's game against the New England Patriots with a knee injury, depriving Peyton Manning of one of his favorite targets. Denver jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead only to succumb to their AFC rivals in overtime.
The team has remained somewhat tight-lipped about Thomas' knee injury, which still might not be at 100 percent. However, interim head coach Jack Del Rio delivered some good news on Monday, stating that Thomas is expected to play in Week 13's crucial divisional matchup at the Kansas City Chiefs. With that news, Thomas returns to fantasy lineups as well and will remain a must-start as one of the four best tight ends in the league
The man affectionately known as "Orange Julius" has corralled 45 passes for 590 yards, and those numbers would be even higher if Denver did not have such a talented set of wide receivers to take targets away from him. Among tight ends, only Jimmy Graham has more touchdowns (11) than Thomas' 10. He has caught at least three passes in each of his starts, and over the next five games, look for Thomas to reel in at least three scores and 250 more yards.
In Week 11's home win over Kansas City, Thomas snagged three passes and a touchdown. The Chiefs are coming off an embarrassing home loss to the San Diego Chargers, who surprisingly gashed them in the passing game. That performance should provide a blueprint for Thomas to have a big day if he's at or near full health in KC this Sunday.
In the loss to New England, Virgil Green started at TE for Denver but Jacob Tamme produced more in Thomas' stead. Joel Dreessen served mainly as a blocking tight end, and none of those tight ends offer anything close to Thomas' skill set. Manning sorely missed that speed at the position and the mismatches it creates, which has quickly turned Thomas into a rising star. After all, this is a player who had just one career reception prior to this season.
Thomas is another in a series of dominant tight ends who come from basketball backgrounds, and he played four years at Portland State. His unique combination of size and quickness has been a nightmare for NFL defenders this year.
Of course, any leg injury raises significant cause for concern. The good news is that he was able to participate in limited practices last week even though he missed the game, so the knee issue is obviously not seriously debilitating. The biggest fantasy threat to Thomas actually comes from his own teammates, as Manning has excellent wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker at his disposal.
Thomas gets a reasonably favorable schedule coming up. Here are the four remaining opponents after the upcoming Chiefs game, with the points allowed to tight ends in ESPN fantasy leagues in parentheses: Tennessee Titans (12th), San Diego Chargers (15th), Houston Texans (18th) and Oakland Raiders (19th).
While the points against numbers are middling, Thomas is unlike most tight ends, and a closer look at the defenses shows fertile ground for Orange Julius going forward.
The Titans have a stout secondary, but Thomas has the size and quickness to torture linebackers while the corners and safeties worry about Welker and Demaryius Thomas. Moreover, of the measly eight passing TDs allowed by Tennessee, five of them have gone to tight ends.
The Texans similarly have a tough pass defense and yield the fewest yards in the league, but they've also given up 18 passing touchdowns, which ranks 16th. Add in the fact that Brian Cushing is done for the year, and Thomas could have a field day against a reeling squad spiraling toward the No. 1 pick in next year's draft.
The Chargers and Raiders are among the eight worst pass defenses in the league. Between them, they've created only 13 interceptions all year. Thomas also caught a touchdown in each game against the Chargers and Raiders earlier this season, including a career-high 74-yard catch against San Diego. Based on Thomas' track record this year, he will continue to excel and see red-zone targets even if he plays at only 90 percent.
The Broncos and Chiefs are locked atop the AFC West at 9-2, and the winner on Sunday will control the division. A win in Kansas City would assure Denver of having the divisional tiebreaker. Three of the Chiefs' final four games come on the road and they get the Indianapolis Colts at home. The Broncos would love to rest their starters for the playoffs in Week 17, but they may still be holding off Kansas City for the division title on the final Sunday. That means Thomas will be in if your league plays the fantasy championship in Week 17.
Despite not suiting up for Week 12, Thomas is all-systems-go against the Chiefs, and he will be eager to finish strong in his breakout season thereafter.