As the tight end position continues to evolve across the NFL, it remains a position in need of an upgrade for the Buffalo Bills. Just over a week ago, Brian Galliford addressed the state of the position here, and our community eagerly shared their thoughts on the current tight ends on the roster.
When it comes to the free agents available this off-season, the biggest and most attractive name is Julius Thomas from the Denver Broncos. Is he a player that the Bills could (or should) pursue?
In his last two seasons as the starter in Denver, Thomas has scored 24 touchdowns while emerging as one of the top red zone targets in football. Thomas finished the 2014 campaign with 12 touchdowns despite battling injuries and missing multiple games over the past seven weeks of the season. That kind of early-season production put Thomas on pace to challenge Rob Gronkowski's regular-season record of 17 touchdowns for tight ends, which he set in 2011.
On a Broncos team that featured numerous weapons, Thomas was clearly a favorite target for Peyton Manning. One could argue that Thomas' play had a significant impact on his quarterback. Prior to Thomas' Week 11 injury, Manning had posted a 29-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With Thomas missing games and playing through injuries over the final seven games, Manning's numbers dipped to a 10-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Thomas is also an intriguing prospect who could continue to improve as he gains more NFL experience. Thomas started his career at Portland State as a member of their basketball team, and did not begin his collegiate football career until he was a senior. Considering that Thomas has been playing football for a relatively short period of time, one could argue that the talented pass-catcher has yet to reach his full potential.
For the sake of this conversation, we will say that it is a bad thing that Thomas has played the past two seasons with Manning as his quarterback. While playing with one of the NFL's top quarterbacks is hardly a negative, it will be when it comes to evaluating Thomas' talents. Is he simply a product of playing in a Manning-led offense? Or does he have the skill set to produce outside of Denver? It will obviously be some time before we know the answer to that question.
As noted earlier, Thomas has faced his fair share of injuries over the past two seasons. He missed two games during 2013, and he was a shell of his former self after his Week 11 injury against the St. Louis Rams. Based on his production, you can expect that Thomas will have plenty of suitors, which would drive up the contract price for his services. The combination of these injuries, and the lofty contract that Thomas could demand, might be too much for Bills fans to stomach.
Despite a productive stretch in Denver, it appears that Broncos fans are ready to move on from Thomas, as highlighted on SB Nation's Mile High Report. There will likely be competition on the free agent market for his services, and it would take a significant contract offer to land him in Buffalo. While I don't expect Thomas to become the highest paid tight end in football, he will likely command somewhere in between the annual salaries of Jimmy Graham ($10 million) and Kyle Rudolph ($7.3 million).
Signing Thomas would have some serious salary cap implications, and would obviously cause the front office to make some tough decisions come March. That may be too much of a commitment for the Bills to make at tight end, but fans looking for an upgrade over Scott Chandler may be okay with that investment.