Jaguars' forgotten man Julius Thomas still a 'matchup nightmare'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Remember Julius Thomas?

Big, athletic tight end? Caught 24 touchdown passes 2013-14 in Denver? Signed a five-year, $46 million contract in March 2015 as the headliner of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ free agent class?

Remember him?

Thomas hasn’t been much of a part in the national conversation surrounding the team heading into the 2016 season. It’s been quarterback Blake Bortles, receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, the upgrades the team has made on defense, and increased expectations for the franchise in the AFC South.

The conversation about Thomas comes in somewhere south of the Luke Joeckel move to guard, the annual "will Denard Robinson make the team" debate, and city officials’ concern that the latest renderings for the team’s indoor flex field don’t match the originals. Heck, it even seems like the giant spider outside the new indoor practice facility is getting more attention than Thomas.

That’s somewhat understandable considering what has happened since he signed with the Jaguars, but it’s also a mistake. Thomas is going to be a significant part of the offense in 2016 and Bortles said it would be irresponsible if he weren’t.

"Really, anywhere on the field he’s a matchup nightmare," Bortles said. "So I think there’ll definitely be stuff that we have for him [in] really every single category: third down, red zone, base, all that. There’ll be plays where we’re trying to get him the ball and get him involved because he’s an extremely good player and a playmaker."

Thomas’ relative anonymity nationally is fantasy football-driven. He caught 12 touchdown passes from Peyton Manning in 2013 and was ESPN’s second-ranked tight end heading into 2014. He backed that up with another 12 TD catches before signing with the Jaguars for a guaranteed $24 million.

There was an expected drop-off going from arguably the best quarterback in NFL history to a second-year player who threw 11 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions as a rookie, and ESPN’s fantasy rankings heading into the 2015 season had Thomas 15th among tight ends. He’s 11th in this year’s rankings.

Thomas got hurt in the first preseason game last year, missed the first four games of the regular season, and it took a while for him to find a role in an offense that went on to set franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns and receiving touchdowns. He finished with 46 catches (the second-highest total of his career) for 455 yards and five touchdowns, including a four-game stretch in November and December in which he caught a touchdown pass every week. So Thomas didn’t have a bad season.

But Bortles’ 4,428 yards and 35 touchdown passes and the development of Allen Robinson (1,400 yards, 14 TD catches) and Hurns (1,031 yards, 10 TD catches) were the headlines. Robinson and Hurns are probably going to be the focal point of the passing game again in 2016 and receiver Marqise Lee is finally healthy and will have a big role, too.

That could mean roughly the same amount of work for Thomas -- though he was the target for Bortles’ first pass near the goal line in the first preseason game -- this season than in 12 games last season. There are just not enough passes to go around, especially when coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Greg Olson have been vocal about wanting to run the ball more.

Thomas said he’s more worried about winning games than how many passes he catches or being part of the national conversation again. The Broncos won 25 games during the regular seasons in 2013-14. The Jaguars went 5-11 in Thomas’ first season in Jacksonville.

"You can never predict what your year’s going to be like statistically," Thomas said. "That’s just too tough to do. Some of it’s in your control. Some of it isn’t. What you have to do is make sure you’re playing your best football every game.

"When you watch that tape, are you getting better week to week? Are you playing at a high level? That’s really how I’m going to evaluate myself and how our coaches evaluate me."