The Dolphins’ tight end depth chart received a major makeover this offseason. Jordan Cameron retired after an underwhelming and injury marred campaign in Miami, Dion Sims took a well deserved pay raise to move on with the Chicago Bears, and Dominique Jones was declined an offer sheet, making him a free agent. The only players returning at the position are veteran MarQueis Gray and developmental project Thomas Duarte, meaning Miami had to restock the cabinet with some new weapons over the past few months.
Joining the Dolphins for their 2017 campaign are two faces that, while not around last season, are very familiar to a few people in the building. Miami acquired Anthony Fasano in free agency, and are expecting the former Dolphin (Fasano played in South Florida from 2008 - 2012) to remain the premier blocking tight end that he’s been for so many years. Last season, while with the Tennessee Titans, Fasano helped pave the way for a career resurgence for DeMarco Murray, as well as a solid first season for rookie Derrick Henry. In fact, Fasano was rated as one of the league's best blocking tight ends of 2016.
Miami didn’t stop there however, as Adam Gase is reuniting with Julius Thomas to add more firepower to Ryan Tannehill’s arsenal. Gase coached Thomas as offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos from 2013 to 2014, where Thomas famously scored 24 touchdowns over two seasons. Thomas then signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where his career suffered a steep decline due to a combination of injuries and subpar quarterback play.
Now in Miami, Thomas is hoping that reuniting with his former offensive coordinator, and now head coach, can spark a quick turnaround in his career.
And Thomas is not alone in that regard. Dolphins fans everywhere are hoping that he is the kind of pass catching threat that Ryan Tannehill has lacked at the tight end position for most of his career. During his tenure in Denver, Thomas was a menace over the middle of the field and in the red zone. His combination of athleticism, size, and route running ability led to historic production in tandem with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
However, I’m not so sure fans should be expecting that same kind of production from Thomas in Miami, not because he’s not capable of achieving it, but because he might not have to. The Dolphins’ offense is equipped with more talent than we’ve seen in a very long time. The wide receiver trio of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills is one of the top units in the league, especially if Parker breaks out this season as many expect him to. Then there are supporting receivers such as Leonte Carroo, Jakeem Grant, Isaiah Ford, Drew Morgan, and a cluster of others vying for that fourth spot in the wide receiver rotation. Whichever of them wins that slot behind the big three will certainly get some passes thrown their way. Miami also has Jay Ajayi, who is expected to carry a large portion of the offensive workload. Let’s also not forget that Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake, Anthony Fasano, and MarQueis Gray are guaranteed to accumulate at least a few targets over the course of the season.
When you add up all of the pass catchers around Tannehill this season, there are only so many who can receive a large portion of targets. Adam Gase showed last season that he understands how to maximize offensive talent, and thus should have a specific plan for what kind of role Thomas will play this year. Thomas does not need to be a Rob Gronkowski or a Travis Kelce to be a success. Those players have been the most dominant receiving threats on their respective teams, and that’s not what fans should expect from Thomas. That’s not what he should be.
Over the course of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, when Thomas was catching passes from Peyton Manning, the Pro Bowl tight end amassed just 1,277 total yards. That’s an average of just under 640 yards per season. However, if Thomas is able to reach that mark for Miami in 2017, that would absolutely constitute a success. He’s not on the team to gain large amounts of receiving yardage each week. That’s what Landry, Stills, and Parker are for. Thomas’ role will be to dominate in the red zone, score plenty of touchdowns, and be the type of mismatch that forces defenses to leave our top three receivers in one-on-one situations. If Thomas can stay healthy and accomplish those tasks, he will absolutely have lived up to fair expectations for 2017.