November 9, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (80) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 41-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas vs. Rivera
Some – including this writer – have suggested that the Tight End position is not a pressing need position for the Raiders because of the emergence of Mychal Rivera, especially during the last ten games of the 2014 season. In that ten game span, Rivera caught 45 passes for 433 yards (essentially matching Thomas’ production in 2014) for 4 TD’s. This stretch included five games with six or more receptions, and his sole career 100+ yard performance against the 49ers in Week 14. Rivera, a 2013 5th-round pick out of Tennessee, is slightly smaller than Thomas, but the two are a both receiving TE’s with good speed and size.
Like Thomas, Rivera has improved as a blocker as well, though the two are not necessarily exceptional blockers from the line of scrimmage. Unlike Thomas, Rivera has struggled with his consistency as a receiver, and even during his solid 10-week stretch of last season was still known to drop too many passes.
But in comparing the two players’ entire statistical bodies of work, Thomas has a significant edge. Rivera and Thomas have both essentially been playing the same amount of time. Thomas’ first two years in the league he was mostly used as a special teams player if he was even active at all, while Rivera was a full-time player as a rookie in 2013. In 2013, both were full time players: Rivera played in all 16 games while starting three, Thomas started and played in 14 games and missed two with an injury. Thomas, in 14 games, caught 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 TD’s, while Rivera in 16 games caught 38 passes for 407 yards and 4 TD’s.
In 2014, Thomas played in 13 games and started 10, logging 43 receptions for 489 yards and another 12 TD’s; Rivera played in all 16, started 10, and logged 58 receptions for 534 yards and another 4 TDs. So over a 2-year span in which Thomas played in five fewer games than Rivera, Thomas has twelve more receptions, 336 more receiving yards, and eight more touchdowns – along with ten more plays of 20 or more yards.
Thomas also has had ten performances of five or more receptions to Rivera’s eight, three 100+ yard performances to Rivera’s one, and six multi-TD performances to Rivera’s one. Finally, Thomas has appeared in four playoff games while Rivera has none, and in his four playoff performances Thomas has amassed 24 receptions and 241 yards. In their careers, each has been targeted 159 times: Thomas has made the catch 109 times while Rivera has made the catch 96 times.
All for Tennessee
Of course, Thomas has benefited from his surroundings in ways Rivera has not: Thomas’ quarterback was Peyton Manning in both of the last two years, while Rivera caught passes from Terrelle Pryor, Matt Flynn and rookie Matt McGloin in 2013 and rookie Derek Carr in 2014. Thomas had Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders and Eric Decker running routes and getting attention from defenders, while Rivera had either Rod Streater in 2013 or James Jones in 2014. Thomas played on a division champ that was competing for the Super Bowl, Rivera played on a team that won 7 games in his two years. So stats can be misleading on the two players, as Thomas has had a better quarterback and played against defenses that didn’t make him a priority. So there must be another standard by which to judge the players.
One is by their route to becoming starters. Thomas did not start for two years, but then emerged as the opening-day starter in 2013 by beating out Jacob Tamme, a six-year pro who had been with Peyton Manning since 2008 in Indianapolis, and Joel Dreessen, an eight-year pro who had been the starter the year prior and had started 49 games in his career. Rivera, meanwhile, only saw three starts in 2013 while Jeron Mastrud started – though Mastrud wasn’t used often as a receiver. Rivera got the starting job in 2014 by beating out blocking TE Brian Leonhardt and the oft-injured David Ausberry.
Another way is to judge them using analysis beyond the stats, especially as it comes to their other very important job as tight ends: blocking. In 2013, Julius Thomas was rated by ProFootballFocus as being one of the worst run-blocking TE’s in the NFL, while Rivera fared in the middle of the pack. In 2014, both improved that facet of their games, though the improvement was dramatically more significant for Thomas, who improved from a -17.1 rating to a -0.1 rating. Rivera managed to show up well in some spots as a blocker for the Raiders, but not from the line of scrimmage: he was lined up as a fullback and was effective as a lead blocker or chip-blocker. Thomas, though not used often as a pass-blocker in Denver, is among the most efficient pass-blockers at the TE position.
Finally, there’s the physical matchup and the eye test. Thomas, at his combine, ran a 4.68 time in the 40-yard dash and performed a 35-inch vertical leap while Rivera ran a 4.81 and a 31 inch vertical. Thomas also has two inches of height on Rivera, and slightly longer arms. While Rivera is big enough and jumps high enough to out-jump average NFL defensive backs on a high throw, Thomas is big and athletic enough to out-jump nearly all of them. Thomas, on tape, compared to Rivera, just looks the part more consistently – he is much more fluid of an athlete, catches the ball much more effortlessly, and can easily turn a 5-yard pass into a 20-30 yard catch and run with his speed and athleticism. Rivera meanwhile has improved as a possession receiver and has shown promise as an end zone threat, but is not the same deep threat or catch-and-run threat that Thomas is.
Next: How Thomas Could Pair With Rivera