What Could Julius Thomas Do for the Oakland Raiders?

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Dec 7, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera (81) reacts after catching a touchdown pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the 49ers 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Plus Rivera

But of course implying that the Raiders have to choose between Thomas and Rivera is a false choice. The Raiders have Rivera on his rookie contract for two more seasons. If Thomas were signed, Rivera would not need to be cut. Instead, the Raiders could have the potential for two productive pass-catching tight ends on the same team. With the Raiders still not clear on a legitimate #1 threat at wide receiver, it may also be their best option in the passing game. They only have to look to the dark side for an example: New England.

In 2011 and 2012, the Patriots – part of the time running a fast-paced no-huddle modeled on Chip Kelly’s offense – used two tight ends heavily: Rob Gronkowski and noted serial killer Aaron Hernandez. And while neither Rivera nor Thomas is Rob Gronkowski – no one is – both players are bigger than the 6’2″ Hernandez and compare favorably in a physical sense (speed, athleticism). Over the course of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined to catch 275 passes for 3,510 yards and 40 TD’s, despite both missing significant chunks of time in 2012. What the Patriots were able to do with the two tight ends was uncanny, especially considering that the top wide receiver on those teams was 5’9″ “slot machine” Wes Welker and the other top wideouts on those teams were Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman.

The Patriots, when the two tight ends were healthy, ran “22 personnel” groupings more than any team in the league. Gronkowski and Hernandez were second and third on the team in receptions in 2011, with 90 and 79 respectively. The two were targeted on a combined 38.7% of pass attempts. That 2011 Patriots team went to the Super Bowl (and LOST!) that year, as the passing offense finished second in the league behind Tom Brady’s 5,235 yard passing season – his career high. The two tight end offense proved incredibly effective, and the only thing that was able to truly shut it down was Aaron Hernandez’s love for killing people.

Bill Musgrave wants to install some of what Chip Kelly does offensively in Oakland this year, in much the way Bill O’Brien and Bill Belichick wanted to install . Kelly, while he doesn’t have Gronkowski and Murd…I mean Hernandez, had a pretty effective 1-2 punch at tight end of his own in 2014: Brett Celek and Zach Ertz. The veteran Celek and the younger Ertz combined for 90 receptions and four touchdowns last year, and combined for 22.5% of targets for Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez, all while Bill Musgrave watched from the sideline as the QB’s coach. The year before, the two had combined for 68 receptions and 10 TD’s.

Musgrave certainly understands the value of a good receiving tight end: he was a backup QB for teams that had Brent Jones and Shannon Sharpe and spent time on the Raiders staff when Ricky Dudley was the tight end in Oakland. He was essentially calling Carolina’s offense in 1999 when Wesley Walls had a Pro Bowl season, catching 63 passes for 12 TD’s – career highs. He watched Chris Cooley catch 71 passes in Washington in 2005, and was in Atlanta with Algae Crumpler and later with Tony Gonzalez.

In Minnesota, he used two TE’s in 2011 when Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph combined for 62 receptions, then leaned on Kyle Rudolph in 2012, when Rudolph was the Vikings’ second-leading receiver on his way to the Pro Bowl. Rudolph missed eight games in 2013, but he and backup Jon Carlson combined for 62 receptions that year as well.

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  • If Julius Thomas is acquired by the Raiders, he and Rivera together could present one of the best – if not the best – receiving TE duos in the NFL. Rivera and Thomas would also push each other in camp, and with the presence of Mike Tice and Bobby Johnson on the coaching staff, would get the coaching they need to improve in the weaker phases of their games – notably blocking. Thomas can stretch the deep middle of defenses on seam routes and slant-n-go routes, as well as get open deep on wheel routes and deep fades. Rivera, who is a thicker, tougher and more physical player, can do damage on routes over the short middle or in the flat, but can also be used for his height and size advantage against corners on the outside.

    In fact, both players could be effective lined up on the outside, and Rivera has also shown effectiveness when lined up in the backfield at the fullback position. In 12 or 22 personnel groups, with one or two wideouts like Rod Streater and James Jones on the field, especially if Marcel Reece is in the game as a running back, the defense is simply presented with too many bodies to cover, and often without the personnel to cover them all.

    Tight ends thrive in the modern NFL because they are unique athletes who create mismatches against both linebackers and defensive backs. Having two tight ends makes your offense just that more dynamic, and combining two full-time tall-guy TE’s like Rivera and Thomas with a flexible fullback like Reece who can line up as an h-back could create nightmares for defenses even trying to figure out if the Raiders are passing or running. Tight ends are also great for young quarterbacks: they give the QB a big target who can get up for high passes and use his body to block out on low line-drive balls, setting up high-percentage throws. When the speed and deep threat element of Julius Thomas is added to the mix, the Raiders may not need that big-money or high draft pick wideout at all.

    In the end, it depends on the money. The highest-paid tight end in the league – the Saints’ Jimmy Graham – will cost his team as much as $36M against the cap over the next three seasons. Rob Gronkowski’s contract could cost the Patriots as much $35.4M against the cap before it expires after the 2019 season. Thomas is no Graham or Gronkowski, but he can certainly get as much as $7M per year, dramatically more than Rivera, or even the Raiders’ 2014 receptions leader James Jones. While drafting a top rookie wideout – or a top rookie tight end – would likely be a cheaper option (Sammy Watkins’ contract is only costing the Bills about $16M against the cap over the next three seasons), adding a wideout in free agency could cost a whole lot more. Thomas could bring a ton of production and open up things for players who are already on the Raiders roster, help the offense get dramatically better, and do it all without requiring either a high draft pick or a ton of cap space over the next five years. Reggie McKenzie may decide he’s worth it.