A promising rookie season created high expectations for Jordan Thomas heading into his second season. It’s a well known fact, one that’s been reiterated by Head Coach Bill O’Brien, that the most important leap for a player is from the first to second season. As Thomas enters this pivotal point in his career, it’s important to understand where he will impact the Texans offense and what his ceiling is moving forward.
At Mississippi State, Thomas was was a pseudo-wide receiver, rarely putting his hand in the ground, and lining up outside of the numbers to match up against smaller college corner backs. With his basketball background, Thomas understands positioning and spacing and is naturally skilled with his hands.
For the Texans, Thomas tied DeAndre Hopkins for most receiving touchdowns in a rookie season with four TDs. In his best game of the season against the Dolphins, Thomas caught four receptions, two touchdowns, and put on display his threatening red zone size and speed combination. Next Gen Stats breaks down Thomas’ best performance.
This touchdown exhibits Thomas’ development as a pass catching tight end and a route runner off the line of scrimmage. In this play below, the Texans run simple play action with Thomas running a corner route as the wing back. Off of the snap Thomas aids in the run fake by heading towards the strong side linebacker. One of the most undervalued parts of the play action is the timing factor of the play. If the tight end turns up field too quickly, the gig is up. If Deshaun Watson turns too quickly, the fake does not sell.
In this play, the Miami linebackers over-pursued after a good initial fake by Watson, aided by Lamar Miller gouging the Dolphins’ defense with every rush. Thomas does an excellent job turning his hips and changing directions to be available immediately after Watson sets his feet.
At 6’5”, 280 pounds, Thomas is a match up nightmare across the field. He blocks out the sun against nickel cornerbacks and is too light on his feet to be handled by linebackers.
In this play above, Thomas finds the soft spot in the Brown’s zone by reading the linebacker as he drops back into coverage. Since the linebacker’s eyes are Watson and not the tight end, Thomas recognizes that settling down just next to the defender allows Watson to make a safe throw over the middle. With the ball in his hands, Thomas’ agility and size are on display as he gets almost 10 yards after the catch. Moving the chains is going to be Thomas’ lottery ticket as Watson needs reliable options to go to when the pocket collapses.
The biggest learning curve for Thomas will be his ability to run block. Against 3-4 outside linebackers, he has a much better time maintaining his blocks than grappling with 4-3 defensive ends with much lower centers of gravity. With newly acquired tight end Darren Fells handling most of the blocking responsibilities, Thomas won’t be thrown in the deep end for blocking duties.
All four of Thomas’ touchdown occurred in the red zone. When the field gets a little smaller and the windows shrink, you need a big target to stand out like a vegan at a brisket competition. Thomas is easily the tallest and largest receiving option Watson has on this roster.
This type of formation will be very popular for the Texans heading into the 2019 season. Sub out Ryan Griffin and DeAndre Carter on the right side and sub in Will Fuller V and Keke Coutee, and you’ve got yourself one dangerous offense. In this set, Thomas is lined up as a wing back off the line of scrimmage. This not only forces the defensive end (#53 for the Browns) to line up further outside, but still keeps a sixth person in the box for blocking. This alignment is a pandoras box of plays and really sets up the defense to pick and choose which battles they want to lose.
Heading into the 2019 season, Thomas’ job will be simple, become THE safety valve for Watson over the middle and be a red zone mismatch. He will assist in the run blocking when necessary, but the Texans seem to have a plan in place with Fells to take over major run blocking issues when the time calls. Taking a page out of his mentor’s playbook, O’Brien will only ask Thomas to do what he is good at—catching the football.
Texans have five tight ends on the roster who all have legitimate claims to a roster spot. Kahale Warring, the third round draft pick, Ryan Griffin, the veteran, Darren Fells, the much-needed blocking tight end, Jordan Aikins, the high-upside third rounder from last year, and then there is Jordan Thomas who has the highest ceiling of the group. Mike Bullock believes Thomas will be the Day One starter at Tight End for the Texans. For that to be true, Thomas must gain the trust of O’Brien and be able to extend his route tree outside of play action corner routes and TE option routes.
My prediction? Thomas leads the tight end group in receptions and touchdowns with 38 receptions and five touchdowns on the season. That’s pretty substantial production for a second year sixth round pick.