A month ago, if you had to guess whether Julius Thomas had a future with the Miami Dolphins beyond this season, the answer would have been quick in coming.
And that’s understandable because in late October, the big-money tight end wasn’t really producing. He wasn’t causing mismatches on the outside. His presence wasn’t really helping the run game as it did in Denver.
And he wasn’t catching many passes or scoring many touchdowns in or out of the red zone.
But weeks later the story has changed a bit. Now, it seems, Thomas might earn another chance with the Dolphins in 2018.
No, Thomas being on the team in 2018 at his scheduled salary cap cost of $6.6 million still seems unlikely — particularly when cutting him would remove every single penny off the Dolphins’ books.
But suddenly the Thomas conversation includes nuance it didn’t before. It’s no longer as simple as he isn’t going to be back. Now it’s about his return possibly making sense if he takes a pay cut. Or maybe he comes back if the Dolphins can’t find other players in free agency or the draft.
And the reason Thomas’ departure no longer seems certain is because he’s sort of playing his way back into the picture.
Thomas caught a touchdown pass against the Denver Broncos on Sunday. He has 12 catches for 102 yards and that score in the past three games. And for the season, Thomas is the team’s third-leading pass catcher with 37 receptions for 362 yards.
What seemed like a disappointing 2017 acquisition for the Dolphins a few weeks ago doesn’t look nearly as bad right now.
“I see it different than it seems everyone else does,” coach Adam Gase said Monday. “He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do. I wish there’s been situations we’ve called plays for him and haven’t been able to get the ball to him either by coverage or the ball didn’t go there for whatever reason. When we’ve asked him to do things in the running game he’s given me max effort.
“He’s been there every day for us in practice and at games. Yeah, would I love him to have 12 touchdowns? Sure. We haven’t been able to have that many snaps until the last five games. That’s where he’s made his money. I think he’s had the third-most touchdown catches in the NFL since 2013 or something like that. He’s done exactly what we’ve asked. Yesterday was a good example. That’s a big play. We wanted to get up. That’s the first guy I went to.”
A significant and perhaps primary factor that will be weighed by the team when the decision to keep Thomas or move on is discussed next offseason is his speed.
Earlier this year, Thomas seemed to have lost a step. The speed that made him a matchup nightmare for safeties and linebackers seemed to be missing.
But Gase says the speed is still there.
“Yes,” he said. “We see it in practice. There will be times where we do stretch him down the field outside the red zone. And DBs will think they have him covered and all of a sudden he pulls away and then he really pulls away.
“That’s kind of been one of his things where people don’t think he’s very fast. And he’ll build up speed, and he’s a tough guy to bring down, he’s a tough guy to catch.”
The final four games of this season will go far in determining Thomas’ fate. It’s fair to believe the Dolphins want Thomas to prove himself worth keeping because that would cross off yet another position on the need list for the 2018 offseason.
But the truth is the team will be hiring tight ends next offseason anyway because Gase likes to have a couple ready to play, and Anthony Fasano is on a one-year contract and might retire anyway.
In that regard, finding one tight end to replace Fasano is easier than having to find two to replace Fasano and Thomas.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero