NFL Picks: Can Demaryius Thomas Lead the League in Touchdowns Scored?

Sterling Xie

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 7:08 PM GMT

Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015 7:08 PM GMT

When it comes to finding the end zone, Demaryius Thomas is as reliable as any receiver in the league. But will he lead the NFL in Touchdowns Scored this season?

Since Peyton Manning’s arrival in 2012, the big receiver has scored 35 touchdowns, a total only Dez Bryant has eclipsed in that three-year span. In terms of total touchdowns, Thomas, Bryant and Marshawn Lynch are the only players to score at least 10 times each of the past three seasons, making the Broncos’ top target one of the safest annual options from a fantasy perspective.

And while fantasy owners should continue to enjoy Thomas’ production in 2015, bettors stand to make an even larger profit. Despite his prolific scoring rate, Thomas has never led the league in total touchdowns, or even receiving touchdowns. The bookmakers at 5Dimes have pegged Thomas at +1400 to post the most scores in 2015, placing him behind seven other players.

Apart from Randy Moss’ historic 2007 campaign, no wide receiver or tight end has led the league in touchdowns since 2000.  But despite that factoid, Thomas and wide receivers in general are slowly working their way up the mountain.  If we look at the total number of players to score at least 10 times over the past four years, we can see that receivers have made significant headway in a short amount of time:

 

10+ Touchdowns Since 2011, By Position

Year

RB

WR

TE

2011

12

3

2

2012

10

9

1

2013

10

11

2

2014

9

11

4

 

This trend shouldn’t be too surprising, as league-wide play calling has tilted further towards the passing game. Although running backs have continued to win the touchdown title, fewer and fewer backs are getting the touches necessary to challenge the game’s top receivers. It’s just a matter of time before top receivers regularly lead the league in touchdowns, and 2015 could be the year when that starts.

So if receiver is the position to focus on, why should bettors place their money on Thomas? Bryant (+650) is actually the favorite among wide receivers at 5Dimes, and with good reason given his aforementioned gaudy touchdown totals. Rob Gronkowski and Odell Beckham Jr. also possess shorter NFL odds than Thomas. Both those players reached the end zone more often than Thomas last year, despite starting fewer games.

However, some underlying numbers suggest that Denver’s top receiver was a little unlucky in scoring “only” 11 times last year. Thomas led all players with 39 red zone targets, yet scored just six times on those targets. Somehow, 11 players had more red-zone touchdowns than Thomas, including the likes of Gronkowski and Torrey Smith, who received fewer than 20 targets in that area of the field. Among the 36 players with at least 15 red-zone targets last year, Thomas’ 15.4 percent touchdown percentage ranked 30th.

Coincidentally, his Denver Broncos teammate Julius Thomas happened to lead that group with a 60 percent red-zone scoring percentage. Of course, the Pro Bowl tight end is now in Jacksonville, which could lead to even more red-zone targets for Demaryius Thomas in 2015. Apart from the Thomases, Emmanuel Sanders was the only Denver receiver to garner more than nine red-zone targets. With Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Jacob Tamme gone from last year’s roster, the Broncos have 154 overall targets and 31 red-zone targets to replace.

Some of those will go to free-agent signee Owen Daniels and second-year receiver Cody Latimer, but Thomas should be the primary beneficiary of the Broncos’ personnel losses. Skeptics will argue that Gary Kubiak’s offense could depress the gross totals of Denver’s passing statistics, but that perception doesn’t really jive with the numbers. As Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier researched earlier this offseason, Kubiak’s offenses haven’t really run the ball more than last year’s Broncos. While Kubiak does like to use more fullbacks and two-tight end sets, Tanier found that it didn’t really translate to a noticeable difference in pass totals, depth of pass or play-action usage.  Moreover, the top receiver in previous Kubiak offenses, like Andre Johnson and Steve Smith, have received high target percentages similar to what Thomas received last season. Ultimately, the system change shouldn’t drastically affect Thomas.

And in case you have any lingering doubts, Peyton Manning really represents the trump card in this equation. Apart from Manning’s rookie year in 1998, the top target in a Manning-led offense has never had fewer than 134 targets or 1,113 receiving yards. And only once (2010) has Peyton failed to throw at least 10 touchdowns to a single receiver. Thomas has easily eclipsed those thresholds during his three years with Manning, and as the undisputed top target in 2015, those numbers should represent his absolute floor.

Don’t undersell the importance of volume when making this bet. Touchdowns themselves can be incredibly fickle—after all, Matt Asiata scored as many times as LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore combined last season. So while skill set obviously plays a big role in who wins the touchdown title, opportunity is just as indispensable. Thomas has a strong combination of both factors, yet bettors have placed a top-tier candidate firmly in the second tier for this particular prop. Don’t make the same mistake.

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