Miami Dolphins' OC, Peyton Manning hint at great season for Julius Thomas

By Alex Butler  |  May 7, 2017 at 2:19 PM
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May 7 (UPI) -- Running back Jay Ajayi is coming off of a breakout season and the Miami Dolphins kept its top skill position players from last season. The franchise also made some key additions, leading its offensive coordinator to believe impressive production is on its way.

Clyde Christensen spoke Saturday at Dolphins rookie minicamp about Ajayi and the addition of tight end Julius Thomas.

He also gave an update on sixth-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off of a season-ending ACL tear.

The franchise did plenty of homework when it came to Thomas, according to Christensen. Luckily, the Dolphins' coaching staff has some mutual friends in the business.

"Hearing Peyton [Manning] talk about him and what he meant to the offense. [Head Coach Adam] Gase knows him inside out," Christensen told reporters Saturday. "Gase knows exactly what he's getting and knows how to use him. [Gase] used him extremely well out there in Denver. I have great confidence that we will get that. It's not a speculation. There's some – as you like to say – empirical data. There's data we can see, see him do it (and) see the things we need him to do. That always is encouraging."

Christensen said Manning told the Dolphins that Thomas has the ability to "figure out" an offense.

"His figure-it-out factor was high," Christensen said. "That's what you look for. There's a guy who came in and probably didn't know a whole bunch about football, or played very little. His experience was very minimal, and then (he) came in and figured it out and then worked. [Manning] talked a lot about [Thomas asking], 'Would you stay out and help me with this? Take me through this. Would you watch a little tape with me? Would you explain what you want on this?' And he still does the same thing."

"I'll see him in (Head) Coach (Adam) Gase's office and his questions are right. His questions and his process are right, which as a coach, [is what] you're looking for. He said the same thing. I would speak of Peyton as almost coach-ish, especially at that point in his career. He goes to people [and asks], 'How do we want to do this? How do I do this? Is this exactly what you want, or is it different?' Those are the right questions to be asking. He has been terrific in the short time he has been here, and it doesn't take long to see he enjoys football, he likes football, which is the other attribute we've been looking for, and guys that enjoy being in the building."

Christensen also has a rapport with Manning. He served as the Indianapolis Colts' wide receivers coach from 2002 through 2007. He was the assistant head coach/wide receivers coach for the Colts in 2008 and 2009. He was the team's offensive coordinator in 2010 and 2011. Christensen became the Colts' quarterbacks coach in 2012, a role he served in until being hired last season as the Dolphins' offensive coordinator. During that time he mentored a young Andrew Luck.

Thomas, 28, made two Pro Bowls the last time he was united with Gase. The current Dolphins coach was the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014, when Thomas had back-to-back seasons with 12 touchdowns. Gase, 39, also served as the Broncos' wide receivers and quarterbacks coach before taking over the offensive coordinator role.

Since then, Thomas has played in just 21 games and caught nine scores, as a member of the Jaguars.

The tight end has been hampered by numerous injuries, but he told the Dolphins' website in April that he feels great heading into his 2017 campaign, his seventh pro season.

"This is probably the best I've ever felt," Thomas told "Luckily for me, none of my injuries [ankle/hand/back] have been really chronic things...[This] being the first offense that I ever really played in, it feels a lot like home. I've been able to have success in it and I understand kind of what it takes to play at a high level. It's definitely comforting for me."

In the zone.

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Christensen wouldn't go so far as to guarantee it, but it sounded as though he thinks its possible for Thomas to add his Broncos production to the Dolphins' offense.

"He has added before 10, 12 touchdowns [in Denver], which is huge," Christensen said. "If you just oversimplify and say, 'What can he add?' In Denver, he added 10 or 12 touchdowns. That's a gigantic addition."

Getting 10 or more touchdowns from his tight end could put Tannehill in position to set a career high with more than 30 touchdown passes next season. His current mark sits at the 27 scoring tosses he completed in 2014.

The Dolphins' offensive coordinator said that he went to dinner with Thomas when he came for a visit. He said the tight end is going to add "way more than touchdowns" to the franchise.

"He's going to come in, in the evening if he has questions. He's going to do whatever it takes to find a way to play good football. That's what we're looking for. That's what we need throughout the thing – a detailed, professional guy," Christensen said.

On the Tannehill front, Gase said that the quarterback looks like he did last year when he came into the season healthy. But he wouldn't go as far to say he's 100 percent, specifically.

"I don't know all the percentages and stuff. All I know is he looks good to me," Gase told reporters Friday.

"He looks normal to me," the Dolphins coach added. "He just looks like he did last year. The difference is he's got a better grasp of the offense at this point compared to last year. He moves around fine. He's got a good edge that I like to him right now. You can tell that he wasn't real happy about getting hurt last year."

Tannehill completed a career-best 67.1 percent of his passes last season. He also set career-highs with 7.7 yards per attempt and a 935 quarterback rating. He posted an 8-5 record in 13 starts.

Gase said that the presence of Thomas can help increase running lanes for Ajayi.

"I think any time you have a tight end that can really cause issues in the passing game, especially down the middle of the field, it benefits the run game and the other players on the field," Gase told reporters.

"Any time you can single a guy up and there's a matchup problem there, whether it's a safety or linebacker on him, now you've got man-to-man and if he can win, there are some big-time issues. We had a lot of success doing that and teams quit doing it against us. The next thing you know they're playing Cover 2 or some kind of quarters and then we start running the ball and then the next thing you know, you've got a 1,100-yard back that nobody thinks can run the ball."

During Manning's record-breaking 2013 season, the Broncos had a 1,000-yard rusher in Knowshon Moreno and three pass-catches with at least 10 receiver scores, including Thomas. Although you can't expect close to Manning production from Tannehill, Gase's offense has shown the ability to showcase multiple weapons. An upswing season from Tannehill wouldn't necessarily take production away from Ajayi, especially from a fantasy football standpoint.

The running back should still be drafted in the first three rounds of your fantasy football draft.

After a meager 3.8 yards per carry during his rookie season in 2015, Ajayi fired off three performances of more than 200 yards rushing in 2016. He finished the season with 1,272 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground. He also had 151 receiving yards and 27 catches, but only hauled in more than four passes in a game once last season. Christensen said that fans should be ready for a better receiving season from his tailback.

"Jay is working hard to be a three-down back," Christensen said. "His receiving skills are 200 percent better than a year ago today..."

Thomas should definitely be on your "sleeper tight end" radar. He can likely be had in the later rounds of your fantasy football draft and provides terrific value in leagues where you must start a tight end. If Tannehill is to make a significant jump in his career progression, it will likely hinge on how quickly he gets familiar with his newest weapon.

Christensen is a man you can trust when it comes to offensive production. He has worked with some of the best offensive minds in the game, including Gase, Manning and Bruce Arians, among others.

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