The summer is here, meaning we’re getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2021. That latter exercise isn’t easy, however, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
Case in point: In 2019, Michael Thomas went absolutely bananas for the Saints and fantasy managers with nearly 375 fantasy points on a record 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. As a result, he was the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in drafts in 2020 and a surefire first-round pick. The aftermath though, was not nearly as good.
Thomas went on to averaged 12 fantasy points a game, down more than 11 points from the previous season, and missed nine games due to injuries. It’s tough to predict a long-term ailment of course, but Thomas wasn’t nearly as productive when he played.
The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Thomas was so good in 2019. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against…” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.
The series highlights big-name players or those coming off enormous statistical years who could see a surprising decline in fantasy success. Like I always say, the only thing that’s predictable about the NFL is that it’s oftentimes unpredictable. And as much as we love our fantasy heroes out on the gridiron, no one is ever guaranteed to succeed.
Next up, I’ll take a look at the one-time superstar I mentioned earlier, Michael Thomas.
Thomas missed the entire 2021 season after having a setback in his return from ankle surgery. He was expected to be back in action for the Saints at some point during the season, as he was the 28th pick based on Fantasy Football Calculator’s average draft position (ADP) data. Unfortunately, he was unable to play a single snap for the Saints.
Did you know?
Thomas hasn’t played in an NFL game since Week 14 of the 2020 season (Dec. 13). He played in just seven games that year, averaging 12 fantasy points. That’s 11.4 fewer points than he averaged during his career-best 2019 season. Thomas, who failed to score a single touchdown in 2020, hasn’t found the end zone since in Week 16, 2019.
Thomas is entering his age-29 season in the league. In his last full season (2019), he scored 374.6 fantasy points. That was a career best. He scored 315.5 points in 2018, so he averaged a combined 345.1 fantasy points in his last two full seasons (32 games).
Since 2012, however, no wide receiver in his age-29 season has scored more than 327.9 fantasy points. That was Jordy Nelson in 2014. What's more, only four wide receivers have scored over 300 fantasy points in their age-29 season during that span. Digging a little deeper, only three other wideouts at that age have scored over 250 fantasy points in a single season out of 149 players who qualified for this research.
That trend indicates that Thomas is very likely to score far below the number of points he averaged in his last two full seasons. That's a pretty clear prognostication for a player who has seen action in just seven games over the last two years in the NFL.
Coaching & personnel changes
For the first time in Thomas’s pro career, he won't be playing in an offense led by former head coach Sean Payton. New head man Dennis Allen is a defensive mind but Thomas won't have to learn a new system, as the team retained offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. He's been in that role with the Saints for the last 13 years, which is of course a benefit for Thomas’s potential fantasy value for the upcoming campaign.
The real change for Thomas is in the players around him, or more notably one who won't be there … Drew Brees. The future Hall of Fame quarterback, who was under center for 61 of Thomas’s 70 career regular-season games, retired from the game in 2021. That leaves Thomas to catch passes from Jameis Winston, a field general he's never played a single snap with in the league. Chemistry could take time to develop.
The Saints have also added playmakers in the passing game, as veteran Jarvis Landry was signed as a free agent and talented wideout Chris Olave was picked in the first round of the NFL draft. The team also has Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith, Deonte Harty and Adam Trautman on its list of pass catchers. Also, let’s not forget Alvin Kamara, who is easily one of the top receiving running backs in the entire league.
Fantasy managers know Thomas already comes with risk for the simple fact that he's barely played football in the last two seasons. We see that in his average draft position on the National Fantasy Football Championships website, where Thomas is currently this 37th wide receiver coming off the board (79.9). Even DeAndre Hopkins, who will miss six games due to a league-imposed suspension, is being picked ahead of him.
Simply put, the high-stakes world isn't willing to invest significant draft capital on him and neither should you. At this point, we're not even sure if Thomas will be ready for the start of training camp. While recent reports suggest he's heading in the right direction in his rehab, Allen has said publicly that Thomas isn't yet ready to return to the field. That means he'll be behind Landry, Olave and the rest of his pass catching teammates in gaining that all important on-field rapport with Winston.
Also keep in mind that upon his eventual return, Thomas will have far more competition for targets than he's ever had before. In his last three full seasons, no other wide receiver or tight end in the Saints offense had more than 70 targets. In short, Brees had tunnel vision when it came to Thomas. Heck, he averaged 160 targets from 2017-19. That is unlikely to be the case with Winston, who has more options in the passing game (including Kamara) than Brees had during that time frame.
The best-case scenario for Thomas is that he's back at 100% in time for Week 1 and is able to play a full 17-game schedule. But based on the reports that we're hearing, I have a hard time believing he'll be available for the full slate. Remember, this ankle injury has already cost him all but seven games in the last two years. Thomas also needs time to develop a rapport with a quarterback who he's mostly unfamiliar with in the offense.
Would anyone in the fantasy world really be that surprised if either Landry or Olave led the Saints wide receivers in targets this season? I would argue no, and their ADPs are 113.6 (Olave) and 133.8 (Landry), making them far more likely to be better bargains than Thomas. I'm not suggesting that the former fantasy superstar should be off your board completely, but with continued health questions and a certain decline in targets, I couldn't confidently draft Thomas as more than a No. 3 wide receiver or flex starter.
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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!