Saints sound convinced of Thomas' big-play potential
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas is technically an unproven rookie with hardly a week of training camp under his belt.
Could have fooled his teammates, and even coach Sean Payton.
''You wouldn't know he was a first-year player if you just came to practice,'' Payton said. ''You would just think he's one of the receivers out here making a lot of plays.''
Payton used the word ''amazing,'' to describe one play made by his sure-handed, second-round pick. And that was only the first of two one-handed catches, in tight coverage, of long touchdown passes down the left sideline.
To make both plays, Thomas had to extend and contort his body to the point of crashing to the turf. Yet he found a way to corral the ball each time, drawing roars of approval from not just spectators, but other players on the field.
When Thomas has been able to stay on his feet after a catch, he has demonstrated the ability to pick up considerable yards after the catch, once using a sudden jump-step to avoid a defender before sprinting toward the sideline and turning the corner.
''He has been encouraging when you see him in traffic. He's got really good hands away from his body. So, he's not someone that lets the ball get in on his chest,'' Payton said. ''That will give him a chance to have a little bit more run-after-the-catch ability.''
Thomas made yet another tough grab during Wednesday's 11-on-11 drills, when he reached up to snag a slant pass that second-string quarterback Luke McCown zipped between quickly closing defensive backs Keenan Lewis and Jamal Golden.
Both defenders met Thomas as the pass arrived, trying to rip the ball away as they made the tackle. They were unable to dislodge the ball from Thomas' grip.
''I love that kid. He has a nose for the football,'' said McCown, a 13th-year veteran who has lined up with Thomas several times in the first handful of camp practices.
''He's got this kind of - golly - just this want to get the ball no matter where it's at,'' McCown said.
''That's what you want in a receiver - a guy that just wants the ball to be in his ZIP code, and he's going to find a way to come down with it, whether there's somebody hanging on him or not.''
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas was drafted 47th overall. He had solid, but not necessarily extraordinary statistics at Ohio State last season, catching 56 passes for 781 yards and nine touchdowns.
But the Saints were less concerned with Thomas' stats than his particular skills.
At the very least, his height and sure hands made him a good candidate to help fill the void created by the departure of Saints all-time leading receiver Marques Colston, who was released last winter, following his 10th season.
Already, Thomas is getting a number of snaps with starting quarterback Drew Brees, who hasn't hesitated to throw the rookie's way and has praised how quickly he learns.
Thomas also has a former star NFL receiver in the family - his uncle, Keyshawn Johnson. Thomas is not as flamboyant as his uncle. He is more soft-spoken and emphasizes humility, even as he projects confidence.
After a recent practice, Thomas could be seen doing extra sprints; he was punishing himself for a false start in full team drills.
''That was my idea. I let the team down, I feel like, by moving too early,'' Thomas said. ''I can cost the team by doing that, so do something to correct it. Stay humble.''
Still, Thomas said he and his uncle talk, ''all the time,'' and that Johnson has been an important resource, teaching him how to hone his receiving skills and develop into an all-around pro.
Thomas' eagerness to explore ways to improve led him to strengthen his hands with yoga-type exercises.
Brandin Cooks, who was New Orleans' leading receiver last season, said he recalled hearing about Thomas' affinity for ''hand yoga'' in the offseason, but ''forgot all about that'' until he saw the first of Thomas' spectacular one-handed catches in training camp.
''I'm like, `Maybe there's something to it,''' Cooks said. ''He has great hands.''
Whether Thomas turns out to be as productive as his famous uncle remains to be seen, but his acrobatic catches in camp have heightened expectations.
''They're probably going to expect that from me, so I'm probably going to get another opportunity to make that (type of) play, so be ready when it presents itself,'' Thomas said. ''It's a momentum game. So if I can start that fire (with a big play), I'd like to be that person.''
Notes: CB Keenan Lewis, who began training camp on the Saints' physically-unable-to-perform list, took part in his first practice on Wednesday. ... DT Nick Fairley and S Erik Harris, who both left practice with undisclosed injuries on Saturday, returned on Wednesday. ... Payton said the Saints have signed S Jamal Golden, DE Matt Shaughnessy and G Jordan Walsh. ... The Saints have waived DT Lawrence Virgil and assigned S Alden Darby and WR Kyle Prater waived-injured designations.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/AP-NFL