Jordy Nelson vs. Michael Thomas: Who's the Better 2017 Fantasy Football Receiver?

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Friday August 25th, 2017

The Debate Series of the SI/4 For 4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will pit two top minds in the fantasy industry against one another. They will take opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, SI’s Michael Beller and 4 For 4’s T.J. Hernandez debate Jordy Nelson vs. Michael Thomas.

Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers (ADP: 11.75)

Michael Beller makes the case for Nelson over Thomas…

When Jordy Nelson suffered a torn ACL two summers ago, costing him the entire 2015 season, many assumed it was the beginning of the end for him. He would be returning in 2016 as a 31-year-old receiver who became a star thanks, at least in part, to the sort of game-breaking speed that made him one of the most dangerous deep-ball receivers in the league. The list of players like that who played at the same level post-injury isn’t exactly robust.

If that was the beginning of the end, we’re going to have a rash of receivers deliberately tearing their ACLs.

Nelson turned in another excellent season last year, catching 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. He finished fifth among receivers in catches, sixth in yards, first in touchdowns, first in standard-league fantasy points, and second in PPR. So much for that downturn.

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Nelson has been arguably the most high-level consistent receiver in the league since 2011. Starting with that season, he’s the only receiver in the NFL with three 13-touchdown seasons, and one of five with four 1,200-yard campaigns. Nelson may not have the across-the-board ceiling of Antonio Brown, but he’s about 90% of the way there, and he always delivers at that 90% mark. Consistency at that level just doesn’t happen very often. Nelson is special.

It doesn’t hurt that he plays with the best quarterback in the league, either. Since 2011, Nelson and Aaron Rodgers have played 68 games together, not including the one in 2013 in which Rodgers fractured his collarbone after two pass attempts. In those 68 games, Nelson has 361 receptions for 5,594 yards and 56 touchdowns. That comes out to 5.3 catches, 82.3 yards and 0.8 touchdowns per game. Extrapolate that over 16 games, and you’re looking at 84.8 receptions, 1,316.8 yards, 12.8 touchdowns, 208.48 standard-league fantasy points and 293.28 PPR-league points. Those are top-five receiver numbers in any season.

Touchdown scoring is volatile, but when a receiver maintains as high a rate for as long as Nelson has, we have to assume that he has found a way to beat the volatility. That traces to Green Bay’s love for passing the ball in the red zone, especially inside the 10-yard line. Rodgers has led the NFL in red-zone pass attempts in all of the last three seasons, and his 140 attempts since then lead all quarterbacks, as well. Over Nelson’s last two seasons, 13 of his 27 touchdowns have come on plays that started inside the 10.

The only argument for Thomas over Nelson is that the former is on the rise, entering his second season in the league, and the latter, while still near the top of his game, is on the back nine of his career. That assumes Nelson lost a step, but the evidence simply doesn’t bear this out. He had 22 catches of at least 20 yards in 2013. In 2015, he had 19. In his breakout 2011 season, he had 19. Last year, he had 19. It took him a while to shake the rust off, but once Nelson got going, he was as lethal on the deep ball as ever. He had at least one 20-yard catch in 11 games last season.

Thomas is undoubtedly an up-and-coming receiver, and I’ll be happy to have him on any of my teams. He, too, plays with one of the league’s most prolific quarterbacks. He’s going to be a red-zone monster, and can make big plays down the field. Thomas, in fact, could one day be his era’s version of Nelson. It’s still Nelson’s era, though. He’s your man in this battle.

Michael Thomas, WR, Saints (ADP: 14.25)

T.J. Hernandez makes the case for Thomas over Nelson…

Michael Thomas has arguably the most upside of any wide receiver in the league. Since the NFL started counting targets in 1992, Thomas became just the third rookie receiver to score nine or more touchdowns and average over nine yards per target on at least 100 targets. The other two receivers: Randy Moss and Odell Beckham. And Thomas still has room to grow.

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Last season, Thomas accounted for 18.2% of the Saints’ total targets and 16.7% of their red-zone targets, both numbers that led the team. Those rates, however, represented the lowest percentage of team targets, both overall and in the red zone, for any team leader on the Saints in the Drew Brees era. With Brandin Cooks gone and Ted Ginn the only notable addition to New Orleans’ receiving corps, Thomas’ target share is set to increase.

Ginn will take over the deep-threat role left open by Cooks, but it’s unlikely that the ex-Panther will absorb all 117 targets that Cooks left for the taking. Furthermore, Ginn virtually disappears in the red zone. The only other notable red-zone option in New Orleans is Coby Fleener, who tied Thomas for the team lead in red-zone looks in 2016, but converted just 12.5% of those targets into scores. While it’s true that touchdown rates tend to regress, it’s possible that Brees and the Saints allocate some of Fleener’s red-zone volume to Thomas, who was one of the better red-zone receivers in the league last year, converting seven of his 18 chances into touchdowns.

Even if Willie Snead finally makes the jump some fantasy owners are expecting, Thomas’s talent relative to his other teammates, coupled with the Saints’ passing volume (John Paulsen has Brees projected to lead the league in pass attempts), suggests that his volume numbers could be some of the highest seen in New Orleans since Jimmy Graham donned the fleur-de-lis.

While Thomas is on the upswing, Jordy Nelson and the entire Packers passing offense is a prime regression candidate. Nelson set a career high in targets in 2016 but it was in a season that Aaron Rodgers set a career high in pass attempts with 610. Prior to last year, Rodgers had never thrown more than 572 times and he averaged 548 attempts over his last three full seasons. Head coach Mike McCarthy has been quoted as saying that 2016 was an anomaly, and the fact that the Packers spent three of their draft picks this year on running backs implies that Green Bay wants to return at least some of their offensive focus to the running game.

In addition to a likely dip in passing volume, Nelson is going to have to battle for targets more than he had in previous seasons. Davante Adams has established himself as a reliable number two last year, and the addition of Martellus Bennett means that Rodgers will have a dependable tight end to throw to for the first time since Jermichael Finley was on the roster. Add in the fact that starting running back Ty Montgomery is a converted wide receiver, and the outside shot that Randall Cobb returns to form, and the Packers could end up with one of the least concentrated passing games in the Rodgers era.

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The biggest concern for Nelson is his likely decline in touchdown numbers. Last season, he converted 9.2% of his targets and 38% of his red-zone looks into scores. Both of those touchdown rates are well above Nelson’s career averages. Even if he can somehow maintain those rates in 2017, the addition of the aforementioned Bennett will put a dent in his red-zone volume, where he does most of his damage.

Nelson is being fairly priced, but things will have to break perfectly for him to outpace his current ADP. Thomas, on the other hand, has a clear path to volume rarely seen in the Saints’ offense and that could equate to the overall WR1 season in any format.

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