When New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas suffered a severe ankle injury during the 2020 season opener against Tampa Bay, it would hamper the team's offense for the rest of the year. Thomas missed nine games and was just a shadow of his dominant self when he was on the field.
The 28-year-old Thomas had started 57 consecutive contests, including playoffs, before last year's injury. He had not missed a game since Week 14 of his 2016 rookie season. His injury-plagued campaign broke a streak of four consecutive years with at least 92 receptions and 1,100 yards receiving.
The New Orleans receiver was coming off three consecutive All-Pro honors and had set NFL records for productivity in his first four seasons.
He led the NFL with 1,725 receiving yards in 2019, hauling in an NFL-record 149 receptions. That followed up a 2018 season where he led the league with 125 receptions.
Without their star receiver the New Orleans offense struggled. The Saints ranked 19th in passing offense, their lowest output since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived to the franchise in 2006. Part of that was also a decline in Brees’ Hall of Fame skills, plus an injury that forced him to miss four games.
With Thomas sidelined or limited, running back Alvin Kamara took on the brunt of the receiving load. Kamara led the team with 756 receiving yards on a career-high 83 catches.
Thomas and Kamara are a lethal 1-2 punch as receivers, so without him defenses were able to bottle up a short-handed New Orleans receiving corps.
Veteran WR Emmanuel Sanders led the Saints wideouts, catching 61 passes for 726 yards. Rookie UDFA Marquez Callaway and second-year All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris showed terrific potential, but missed a combined 12 games with injuries.
Sanders was released this offseason, as was Pro Bowl tight end Jared Cook. Bigger contributions are expected from Harris and Callaway, along with second-year TE Adam Trautman.
Even if they perform up to expectations, the Saints need a return to form from Thomas, the league's most dominant wide receiver.
Brees retired after 15 record-breaking seasons with New Orleans. Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill will battle for the starting spot.
They’ll have a dominant offensive line in front of them and the benefit of Thomas and Kamara at their disposal, two of the most feared offensive players in the game.
Thomas had an incredible chemistry with Brees. His elite route running ability and sure hands made the duo’s timing through the intermediate zones nearly unstoppable. The 6’3 and 212-Lb. Thomas plays with a physicality that overwhelms most defenders trying to guard him.
There will be an adjustment period between the new Saints quarterback and their star receiver, but Thomas will still be a major focal point of the team’s offense.
Jameis Winston was able to use star receivers like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin effectively while in Tampa Bay. A hobbled Thomas still put up nice numbers when Taysom Hill replaced an injured Brees for four games in 2020.
Brees had missed nine games with injuries in 2019 and 2020. Thomas caught 72 passes for 894 yards in those games. He averaged 8 receptions for 99 yards in nine outings without Brees, eclipsing the 100-Yd barrier four times and pulling in 81% of his targets.
For perspective, Thomas has played 70 career regular season games. He’s averaged 7.2 receptions for 85 yards/game with a 77.6% catch percentage in those contests.
Michael Thomas was a second-round choice in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Ohio State by the Saints.
He’s played with a chip on his shoulder since his arrival to the NFL. After the most difficult season of his five-year career, expect a now healthy Thomas to make NFL defensive backs pay for a down year in 2020.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.