Prior to the 2020 NFL season, New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas was among the most productive wideouts in NFL history. A second-round choice in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Ohio State, Thomas had set league records for productivity over a player's first four seasons.
Thomas had at least 92 receptions and over 1,100 yards in each of his first four years, with catch totals and yardage increasing over each of those seasons. He led the NFL with a career-high 1,725 yards in 2019, breaking his own franchise record. In the process, he also broke a 17-year NFL record with 149 receptions.
Since 2020, the Saints have basically been without their primary pass catching weapon. Thomas suffered an ankle injury in the 2020 season opener that forced him to miss nine games during the year and severely limited him when he was on the field.
Thomas had offseason surgery on the ankle last year. However, setbacks in rehab following the surgery forced him to miss all of last season. In all, Thomas has only played in nine of his team's last 35 contests, catching 45 passes for 511 yards and one touchdown. Without their two-time All-Pro wideout, a normally proficient New Orleans passing attack slipped to dead last in the league in 2021.
This offseason, the Saints added five-time Pro Bowl WR Jarvis Landry and used the Number 11 overall pick to draft Ohio State WR Chris Olave. Both players are expected to greatly upgrade the team’s passing game, which will also benefit from the return of QB Jameis Winston, who missed the last 10 games with a knee injury.
Is the Durability of Michael Thomas an issue?
After unsubstantiated offseason rumors that Thomas wanted out of New Orleans, he’s been at the team’s facility rehabbing his surgically repaired ankle. He didn't participate in OTA or mini-camp practices, but was spotted with his teammates on the sideline and was running mobility drills off to the side. By most indications, Thomas should be ready for training camp when the veterans report on July 26.
Some have questioned Thomas’ durability. They shouldn't. This was just one serious injury in an otherwise healthy 29-year-old athlete who works out fanatically. Prior to the ankle injury, Thomas had played in 69 of 70 games to start his career, including a stretch of 57 straight contests through the 2020 season opener.
Thomas is perhaps the league's most physical receiver, yet consistently holds up to the pounding of NFL defenders. Between 2016 and 2019, he played no less than 850 snaps during the regular season, including over 920 in 2018 and 2019.
Thomas also maintained high production while playing through nagging injuries that would sideline many players. Over 77 games played, including postseason, Thomas has at least five or more receptions in 61 contests, including at least 8 catches in 34 outings.
The New Orleans offense has revolved around Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara. Even with the new additions on offense, expect Thomas to remain a heavy part of the attack once healthy.
Michael Thomas + Jameis Winston
For most of his career, Thomas had been the beneficiary of catching passes from Drew Brees, the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. In his prime, Brees was that rare quarterback that could make an average receiver good and a good receiver great. Critics will point out that the production that Thomas has had is a product of having one of the NFL's greatest players throwing him the football.
A closer look at the statistics reveals otherwise.
In ten career games without Brees at quarterback, Thomas has 77 receptions for 893 yards and three touchdowns. He had at least five catches in nine of those ten games, with six outings of more than 85 yards. Thomas pulled in 78.6% of his targets in those games, which is actually better than his career catch percentage of 76.7%. His average of catches and yards per game is also slightly higher than his career marks.
Thomas had Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill at quarterback when Brees was sidelined. Both put up solid numbers, but are nowhere near the quality of quarterback that the Saints now have in Jameis Winston. The 28-year-old Winston is one of the league's most productive passers and is entering his third year in the New Orleans system.
Winston and Thomas have had little playing time together. The only significant reps were during a 2020 game against San Francisco when Brees left with a rib injury. Winston targeted a hobbled Thomas five times in the win, completing one for 12 yards.
Thomas will need to establish chemistry with his new quarterback, but he’s been productive with lesser passers. Winston should thrive with Thomas, Olave, and Landry at his disposal. Remember that he led the league with 5,109 yards with Tampa Bay in 2019, becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to break the 5,000-yard plateau.
Winston played with a similar wideout to Thomas when he was with the Buccaneers in Mike Evans. Both Thomas and Evans are physical receivers with similar playing styles, though Thomas is the superior route runner and better all-around receiver. Evans had the best numbers of his career in his four seasons with Winston, averaging 80 receptions for 1,251 yards per year.
We can expect more downfield shots from New Orleans with the strong-armed Winston at the helm. However, Winston has underrated accuracy through the intermediate zones of a defense.
Michael Thomas is the most precise route runner in the NFL. Once healthy, expect him to be Winston's favorite target in go-to situations, which will also open up deep shots for Olave and WR Deonte Harty.
Michael Thomas: NFL Comeback Player of the Year?
Since 2016, only Davante Adams (581), DeAndre Hopkins (550), Stefon Diggs (543), and Keenan Allen (515) have more than the 510 catches recorded by Michael Thomas. Consider that Adams, Hopkins, and Diggs have played at least 88 games to Thomas’ 70 over that span, with Allen playing in ten more games.
The rare combination of route precision, sure hands, size, physicality, and underrated athleticism that Thomas has make him nearly unstoppable through the short and intermediate zones. New Orleans surrounded Winston with plenty of weapons, but Thomas should still be a major focus of the offense.
Targets will be spread around among many players for the Saints, but we should still see a healthy Thomas get targeted often, especially in key situations. An incredible 77.5% of his regular season receptions have resulted in either a first down or touchdown.
Michael Thomas already has a 2016 All-Rookie Team, three Pro Bowls, two All-Pro honors, and the 2019 Offensive Player of the Year award on his resume’. He’s played with a chip on his shoulder his entire career and is already just 23 catches away from passing Joe Horn and Eric Martin for second place in franchise history for receptions.
Thomas is an intense competitor who's indicated on his social media that he has something to prove in 2022.
With the other weapons around him, we may not see the type of numbers from Thomas that he produced in 2019. However, if healthy, he is still among the best receivers in the game. One more than capable of putting up an All-Pro season and adding Comeback Player of the Year to his list of accolades. As talented as the 2022 Saints appear to be, such a year would equate to a deep playoff run.