How the Loss of Michael Thomas Will Impact the Saints Offense

Bob Rose

New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas injured his ankle on the last series of the team’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. The injury was more severe than initially thought, and on Tuesday, multiple reports revealed that Thomas could miss ‘‘several weeks’’ with a high-ankle sprain.

Thomas, who led the NFL with 1,725 yards and a league-record 149 receptions last year, has had at least 100 catches and over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. He has been a huge part of the New Orleans offense and will be missed, but I expect a player as competitive as Thomas to be back in action sooner rather than later. Until his return, the Saints must look elsewhere through their offense to replace his incredible production.

Dec 8, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (10) gets away from San Francisco 49ers defenders in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The 49ers won, 48-46. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

New Orleans has gotten little production from the wideout position outside of Michael Thomas over the last three years. Last season, they targeted Thomas a league-high 185 times. Ted Ginn Jr. was their second most targeted wideout with just 56, the league's biggest differential. 

The Saints added veterans Emmanuel Sanders, Ty Montgomery, Bennie Fowler, and undrafted rookie Marquez Callaway to the receiving corps during the offseason. Sanders elevates to become the primary receiving threat during Thomas’ absence. He is a two-time Pro Bowler who has three seasons of over 1,000 yards receiving. 

Third-year pro Tre'Quan Smith, who had just 46 receptions for 661 yards but 10 touchdowns over his first two years, will play an increased role in what many consider being a make-or-break season. Second-year WR Deonte Harris, who was an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie, should also be used more extensively in the offense with his game-breaking open field ability..

Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook (87) during the fourth quarter of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Tight end Jared Cook will become an even bigger part of the New Orleans offense with Thomas sidelined. Cook made the Pro Bowl in his first year with the Saints, finishing second on the team in yardage with 705 on 43 catches and scoring nine touchdowns. He was one of the league's most productive tight ends over the last half of 2019 and led all receivers with five catches for 80 yards against Tampa Bay. 

The 12-year veteran gives QB Drew Brees a mismatch with his size advantage over defensive backs and athleticism edge against linebackers. The Saints could also use rookie 3rd round pick TE Adam Trautman more as a receiver, attacking defenses with two athletic tight ends to go along with the outstanding blocking ability and short-yard receiving threat of TE Josh Hill.

Sep 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) scores against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Fourth-year RB Alvin Kamara is just as important to the Saints offense as is Thomas. He is the team’s second-most targeted receiver over the last three seasons, catching 81 passes each year for an average of 690 yards per season, and has caught 11 touchdowns. Kamara was used most often on screens and check-down passes last year for a Saints team that runs more screens than anyone in the NFL. 

While that should continue, no back has Kamara's unique ability to threaten a defense from anywhere along with an offensive formation. With Thomas out of the lineup, we should see New Orleans split Kamara out wide and in the slot more often, or use him in motion out of the backfield to take advantage of his dynamic dual-threat ability.

Jan 5, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Latavius Murray (28) runs the ball against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

Kamara has been the Saints leading rusher over the last two seasons, and the team will need a productive rushing attack with the NFL's best receiver on the sidelines. At the same time, Kamara will be a key part of the success on the ground; if he is to be used even more heavily as a receiver than we will see more offensive involvement from Latavius Murray. 

The 6’3” 230-Lb Murray has power between the tackles and good speed in the open field. He led the Saints in rushing against the Buccaneers with 48 yards and had 637 yards and five scores on the ground in 2019, including two outings of over 100 yards. The Saints will also keep defenses off-balance with misdirection plays from Taysom Hill, Ty Montgomery, and Deonte Harris, who will also be factors in the passing game.

Sep 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Saints QB Drew Brees is one of the best at spreading the ball around to different receivers. Remember that Brees did not have a Pro Bowl wide receiver during his first eleven seasons in New Orleans, a span where he threw for over 5,000 yards five times and led the league in passing yards in seven seasons. While it's too much to expect that kind of aerial production from the 41-Yr old Brees now, he is still the most accurate passer in NFL history, with a formidable offensive line upfront to protect him and provide balance.

The Saints went 5-0 in 2019 when Brees was out with a thumb injury. Since Michael Thomas' injury has him sidelined, the New Orleans offense must again lean on their balance to produce without one of the NFL's best offensive weapons in the lineup. 

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Editorial / Opinion