The New Orleans Saints used a second-round draft choice, the 47th overall pick, on Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas in the 2016 NFL Draft. New Orleans expected a consistent possession receiver who would complement the explosive Brandin Cooks.
What the Saints got was a rare offensive weapon that would dominate the league.
Thomas improved his production and set NFL records during his first four seasons with New Orleans. Included was the 149 receptions in 2019, and breaking Marvin Harrison's 17-year most receptions in a season NFL record.
THOMAS - 2016
- 92 receptions
- 1,137 yards
- 9 touchdowns
- 15 games
- NFL All-Rookie Team
The former Buckeye quickly became a favorite target of quarterback Drew Brees for the league's top-ranked passing attack. He led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns while finishing second to Brandin Cooks in receiving yardage.
Thomas had four games with at least 80 yards receiving, including three outings of over 100 yards. He pulled in 76% of his team-best 121 targets and caught at least six balls in eight contests.
He quickly surpassed Cooks as the team's go-to receiver as 77% of his catches would go for a first down or touchdown.
THOMAS - 2017
- 104 receptions
- 1,245 yards
- 5 touchdowns
- 16 games
- Pro Bowl
Setting a new franchise record for receptions in a season, Thomas pulled in 70% of his 149 targets. He had two 100-yard games and seven more with at least 80 yards. Thomas had at least five receptions in 14 games and eight or more in five contests.
Teaming with explosive rookie RB Alvin Kamara and veteran RB Mark Ingram, Thomas helped form a lethal three-headed monster for the Saints offense. Together with Brees the unit ranked second in total offense and helped New Orleans to their first postseason berth in four years.
Thomas earned his first Pro Bowl bid in 2017. An impressive 73% of his catches resulted in either a first down or touchdown.
THOMAS - 2018
- 125 receptions (led NFL)
- 1,245 yards
- 9 touchdowns
- 16 games
Thomas broke his own franchise record and led the league in catches. He also broke a 14-year franchise mark for receiving yards in a season, previously held by WR Joe Horn. During a Divisional Playoff win over Philadelphia, Thomas also set a new franchise postseason record with 12 receptions for 171 yards.
Thomas had eight games of at least 80 yards receiving in 2018, including four 100-yard outings. He had six games of double-digit receptions and had at least four catches in all 16 games. His 16 receptions in Week 1 and 211 receiving yards in Week 9 set new single-game franchise records.
Buoyed by the abilities of Brees, Thomas, Kamara, and a strong defense, the Saints rolled to a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship Game. An incredible 73% of the passes that Thomas caught resulted in a first down or touchdown. He pulled in an eye-popping 85% of his 147 targets.
- 149 receptions (NFL Record)
- 1,725 yards (led NFL)
- 9 touchdowns
- 16 games
- NFL Offensive Player of the Year
Thomas had a season which all wideouts will be measured against in 2019. He not only broke Harrison's 17-year NFL record for receptions in a season, but his receiving yards were the seventh highest in league history.
Thomas had double-digit receptions in an amazing nine contests and had at least five catches in six other games. He surpassed 80 yards receiving in 13 contests and recorded ten 100-yard outings.
Nagging injuries to Kamara limited his output and increased defensive attention on Thomas. Despite an incredible 185 targets, he still had an impressive 80% catch rate. Of his 149 receptions, 67% resulted in a score or first down.
THOMAS - 2020
- 40 receptions
- 438 yards
- 0 touchdowns
- 7 games
Thomas started the most difficult year of his career by suffering a badly injured ankle in a season-opening win over Tampa Bay. The injury, along with a hamstring issue, forced him to miss the next six games. It snapped a 57 consecutive game streak where Thomas had played.
Returning in a Week 9 win at Tampa Bay, Thomas was clearly hobbled and limited by the injury. He still played the next six contests and even recorded two 100-yard outings against the Atlanta Falcons.
Thomas was placed on injured reserve for the last three regular season games. He was activated for the playoffs, but was just a shadow of his dominant self.
After catching five passes for 73 yards and a score in a Wild-Card win over Chicago, a severely limited Thomas was held without a catch in a Division Round loss to the Buccaneers.
The severity of the injury to Thomas was not revealed until after the season. He held off major surgery until just before training camp, which would shelve him until mid-season. Complications on the ankle worsened matters, putting the record-breaking wideout out for the year.
The Importance of Michael Thomas
Without their dominant receiver, the Saints had the league's worst passing attack and by far the worst offensive production in coach Sean Payton's 16-year tenure.
It didn't help that New Orleans was ravaged by injuries along the offensive line. They were also forced to start four different quarterbacks after a season-ending injury to Jameis Winston, who replaced the retired Brees.
Still, the absence of Thomas exposed an alarming lack of talent the Saints had at wide receiver. New Orleans was the only NFL team without a 300-yard passing performance in 2021. They had just one 100-yard outing from a wideout all year and only five games of over 80 receiving yards out of the position.
The top three Saints wide receivers were Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harty, and Tre'Quan Smith. They combined for just 114 receptions, 1,645 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Michael Thomas averaged 118 catches for 1,378 yards over his first four years by himself.
Without Thomas to attract defensive attention, Alvin Kamara's effectiveness was also limited. Kamara led the team in rushing and had 1,337 all-purpose yards in just 13 games thanks to his own injuries. However, Kamara had a career low 47 receptions, which still led the team, and 439 receiving yards while averaging just 3.7 per rush.
The retirement of the legendary Brees certainly had a lot to do with the offensive failures made worse by injuries to Winston and the offensive line. Contrary to the opinion of some, Thomas has still proven that he can be an effective playmaker without Brees to throw him the ball.
Michael Thomas has played 11 games without Brees in his career. In those games he has 87 catches for 1,012 yards, catching at least 8 passes and surpassing 80 yards in eight of those contests.
The durability of Thomas has also come into question. It shouldn't. While his recovery certainly bears watching, remember that he played in 69 of his first 70 games before an injury that should have ended his 2020 season.
Callaway and Harty are extremely talented players, but have also shown that they cannot shoulder the burden of being the team’s top wideout. The Saints should make wideout their top offseason priority, along with tight end. They'll also have quarterback questions in 2022, with Winston slated to be a free agent.
The 6'3" and 212-Lb. Thomas is nearly unstoppable through the intermediate zones of a defense. Thomas, 29, is an extremely physical wideout with underrated athleticism, sure hands and precise route running skills.
Expect New Orleans to bring in another receiver to join Callaway and Harty, either through free agency or more likely a top draft choice. The offense will also continue to revolve around Kamara, regardless of who ends up at quarterback.
However, make no mistake, the key to the resurgence of the Saints passing attack in 2022 lies with a return to form of WR Michael Thomas.