Michael Thomas considered the NFL's best Route Runner

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is considered the NFL's best route runner in 2019 according to Next Gen's Stats.
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Michael Thomas' 2019 regular season was one of the greatest single seasons by a WR in NFL history. In 16 games, Thomas caught 149 passes (a new NFL record) for a league-high 1,725 yards and 9 TDs. Despite his numbers, analysts and fans have criticized Thomas for "only running slant routes." In a study by Next Gen Stats, Thomas' numbers show he is not just the king of slants but the entire route tree.

In their study, Next Gen Stats took the eight routes within the common route tree: Cross, Go, Out, Post, Corner, In, Slant, and Hitch and examined different metrics to determine who is the NFL’s best at running a specific route. Their findings show that Michael Thomas was the league’s best in four of the eight routes. However, the most impressive attribute to Thomas’ stellar 2019 was his YAC. He was among the league leaders in yards after the catch (YAC) in nearly every route.

Thomas’ underrated speed and elite route running ability make him one of the more difficult covers in the NFL. Below are the four routes Michael Thomas ranked as the best in the league.  Also, we will provide Next Gen Stats’ analysis of his route-running ability.

Crossing Route

In 2019, no wide receiver was pressed more at the line on crossing routes than Michael Thomas at 49% of his routes. He had a league-best of being targeted 29 times on crossing routes for 382 yards. Thomas’ success on crossing routes against the press showcases his fore-mentioned underrated speed, especially for his size. The Ohio State product is phenomenal in using his body to shield defenders from the ball or help him reel in a catch.  

On crossing route patterns he has to use both skills to create inside position and break away from the receiver, allowing the QB to either lead him for YAC yards or throw at him to make a catch and immediately get down for the yards needed.  Thomas’ ability to use his speed and frame to allow his QB to do either is what separates him from some of the more speedy WRs in the NFL.

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Hitch Route

The hitch has become the patent Michael Thomas Route. Facing press coverage on only 34% of his targets on the hitch allows Thomas to run at the DB, recognize the coverage, stop on a dime when the DB flips his hips, and play a go route. The hitch route becomes Thomas’ most dangerous because of his deceptiveness. His ability to disguise what he is doing long enough to read the reactions of the DB and adjust his route accordingly is what makes him an NFL elite.

 

Let’s see ... Thomas led all wide receivers in yards gained on hitches. His YAC on hitches was second-best in the NFL, trailing only Keenan Allen. Thomas did this while fighting through press coverage on 34 percent of his targets, too.

Nick Shook, Around the NFL 

Out Route

Thomas gained more yards on the out route than any WR in the league last season with 326 yards. The out route is another route where Thomas’ size and speed at the top of the route make it nearly unguardable. He uses his speed to attack the DB from the scrimmage line and is agile enough to cut towards the outside perimeter. This move creates enough separation for the quarterback to deliver a strike to an open Thomas. His frame helps him “box out” the DB and toe-tap or cut upfield for additional yards. With limited room to run, being so close to the sideline, Thomas still managed nearly 3 YAC on out routes.

 

Thomas caught 87.9 percent of his targets, landing in the top five in that category. In fact, if we instituted a minimum of, say, 15 receptions on out routes, only DeAndre Hopkins (86.4%) and Calvin Ridley (80%) even come close to Thomas’ catch rate.

Nick Shook, Around the NFL

Slant Route

Michael Thomas' "money maker" is the slant route. The key to success in Thomas's route starts at the line of scrimmage with his hands and his feet. Quick feet and hand placement are vital to gaining inside position and leverage on these routes. Using your hands to create separation (inside of 5 yards) and using your body to win inside establishes a pocket of space for the QB to fit the football and produces positive yards. For Thomas, his hands, wingspan and quick feet make this the deadliest route in his arsenal.  

Thomas’ efficiency on this route was second to none in 2019, posting a catch rate of 87.9%. He finished atop the NFL in yards off of the slant route for 299 yards. Also, he posted 162 YAC, also was good for the league's best for a receiver. This route was where "Can't Guard Mike" earned his money in 2019.  

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