It has been a rough offseason for the New Orleans Saints and the team's loyal fans.
First, the 2020 season ended with a home playoff upset to division rival Tampa Bay. Franchise icon Drew Brees then announced his retirement after 15 record-breaking seasons with the team.
Major salary cap issues forced the Saints to jettison several starters and contributors this offseason. The personnel losses still left the team with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball but cut heavily into their depth and left question marks at several positions.
Offseason arrests of perennial Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore and electric kick returner Deonte Harris could cause both players to be suspended for the start of the season.
Starting DT David Onyemata will already serve face a six-game suspension. Kicker Wil Lutz will miss several weeks after core muscle surgery.
Then there is the saga of All-Pro WR Michael Thomas.
The 28-year-old Thomas played only nine games last season because of a serious ankle injury that severely limited him even when he played. He had the worst statistical production of his brilliant five-year career.
Thomas delayed surgery until June on his ankle, pushing his recovery time until well into the regular season. New Orleans coach Sean Payton was obviously unhappy with the delay, saying that Thomas should have had the procedure done earlier in the offseason.
According to Jeff Duncan of The TP/Advocate, the saga took an even stranger turn two weeks ago. Duncan reported that Thomas had ignored all attempts from the team to get in touch with him over the entire offseason.
Thomas has been quiet on his end, not publicly explaining why he delayed his surgery or why he hadn't stayed in touch with his team.
The lack of communication has led many to speculate on a potential rift between player and franchise, fueling rumors about a departure of the record-breaking receiver.
COULD THE SAINTS TRADE MICHAEL THOMAS?
Let's be fair; no reputable sources, reports, and his representatives suggest Michael Thomas and the New Orleans Saints are headed for a split.
Thomas has not asked for a trade, and the Saints have never indicated that they are looking to deal their star wideout.
But could it happen? It’s certainly possible, especially if the relationship between player and organization is indeed damaged. The Saints have rarely shown hesitation at moving on from a player, even a productive offensive weapon.
There are several reasons it seems highly unlikely that Michael Thomas will be anywhere else except a New Orleans uniform for the next few seasons.
MONEY IS HUGE ISSUE
Thomas signed a five-year contract extension with the Saints in 2019 worth $96 million. Since then, he’s restructured his deal twice to save the team salary cap room.
Restructuring his contract made it more difficult to trade him because of the signing bonuses attached to the deal.
This season, trading or releasing Thomas will create $9.1 million in dead cap space and a whopping $22.7 million of a dead cap in 2022.
Thomas has a reasonable cap hit this season at just over $10 million. The cap hit will escalate to $24.7 million in 2022, barring another restructure but still comparable to the NFL's highest-paid receivers.
Another team would take on Thomas' yearly salary in a trade, but the Saints would still absorb a huge hit to their salary cap over the next two years.
THOMAS' TALENT AND PRODUCTION
Michael Thomas had at least 92 receptions for over 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons. His 470 receptions for 5,512 yards over those first four years set an NFL record for productivity.
Thomas led the league in receptions in 2018 and 2019 and receiving yards in 2019. His 149 receptions in 2019 set a new NFL record. He is already fourth on the Saints' all-time list in catches and receiving yards in just five seasons.
At 6’3 and 212-Lbs., Thomas has a physical style of play that overwhelms most defensive backs. He has an elite combination of route precision and sure hands, making him almost impossible to defend through the intermediate zones.
Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara are arguably one of the NFL's most dangerous receiver and running back duo in the NFL today.
New Orleans is breaking in a new quarterback after the retirement of Brees and already had several questions at the receiver position. The team undoubtedly wants to give Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill as many weapons as possible to succeed.
As if Thomas' physical attributes aren't enough, he has always played with an edge to his game. Dealing with an ankle injury that probably should have ended his season in 2020, Thomas still appeared in nine games.
Thomas had four outings of at least 70 yards and at least four catches in six games, even at a fraction of his usual dominant form. Thomas is at his best in the biggest games. In seven career playoff appearances, he's caught at least five passes for over 70 yards five times.
Before last season, Thomas had missed only one of 69 games and had appeared in 57 straight contests. Despite his physical style of play, Thomas had remained both durable and productive through his first four seasons.
Before his ankle injury, he had at least 3 receptions in all of those 57 straight contests and at least 7 catches 36 times.
Some have the ludicrous notion that Thomas became complacent after signing a massive contract extension.
After signing the new deal in the offseason of 2019, Thomas led the league with 1,725 receiving yards on an NFL-record 149 receptions.
Michael Thomas is an elite offensive weapon that tests defenses on every play in every game. Once he's healthy and back in the lineup, he will give a valuable jolt to the offense for the stretch run this season.
Could the Saints and Michael Thomas part ways? While possible, definitely unlikely. Thomas is an invaluable offensive piece vital to the team's success.
The relationship between Thomas and the Saints organization has been a strange one this offseason, but not toxic.
Michael Thomas does not owe the fans an explanation, but communication between him and the team seems necessary to mend fences.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobrose2613.
READ SAINTS TRAINING CAMP NEWS:
- Could C.J. Henderson Be an Option for the Saints After Patrick Robinson's Retirement?
- Saints Camp: Day 11 Practice Notes and Observations
- Saints CB Patrick Robinson Retires, Per Report
- Saints Camp: Day 10 Practice Notes and Observations
- Saints Signed Kicker Brett Maher
- Report: K Wil Lutz Injury Forces Saints to Tryout Placekickers
- Saints Training Camp: Early August 53-Man Roster Prediction
- More Things We've Learned From Saints Training Camp