Michael Thomas: Can’t Guard Mike a Can’t Miss?
On March 10th, the Saints sent former WR Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick to New England for a first- and third-round pick. The move confirmed two things:
- First, that Brandin Cooks was not happy with his role in New Orleans. When he was still with the Saints, Cooks was vocal about his dissatisfaction. For example, he complained about getting zero targets in a game where his team drubbed the Las Angeles Rams 49–21. Then, after arriving in New England, Cooks again discussed his feelings of being under-utilized in the Big Easy. He said there were “things” he would have liked to do more of in the offense, and in New England, he was looking forward to doing some of those “things” he couldn’t do in New Orleans. Here’s to hoping Cooks finds whatever “things” he is looking for with the Patriots. No. Here’s to hoping he finds such “things,” and also able to do such “things” as well.
- Second, the move confirmed that the Saints’ brass trusts their breakout-rookie Michael Thomas. Cooks had two years left on his deal. In no way were the Saints forced to move him — Cooks has even denied demanding a trade. In shipping Cooks, the Saints gave up a 23 year-old, former first-round pick that put up at least 78 receptions, 1,100 yards, and 8 touchdowns both of the past two seasons. That is some serious production to let out the door— even for the Saints. It is hard to imagine that an organization would move young, controllable talent, unless they had a true belief in his heir-apparent.
Now that Cooks is gone, the reins of the Saints’ WR-Corps have been handed over to Michael Thomas and to a lesser-degree Willie Snead. Post-trade analysis has many fantasy pundits jumping on the Michael Thomas train hard. Early 2017 rankings from Sporting News, the consensus ranks at Fantasy Pros, and even yours truly at FF Circus have all pegged Thomas as a top-10 WR. Many other outlets have him right outside the top-10.
The question becomes: Is Michael Thomas going to be a fantasy star in 2017 without Brandin Cooks, or have we all been drinking the post-trade, Drew Brees, Saints Offense, Kool-Aid?
Let’s take a closer look.
Michael Thomas’ Rookie Year
Brees’ admiration for the former-Buckeye has been evident from early on. The Saints future Hall of Fame QB has raved about the young wide-out ever since Thomas packed his bags and flew south. Six practices into his professional career, Brees said this about Thomas:
“After practice ends, we are getting a lot of extra reps together, where it is just us two, focusing in on a certain concept or split or footwork or look. You can tell it is all starting to register. Once he picks it up, he gets it.”
Brees gets it. He gets that Thomas gets it. And we get that Brees gets that Thomas gets it. You better get it too, because all of those extra-reps paid dividends. Thomas finished the year with 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, and 9 touchdowns on 121 targets. He led the team in targets, receptions, and touchdowns, and trailed Cooks in receiving yards by only 36.
By almost any measure, Thomas had one of the most successful rookie-campaigns in NFL history. His 92 receptions were second-most all-time behind Anquan Boldin’s 101 receptions in 2003. His yards and touchdown numbers both rank in the top-20 all-time for rookie wide receivers. In fact, the Football Outsiders rate Michael Thomas’ first-season as the best ever in terms of DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement)— even ahead Randy Moss’ historic 69 reception, 1,317 yard, 17 touchdown rookie season in 1998. That is a bold claim. All that Nate Silver-ish shit is above me, so I’ll have to take their word for it.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Some of Thomas’ success can be attributed to the Saints’ Offensive scheme. Some can be attributed to the Saints’ Defense as well. The perk of being an Offensive weapon on a team that can’t keep it’s opponent out of the end zone is a beautiful thing — it will take a few years to completely wash the Rob Ryan stink out of that unit. And, a lot can be attributed to having one of the greatest ever behind center. Still, those factors alone cannot explain away his numbers.
Thomas’ primary strengths are his hands, body control, route running ability, and size. At OSU, he was known for his hands. In his final two years as a Buckeye, Thomas only had 5 drops over the course of 110 catches.
I know this is a college highlight, but watch how Thomas jumps over the defender, secures the ball, and tiptoes the end-line for this touchdown against Maryland. Thomas continued this trend as a pro. His 92 receptions on 121 targets put him at a 76% reception rate, which was 2nd best in the league, and he only dropped two balls.
About Thomas’ route running, Drew Brees said:
“I gave him a route that we have literally never repped before together. In fact, I don’t think we’d ever even talked about it. But I was just in the moment, and he’s my guy at that position, so I gave him the signal. He goes and makes the play and ran the route just like I imagined.”
Here, Can’t Guard Mike uses a superb route to create space and then his size to beat the Chiefs’ DJ White. At 6'3'’ 217 pounds, Thomas was one of the bigger WRs to come out of the 2016 NFL Draft. Last season, his combination of size and route ability racked up 474 YAC yards, which was good for 9th-best in the NFL.
Thomas’ biggest weakness coming out of college was his speed. Thomas trotted to a 4.57 40-yard dash at the combine. If he were a linebacker, he would have barely squeezed into the top-3. Needless to say, Thomas is not going to be burning defenders down field.
Drew Brees’ Age
I would be doing you a disservice if I did not at least bring up the one thing on everyone’s mind about Drew Brees…
His age. Between the ages of thirty-five and forty is when all QBs start to head out to pasture. That was then, this is now. Prior to the 2015 season, only 4 QBs over the age of 35 won the super bowl. Then, Peyton Manning (39) and Tom Brady (39) did it in back to back years. Manning significantly slowed down the year he won it all. Last year, Brady was Brady. Brees will be 38 entering the 2017 season and turn 39 on January 15, 2018, sooner or later, his age will catch up to him.
Last season, Brees attempted and completed the most passes of his career. Additionally, his 5,208 passing yards were his second best, his 37 touchdowns were his 3rd best, and his 101.7 passer rating was good enough for the 5th best mark of his career. Brees says he feels good and wants to play until he is 45. At this point, I believe he can do just that. He seems to be speeding up with age, not slowing down. Whatever those supplements he is pushing are, sign me up.
I don’t think Brees shows anything more than minimal decline next season. Even if he does, it will not be significant enough to impact Can’t Guard Mike’s value in a meaningful way.
Back to the Future: What To Expect in 2017
If you haven’t figured it out by now, FF Circus is 100 percent buying into the Michael Thomas 2017 hype. Yes, on a superficial level, Michael Thomas would appear to be worthy of a WR1 spot on fantasy rosters next year. He is now the top-receiver on a team that is a perennial leader in passing attempts. Over the past three years, the Saints have thrown the ball an average of 41.56 times per contest.
Yet, the original thesis still holds even when you dive deeper. His ball and body skills, route running, and size have translated to the NFL. Michael Thomas used these attributes to log a historic rookie campaign that, from a fantasy standpoint, notched him as the #7 WR in PPR formats. He was 9th overall in receptions, tied for 6th in touchdowns, and 10th in receiving yards.
On top of this, Brandin Cooks has now departed and left behind an additional 100+ targets (117 last year to be exact) to be divvied up next year. Regarding those targets, Brees said:
“The balls that were going to Brandin Cooks are now gonna go somewhere else, and the evolution of Michael Thomas — our rookie receiver out of Ohio State last year — the progression he made from the beginning of the season to the end, he became a go-to guy.”
It bears repeating — “…he became a go-to guy.”
Can’t Guard Mike’s biggest concern is that he is going to be respected and regarded for what he did as a rookie in 2017. Teams will begin to game plan for him — especially without Cooks speed and ability to stretch the field lined up across from him. Good for Thomas, he plays in the NFC South.
The Bucs, Falcons, and Panthers all finished in the bottom half of the league for passing yards allowed, passing completion, and passing touchdowns. It remains to be seen what these teams will do to address their pass defense in the draft or remainder of the offseason, but the combination of being the top WR on a team that loves to throw the rock in a division that cannot defend the pass bodes well for Thomas.
Thomas will definitely be a WR1, assuming he stays healthy, at the end of the season. He would do that if he treads water and replicates his rookie season. I don’t think he only treads water. Thomas will surpass his rookie numbers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns in 2017. A tall task, I know, but he is up for the job and in the right situation to do it. I am not drafting Thomas in the first round, but I will take him in the second, even with an early turn around pick.
FFCircus end of the year statline prediction: 141 targets, 107 receptions, 1,288 yards, and 13 Tds.
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