New Orleans Saints Wide Receiver Michael Thomas holds the record for most catches in a player’s first three seasons with 321. He is currently on pace for 146 catches this season. That would break the current record of 143 set by Marvin Harrison in 2002. And those numbers are just the beginning for the fourth-year wide receiver. In an offense quarterbacked by Drew Brees, and coached by Sean Payton, Thomas hasn’t been the media focal point. He doesn’t have the antics of Odell Beckham or Antonio Brown. Or the flashy style of Julio Jones. In fact, all things considered, Michael Thomas is kind of boring. But he’s also the best wide receiver in the NFL.
The Best Wide Receiver In The NFL: Michael Thomas
A second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Michael Thomas has been ridiculously productive since the first snap in his rookie year. Despite running a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash, the Saints believed Thomas could excel in the NFL. And he has. In his rookie year, he had 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. Then, he followed that up with back to back seasons of over 100 catches in years two and three. New Orleans knew what they had. So they inked Thomas to a new deal this past offseason, making him the highest-paid wide receiver in the league at the time. With injuries to the Saints offense this year, Michael Thomas has not only been the guy, but he’s also been the only guy at times. And even with opposing defenses knowing that, he still hasn’t been slowed down.
Michael Thomas led the NFL in catch percentage a year ago at 85% and was only 11th in targets. Julio Jones had 23 more targets and a catch percentage of 66.5%. Antonio Brown, 21 more targets with a 62% catch rate. Wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams are further examples that had more targets than Thomas and a significantly lower catch percentage. That’s an impressive metric for Thomas. But it might not be his most impressive.
Of all the big-name and big money wide receivers, none of them play like Michael Thomas. With his 40-time on the lower end for his position, Thomas isn’t a burner. He’s not running go routes and catching bombs play after play. Instead, he makes his living in the dirty intermediate areas of the defense. Over the last three seasons, Thomas averages 8.5 air yards per target. In that same time frame, Julio Jones averaged 14.3. Davante Adams 11. DeAndre Hopkins 12.7 and Antonio Brown 12. These numbers and metrics are very telling.
With his 8.5 average targeted air yards, the heavy majority of Thomas’ catches come in traffic and come contested. That 8.5 distance means he’s running crosses and overs and having to create space in the flats, hook curl zones, and middle of the defense. All of which are areas that are heavily patrolled by defenders of varying shapes, sizes, and looks. Running routes in those areas also mean Thomas has to read the defense and make the same read as his QB in order to connect. Last season, his average targeted air yards was 7.7. As a reminder, he led the league in catch percentage last season. Take a look here, and see how often he’s making contested catches in the presence of defenders. Not easy.
Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Jared Cook, Tre’Quan Smith. All of these Saints offensive players have missed time due to injury this season. In their absence, Michael Thomas hasn’t missed a beat. Again, the man is on pace to break the single-season NFL receptions record. He also currently leads the league in receiving yards. When Brees went down and Teddy Bridgewater took over, the Saints offense was funneled through Thomas.
Drew Bress is a Hall of Fame quarterback. Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the NFL. Alvin Kamara is electric. When Mark Ingram was in New Orleans he was very good. Point is, for the first three seasons of Michael Thomas’ career, he’s been on good teams with good direction. He’s done very well, but you could make a case that his success was the product of those around him or the system. This year, Thomas has been the system.
The calming factor for Teddy Bridgewater was to find Michael Thomas play after play. Thomas is fourth in the NFL in targets this season and is rocking an 82% catch rate. Keenan Allen leads the league in targets and has six more than Thomas. His catch rate is 65%. Play after play, Thomas’ route running and technical precision have made him almost impossible to cover. He beats zone coverage, man coverage, cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers, everyone. When the ball is near him, it’s his. And though his game is loud, he does it all quietly, and unassumingly. If he were flashier he’d get more looks for MVP consideration this season. That’s uncharted territory for a wide receiver. That’s how good he’s been.
What It All Means For Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas is the best wide receiver in the NFL. His production, consistency, and efficiency throughout his first three and a half seasons is unmatched at his position. He’s broken and set records, and carried his team when needed. His style of play is one built for longevity and continued success, and if what we’ve seen so far is any indication he’ll continue to get better and progress.
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