New Orleans is no stranger to good wide receiver play, but Saints’ Michael Thomas took it to another level this season with his rookie debut. How good was Thomas’ rookie season? It is one of the best in NFL history for rookie wideouts.
It’s also worth noting that Brandin Cooks owns the NFL record for catch percentage as a rookie at 76.8%. Together, these two receivers are helping lead the way in a renewed Saints aerial attack that helped Drew Brees to post his highest completion percentage since 2011 (70.0%).
But wait, there’s more! Five receivers would be selected before Thomas was in the 2nd round with the 47th overall pick. Not only did he outperform those receivers selected ahead of him, but he also did better than the rest of the wide receiver class. Spoiler alert: It’s not even close.
The stat-lines are very impressive. We’re going to take a look at some plays to show why and how Thomas is able to put up stellar numbers game in and game out. To his credit, not many analysts saw much of what he has displayed this year in the NFL on his college tape. To some degree, the tape simply didn’t exist.
Here is a piece of his scouting report from NFL.com, “Still figuring out this whole "route running" thing. Needs to improve playing through contact and adjusting routes appropriately. Still thinking rather than just playing. Won't win over quarterbacks with inability to rescue the off-target throws. Plays with passive field demeanor against aggressive cornerbacks.”
Some parts of this paragraph aren’t a terrible analysis of Thomas’ pre-NFL tape. While he was Matt Miller’s top receiver in last year’s draft he didn’t exactly receive that same praise from all scouts. Thomas has been able to do what takes many wide receivers years to do. He runs a strong route tree, has elite hands and bettered his footwork and strength to take on NFL corners. Let’s take a look at a couple of his plays from the 2016 campaign.
On this play we find a combination of two things. First, Brees still throws one of the best back-shoulder passes in the NFL. Even if Thomas is unable to catch this pass, Falcons’ defender Jalen Collins has no chance to make a play on the ball. Second, Thomas does a couple of things here: Not only does he get around to catch the pass, but he goes up to reach the ball at it’s highest point while adjusting his body to turn up field to get another five yards after the catch.
This is an example of a simple out-and-up route. As the name implies, you make a quick move towards the outside for positioning, and then continue up field. Against the Falcons you saw this move utilized against man coverage to open up the back shoulder throw. Sean Payton called the same play, against zone coverage, in the Los Angeles Rams game.
In what should be a familiar formation for Saints fans, this shotgun variant features Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks lined up on the outside to Brees’ right and Thomas lined up to Brees’ left. Immediately, you can see that the Rams are lined up in zone coverage. One of the bigger tells to this is the fact that Snead is uncovered from the defensive front. This means the Rams expect their linebackers to drop back into the intermediate zones to cover Snead’s potential route.
This type of defense can also present a problem in coverage for the out-and-up route that Thomas is designed to run here. Using zone coverage, the Rams can effectively form a type of coverage called an “under/over bracket” on the left side. E.J. Gaines is supposed to sit in the flat (shallow zone) while his safety supports him over the top. Let’s take a look at how Payton and company combat this.
The video below makes it easier to see, but the graphic above displays the reaction of the defense to the play action fake to Mark Ingram. This touchdown pass takes place in the third quarter, and by this time the Saints running attack had already gashed the Rams for multiple big gains. Gaines, as well as the entire linebacking corp, bite on the play action which makes them late in reaching their zones. As you’ll see in the video, Brees also has Snead open over the middle for a touchdown.
Furthermore, this play also shows Thomas playing to his size. He should be stopped at the five yard line, but by displaying great athleticism and strength he is able to will himself into the end zone carrying E.J. for over four yards.
In our next film piece we’re going to see a play that I think the Saints should run more of with Thomas as the featured receiver. These types of plays were a staple of Payton’s earlier offenses with a young Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. The play is a 15 yard in route, or this is sometimes known as a dig route.
The premise of the in route is simple, and as the name suggests, you run a certain distance down field and then turn in towards the seams. The seams are an area you typically see bigger receivers excelling. Generally, if an opposing defense is in zone coverage one of the holes in that coverage is going to be approximately 10-15 yards down field behind the middle linebacker and in front of the safety.
Carolina is implementing what is known as a Cover 6 defense. This is a combination of both the Cover 4 and the Cover 2. On one half of the field, the defense plays Cover 4, and on the other half they play Cover 2. While we don’t have time to cover this defense in depth, just know that it involves seven players dropping into zone coverage and rushing only four.
As predicted, we’ve got a big hole where even the reader at home might be able to throw a complete pass to Thomas. Not to nitpick Drew, but he does throw this ball a little late.
One has to wonder why Carolina’s safety has dropped so far back in coverage. Also, you can see that the linebacker for Carolina has not retreated deep enough into his zone. Once again, play action plays a role in keeping the linebackers from dropping back deep and allows for Brees and Thomas to have more room to make the completion.
As stated, I really want to see the Saints utilize Thomas more in the center of the field and between the seams. Still, with the success he has had (wherever he’s lined up) it’s hard to argue against the results. Let’s finish up with one last play that is the staple of the west coast offense. The west coast system is one in which Coach Payton takes a lot of inspiration from and he has adapted and modernized many of it’s concepts.
The play you’re about to see is a simple three yard slant route. By design, your quarterback is going to make a quick throw to the inside. Generally, this allows your receivers to make a catch before the defense is able to get in position. If run against man coverage, most receivers are able to “body/box out” the defending corner, allowing the reception to be made for a short gain, or against zone you’re able to get under the defender’s covered area and sometimes have room for a big gain.
46 yards later, and 43 of that being yards after the catch, the Saints are in scoring position. Several factors all coming together culminated into making Thomas’ rookie season more than just memorable. It was mesmerizing.
Whether it was him showing off his strong hands or quick feet, or his never quit attitude that saw him recover a fumble when Snead was hit and lost the football, Thomas showed everyone not only that he deserved to be drafted higher than his peers, but that he was the best rookie wide receiver of 2016.
He describes it a little differently.
Now that the season is over, I’ll be shifting more of my focus to covering the NFL draft and free agency. However, if there are other players you would like to see film from, just contact me and I will be more than happy to write an article for them. I encourage you to let me know what you thought, and what you would like to see in future film studies. God bless, and Who Dat, Saints fans.