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Reception Perception: Zone, Man, Press, or Double; the NFL Can’t Guard Mike

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The Ohio State Buckeyes star turned a lot of heads while running some of the best routes seen in the NFL last year.

ATLANTA, GA - New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) celebrates a touchdown scored against the Atlanta Falcons defense at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA, GA - New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) celebrates a touchdown scored against the Atlanta Falcons defense at the Georgia Dome.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Michael Thomas’ thunderous rookie year has been written about at length, and you’re probably familiar with most of the stats: he led the 2016 rookie class in catches (92), yards (1,137), touchdowns (9), catches for 20+ yards (18), first downs (62), and a host of other metrics. In the bigger picture, Thomas ranked ninth in catches, yards and catches for 20+ yards, as well as sixth in touchdowns and first down catches.

But there’s more to being a great receiver than that raw production. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception project (available for purchase here) charts how efficiently receivers run the different routes and how effectively they gain separation versus different types of coverage, and his findings make a strong case for why Thomas is already one of the NFL’s top receiving threats.

This data also spells out quite clearly how Thomas able to overtake Brandin Cooks in the pecking order. Despite his impressive hands and quick feet, Cooks hasn’t developed as a route runner over his time in the NFL. He only separated at an above-average rate on post routes and sprints into the flat. Thomas, meanwhile, was one of just a few receivers to consistently find separation on every route in the tree past the line of scrimmage.

Only two receivers charted last year won separation on more than 90-percent of their slant routes: Dallas Cowboys superstar Dez Bryant (94.9-percent success rate) set the pace for the entire league, while Michael Thomas (91.2-percent) nearly kept up with Bryant’s breakneck pace. This helps explain why Thomas was able to easily convert so many short-yardage throws; between a high success rate and his natural size, smaller defenders playing off the line of scrimmage had slim chances at stopping him.

Thanks to Pro Football Reference charting, we can see that his held true: Thomas turned 19 of his 27 targets with six or fewer yards to go into 17 first downs, but just one touchdown. Don’t be shocked if the quick slant to Thomas becomes a favorite goal-line play in 2017.

The same held true on post routes, but Thomas performed even better. His success rate (93.8-percent) on this vertical route was the highest in the pro game, and the runner-up was none other than Pittsburgh Steelers sensation Antonio Brown (93.2-percent). No other receivers came close, with Tampa Bay Buccaneers deep threat DeSean Jackson a distant third-best (88.2-percent).

Again, with Pro Football Reference data logs we see that Thomas was highly efficient on those deep targets. Not all of the routes run on these deep targets were posts, but there’s a clear correlation between Thomas’ ability to not just separate, but reel in a difficult catch and pick up a first down that his peers struggle to match.

But back to how Thomas made Cooks replaceable. As we’ve established, Thomas was a threat to make a play anywhere on the field. He has a knack for taking off on a screen and making defenders miss that Cooks hasn’t shown. But thanks to Reception Perception data collection, we know that Thomas thrives against all different types of coverage while Cooks struggles to beat any of them:

As the chart shows, Cooks’ success rate was well below the NFL average on each of the different coverage looks. You would expect a smaller receiver like him to be well-defended by press and man coverage, but he should excel when facing zone coverage thanks to the free release and open space to run it allows. Unfortunately for Cooks, he couldn’t get consistently open and lost his lead-receiver title to Thomas.

For Thomas’ part, he made the transition easy. There’s a natural curve to how receivers perform against the four coverages with double teams being the most-difficult to defeat and zone the easiest, so you expect a variance in the data. But in Thomas’ case, he is nearly as effective against press coverage as zone, and dealt with doubled assignments almost as efficiently as man. That’s very rare and bodes well for his future. The open receiver has always been targeted in the Saints’ offense, and Thomas’ ease of getting open is what made him the top dog.

What’s even more interesting is how Thomas and teammate Willie Snead IV performed against the NFL average. They are both advanced route-runners who can find holes in zones, defeat man or press techniques with jab steps and hand-swipes, and even thread past planned double-coverage. Snead’s success rate curve follows the expected path based off average levels of play, but with significantly higher efficiency. Thomas is even more transcendent and spells out a career that seems primed for success.

The same holds true for their success rates on different route types. Thomas has the body type (6-foot-2 and a half inches, 222-pounds) to win on the outside while Snead (5-foot-11-inches, 195-pounds) can do more damage out of the slot, but both receivers can run any kind of route they want with good odds of success. Cooks (5-foot-9-inches, 190-pounds) couldn’t do that and was more limited in how he could contribute to the offense, using his good hands and straight-line speed to pull away in big chunks but not being a factor on short-area targets and critical third downs.

There’s no question that the Saints would be better with Cooks in the fold, but his loss shouldn’t be overstated. He wasn’t the versatile weapon that Thomas and Snead are, and he can be replaced much more easily than either of them. For now, Sean Payton and his coaching staff needs to figure out whether Ted Ginn Jr, Brandon Coleman, Corey Fuller, or maybe Travin Dural can best replicate what Cooks had to offer.