The fascinating thing about the Sean Payton-Drew Brees offense is that it’s been largely dominant without a truly elite wide receiver option. Sure, there was the very good Marques Colston, the reliable Lance Moore or minute speedster Brandin Cooks; Brees, of course, had Jimmy Graham at tight end with Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles at running back to dump the ball off to, but for the longest time the offense was largely Brees and a myriad cast wide outs whose games he elevated.
Enter Michael Thomas.
Thomas, the second-year wideout out of Ohio State, expanded upon his All-Rookie 2016 season with a franchise record 104 catches, 1,245 yards and five touchdowns en route to a Pro Bowl selection, the first receiver to be voted to the game in the Payton-Brees era.
Thomas, much like his eventual division winning team, got off to a slow start to 2017. In the season opener against the Vikings, Thomas was held to five catches and 45 yards. A week later, Thomas was limited to an additional five catches in the loss to New England. Thomas had ten catches, a shade under 150 yards, zero touchdowns and zero wins through two games.
One week later, the Saints went on an eight-game win streak and Thomas started putting secondaries across the NFL on notice. Over the near two-month winning streak, Thomas averaged seven catches per game and 88 yards per game and scored a pair of touchdowns. Thomas kept everyone toasty that cold November afternoon in Buffalo by torching the Bills’ secondary for nine catches and a season-best 117 yards.
Thomas’ production dipped over a three-week stretch against Washington, Los Angeles and Carolina, but Thomas used the Thursday night prime time spotlight in Atlanta to play arguably his best game of the season: a season-best 10 catches, his second 117 yard outing and a score.
Thomas’ regular season wouldn’t end as strongly as his Thursday night outing. Like the first two games of the regular season, Thomas only caught ten passes in the win against Atlanta and loss at Tampa Bay.
The Saints’ offense was spinning its wheels as the regular season concluded and, to advance in the postseason, someone on that potent offense needed to step up.
Thomas answered the call.
In his first playoff experience, Thomas channeled his inner Larry Fitzgerald circa 2008 and caught 15 passes for 216 yards and a pair of scores in the games against Carolina and Minnesota. Matched up against Minnesota’s All-Pro corner Xavier Rhodes, Thomas caught seven passes and scored twice, and sparked the Saints near-comeback in the NFC Divisional Round.
Thomas had a different kind of pressure going into the 2017 season: He’d have to truly be a number one receiver. Brandin Cooks was traded away to New England and Willie Snead would be suspended the first three games of the season. Thomas had to bear the burden of expectations and answered the call beautifully. He would set the Saints’ single-season reception record with 104 grabs; his 196 receptions would pass Jarvis Landry’s NFL record for the most catches in a player’s first two seasons; and he would be the first Saints’ receiver in the Drew Brees era to be named to the Pro Bowl.
As the Saints look ahead to 2018, the NFL will have to account for Michael Thomas. He was one of 2016’s best rookies and one year later he’s emerged as one of the NFL’s best receivers. He doesn’t talk much, he’s content letting his play do all the talking.