Michael Thomas had a great rookie season in 2016. He finished with 1,137 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. With the emergence of Alvin Kamara in 2017, the running game of the New Orleans Saints took a lot of potential touchdowns from the passing game. Still, in 2017, Thomas finished with 5 touchdowns and 1,245 yards. And in 2018, he could be even better.
Over at numberFire.com, they looked at Michael Thomas’s 2017 production and tried to determine if he could build on his stellar numbers from his sophomore season. Their conclusion? He should see an uptick in touchdowns without any anticipated regression with his targets, catches, or yards.
Thomas has already displayed a rock-solid floor with his gaudy target, reception and yardage totals coupled with his career 72.9% catch rate. But given his secure target share in a perennially prolific offense, one that’s primed for increased passing volume and scoring, Thomas is a great bet to score more than five touchdowns in 2018.
The main reason Thomas’s touchdowns should go up is positive regression from Drew Brees and the New Orleans passing game.
One of the most important statistics in that column is touchdown rate, which is simply passing touchdowns divided by pass attempts. If you look closely, you’ll see that Brees’ 2017 touchdown rate was 1.21 percentage points below his Saints average. That might not sound like a lot, but an increase of 1.21 percentage points would’ve resulted in six more passing touchdowns (with volume remaining the same). Given Thomas’ 6’3” frame and 29.0% target market share inside the 10-yard line, per Pro Football Reference, I’m willing to bet 1-2 of those scores would’ve gone Thomas’ way.
numberFire also expects Thomas’s looks in the passing game to not suffer. For one, they expect the Saints to not be able to lean on the running game nearly as much in 2018.
Another possible indicator that the Saints will pass more in 2018 is Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension. Ingram carried the ball a career-high 230 times last year, and because Saints head coach Sean Payton has indicated the Saints won’t simply give Alvin Kamara 15 more carries per game, Ingram will likely be replaced by some combination of Jonathan Williams, Terrance West, Trey Edmunds and sixth-round rookie Boston Scott. If none of those players prove worthy of those extra carries and Payton doesn’t want to overload Kamara, it’s possible the Saints overall rushing pie shrinks, at least for the first four games of the season. And like we saw with Willie Snead in New Orleans last season, just because you’ve returned from a suspension doesn’t mean you’re out of Payton’s doghouse.
Beyond that, it’s not clear exactly how many other options the Saints will have in the passing game. Gone is Coby Fleener, replaced by 37-year old Benjamin Watson. Gone is Willie Snead, replaced by Cameron Meredith who’s running on a pair of questioned knees. Ted Ginn is a year older. Tre’Quan Smith is a rookie.
Aside from Alvin Kamara, the Saints might have to rely heavily on Michael Thomas and his humungous and reliable hands.