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Michael Thomas vs. Julio Jones are in a fierce battle for best NFC South receiver

The Saints and Falcons rivalry isn’t going anywhere, and both teams have some of best players at their positions

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Michael Thomas made NFL history by catching the most passes in a single season in NFL history with a staggering 149. Thomas has emerged as the eminent threat in the Saints offense, and yet the superstar receiver continually gets disrespected around the league as a slant specialist who doesn’t open the field up.

That’s due in part to Thomas sharing the NFC South with Julio Jones, who is recognized around the league as a top receiver, not only today, but that the NFL has seen. Jones is likely the most physically gifted receiver the league has seen since Calvin Johnson. But if you put Thomas up against Jones head to head, who is the more effective receiver to have?

On a surface level, through Jones’ first four years he caught 278 passes for 4,330 yards and 26 touchdowns, including 10 TDs in his sophomore season. He had 15.6 yards per catch and a 62.5 percent catch percentage.

Thomas, meanwhile, has 470 catches for 5,512 yards and 32 touchdowns, with a more meager 11.6 yards per catch and a 78.1 percent catch percentage.

With that being said, we can’t operate under the assumption Thomas’ ceiling is the same as Jones’. Jones hasn’t had a season with under 1,390 yards since his 2013 season was shortened by injury. Furthermore, Jones has always had viable No. 2 targets for Matt Ryan to hit, which works for and against him in the discussion of who is more important. Jones draws an inordinate amount of attention — Thomas can draw nearly all of it.

The first thing you have to do in any conversation around Thomas is dispel the myth that all he does is catch slants.

On top of this, it’s not like Jones is running the Robert Meachem route tree. Jones still works well underneath to open up the deep threat. While Jones certainly goes deep more often than Thomas does, Nick Underhill found that 22 percent of Jones’ catches came on curls, alongside 14 percent of his yardage. Likewise, 21 percent of Thomas’ catches came on slants, along with 18 percent of his yards. This isn’t a knock against Thomas or Jones, it’s just the reality of the situation: Sean Payton and Dirk Koetter wanted their best receivers running their best routes.

There’s one more major hurdle to look at when evaluating Thomas vs. Jones: Offensive roles.

ESPN Stats
ESPN Stats

Thomas is doing more in the Saints’ offense in its presence form out of necessity. Calvin Ridley has emerged as a very viable receiving threat for Matt Ryan. Thomas alongside Emmanuel Sanders next year might be a more apt comparison, especially with Drew Brees’ propensity for proliferating the ball among different receivers.

While Thomas is a rock in terms of efficiency, Jones has vacillated throughout his career. He generally averages around a 60 percent catch percentage, but his efficiency spikes with more targets. When Jones had 203 targets in 2015, he had a 67 percent catch percentage. When he had 170 in 2018, he had a 66.5 percentage catch rate. When he gets fed, Jones gets better.

So, the overarching question is: Who would you rather have? Both receivers are outrageously talented, the best way to look at them is item by item and give them edges. While it’s all relative, it can start to shed some light on what has become a very heated debate.

Thomas vs. Jones

Athleticism: Jones

While Thomas’ athleticism is underrated, Jones may well be one of the most athletically gifted receivers the NFL has ever seen. At 6-feet-3-inches and 220 lbs, Jones ran a 4.39 40 at the combine. To put it bluntly: Jones is in a class of his own.

Hands: Thomas

If it hits his hands, Thomas is catching it. He has nine drops over the past two seasons and a catch rate around 80 percent. You just can’t beat that. While Jones has only gotten better hands over time — he went from nine drops in 2018 to just four last season — Thomas is a surefire catch, even if Jones has more of a flair for the spectacular grab.

Underneath route running: Thomas

To be clear, this is excluding screen, which Jones is among the best in the NFL at. Thomas’ ability to find seams in zone coverage on the first and second levels are a big part of what makes him so good. He and Brees have a strong connection underneath, and Thomas makes his routes look like backyard football at times.

Deep route running: Jones

This ties back to Jones’ ridiculous athleticism, but it runs deeper than that. Jones can absolutely toast players with his double move, and his ability to shake defenders at the top of routes is ridiculous.

YAC: Thomas

This might come as a bit of a surprise, as Jones is notorious for his ability to run after the catch. But Thomas in the open field is incredibly dangerous. He led NFL receivers in yards after catch last season with 583. Thomas’ ability to run after the catch is a big part of his massive totals, and it’s a heavily underrated part of his game. The reality is, when he gets a full head of steam, Thomas is among the most difficult players to tackle in football.

Gameplanning required: Jones

Even though Matt Ryan isn’t forcefeeding Jones the ball as much as he once did, Jones still commands an outrageous amount of attention. He needs copious amounts of safety help along with the opponent’s best cornerback. Indeed, when Marshon Lattimore injured his hamstring against the Falcons in their first matchup last year, P.J. Williams was forced to try and contain Jones. He held his own (thanks in no small part to Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell), but he got the better of him a few times. Jones’ ability to get open makes him one of the hardest receivers to gameplan for in today’s NFL, and it shows when teams aren’t able to do so properly.

Red Zone: Thomas

If the Falcons would just forget about the fade route and its existence, Jones might get the nod here. But Thomas was one of the NFL’s best red zone receivers anyways. He trailed only Tyler Lockett of the Seahawks with 16 receptions inside the 20, and he was tied with the Lions’ Marvin Jones at the top of the league with 8 TD receptions. Jones had five touchdown catches on 12 receptions, boosting his ratio, but Thomas’ elusiveness extends far beyond the open field. He’s arguably better in tight spaces.

Overall Edge: Michael Thomas

You really can’t go wrong with either player. Thomas and Jones are arguably two of the top 3-5 receivers in the league. But Thomas’ numbers don’t lie. With a backup quarterback and effectively no other threats in the passing game (at least from a receiver standpoint), he caught 149 passes. Breaking records isn’t something that should be glossed over because he didn’t do it in a specific way.

While Jones is certainly one of the best to ever play the position, and he should absolutely keep holding out for new contracts every chance he gets, Thomas has the pedigree to prove he’s on his way to becoming the best. Records are toppling for him right now as a young player, and it will be exciting to see where he goes. Not even mentioned above is that he’s one of the most fiercely competitive players in the league.

Both of these players aren’t done, and they’ll go head-to-head (in a manner of speaking) twice more this season. Perhaps moving forward Thomas won’t be asked to do quite so much for the Saints’ offense. Then we’ll see how dangerous he can really be.

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