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With a new quarterback, barometer for success changing for Michael Thomas

Thomas might not go back to the video game numbers he was putting up in 2019, but he still has all of the impact of a top flight receiver

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Brees will no longer be the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints in 2021. That means that Michael Thomas will be catching passes from either Taysom Hill or — more likely — Jameis Winston come next season. No matter who will be part of the receiving corps for the Saints next year, Thomas is primed for a big comeback season as the No. 1 receiver.

In 2020, Thomas was hampered for nearly the entire season with a foot injury, which resulted in him starting just five games and playing in seven. Even when he was on the field, it was clearly a very different player than the one who caught a record-breaking 149 passes in 2019 (which, by the way, will now always be the record in the 16-game era). All things told, Thomas had 40 catches in 2020, for 438 yards and no touchdowns.

With no Brees, what will success ultimately look like for Thomas come next season? His ceiling might not be 149 catches anymore, but he seems enthusiastic about the upcoming season, and Thomas can create separation with the best of them (yes, he runs more than slants). What’s the barometer for a good bounce-back season in a post-Brees era?

That’s a difficult question to answer, but ultimately it’s going to be determined by what offense the Saints try to run in 2021. A hallmark of Brees’ early career was trying diffuse the ball, and he would often hit between 9 and 12 receivers a game. It’s interesting to look at the 2019 Buccaneers for a frame of reference on what Winston could try to do this season.

In 2019, Chris Godwin broke out as a legitimate No. 1 target, but Winston liked to use his outside receivers more than anyone else. This is already at odds with the Saints philosophy passing the ball, as hey like to incorporate running backs and tight ends into the passing game. Indeed, Cameron Brate had just 36 catches as the leading tight end, while Ronald Jones Jr. had 31 as the No. 1 running back.

Godwin had 86 catches on 121 targets, while Mike Evans had 67 catches on on 118 targets. This is telling, in that it says Winston likes to spread the ball east and west, although his accuracy can waver there. Jones Jr.’s 31 catches were on just 40 targets.

So, a successful Thomas season will be one where he can reel in Winston’s questionable tendencies, make him better, and be a legitimate No. 1 threat. If Winston can trust Thomas in key situations, such as third down or 1st and 10, there’s a very real chance he can return to form. Maybe not 149 catches, but over the course of a 17-game season triple digits is nowhere near out of the question.

Should Winston start, his success and Thomas’s success are intrinsically tied. The two are going to have to build a rapport, because the Saints offense last season often felt anemic in the mid-yardage situations Thomas can be so key in. Indeed, between the 20s, the Saints often sputtered, with frustrating drives ending after one or two first downs.

Thomas is still a No. 1 receiver in this league, up there with the absolute best. He can create separation with the best of them, and his hands are arguably second to none. He still had just one drop in 2020, even with his injuries. Where he’ll need to get back to form to be the outstanding receiver he’s known to be is in his crisp route running, and his ability to shed players at the line of scrimmage.

Naturally, all of this is contingent upon his staying healthy. There are going to be a lot of changes for the Saints in the 2021 season. Thomas is going to have a true return to form if the offense is going to be successful. Winston is going to be counting on him, and without a deep receiving corps he’ll be counting on him early and often in the season.

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