Welcome to Part 9 of our look at Ohio State's 2016 NFL Draft prospects. All of our previous Buckeyes' breakdowns can be found here.
A relatively unheralded recruit out of Woodland Hill, California, three-star Michael Thomas was more known for being former number one overall pick Keyshawn Johnson's nephew than he was for producing on the football field. Things changed when Thomas chose to take his talents to Columbus.
If it were only that easy. Thomas joined former Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy in the fall of 2011 prior to joining the Buckeyes, and even upon getting to Columbus, Thomas failed to make much of an impact outside of April. April? Yes, April, AKA when Ohio State has always held their spring game, and coincidentally this seemed to be the time that Thomas decided to really get down to business.
12 catches in the 2012 spring game was followed by seven more receptions and a touchdown in 2013, and collectively Buckeyes fans everywhere were forced to take notice of the athletic 6'3, 200 pound wide receiver. But this was all it was: taking notice. With just three catches to his name prior to the 2014 season, it was time for Thomas to become more than just a spring game hero.
While there were many memorable Mike Thomas moments from the 2014 season (one particular leaping catch which will be touched on later), it was one catch against Maryland that truly cemented Thomas' status as a freak wide receiver worth watching.
The hands, body control, and physicality are all on display during this unreal catch, and despite being surrounded by future NFL receivers Evan Spencer, Devin Smith and Jalin Marshall, it was Thomas who was the Buckeyes' leading receiver at the end of this championship season. 11 catches for 119 yards and one crucial touchdown combined against Alabama and Oregon later, all of a sudden everybody knew who Michael Thomas was.
But, in the off chance you didn't know who Mike Thomas was, you found out pretty quickly during Ohio State's 2015 opener at Virginia Tech.
I'm still not sure what the best part about this tweet is. If I had to rank it, I'd go:
5. Thomas' patented #shhhhhhhh hashtag
4. Thomas proclaiming that someone has to "Call God" after this play
3. Former Ohio State point guard and current Los Angeles Laker D'Angelo Russell tweeting that he taught Thomas this move
2. Thomas' ridiculous stutter step that took Jordan Fuller (one of the top corners in the country) to the ground
1. Him tweeting the hashtag #Cornerbackslivesmatter
What followed this play was a season that demonstrated the same point over and over: you can't guard Mike. Look no further than Thomas' Twitter handle to find out this sad truth, and no soul was saved over the course of the 2015-2016 season. Not even Jourdan Lewis could come away unscathed, arguably the Big Ten's best corner and hated enemy of everyone in the great state of Ohio.
While Thomas was always one to make plays in style, the quarterback carousel that was the first half of Ohio State's 2015 season prohibited Thomas from truly capitalizing on the stat sheet.
Not that these numbers are anything to be ashamed of, but for a wide receiver who is widely considered near the top of his class, it may be a bit surprising to not see more domination on the stat sheet. So what is it that makes Thomas such a heralded wide receiver prospect? Let's find out.
Strengths: Route running, hands, run after catch
Watch any game of Mike Thomas' career and there are three quick traits you'll notice. Thomas runs great routes and really puts a lot of work into this important detail. Thomas rarely drops a pass (only five in 2014 and 2015), and Thomas regularly makes the first man miss after a catch. Thus, what better play to breakdown than one that exhibits all three of these great qualities?
Ohio State is driving on Notre Dame and looking to capitalize in the red zone. While the offense was rightfully criticized for its lack of creativity in play calling for much of the season, it's play designs like this that show what the Ohio State offensive coaches are truly capable of.
Running back Curtis Samuel motions from the backfield to the other side of the field, seemingly setting up a screen opportunity for the Buckeyes. The real goal of Samuel motioning however was to remove the Notre Dame linebacker from Thomas' side of the field, leaving Thomas all alone, matched up one on one.
Thomas demonstrates his savvy route running here, as after a Barrett pump fake to Samuel freezes the safety in the middle of the field, Thomas creates separation with great footwork and a pretty head fake to sell the Fighting Irish corner.
Upon getting separation, J.T. Barrett puts the ball on the money and Thomas demonstrates his good habit of catching the ball with his hands away from his body. This trait is important because receivers who tend to catch the ball closer to their body are usually more prone to drops.
But Thomas isn't done. Another nifty display of footwork leaves the Notre Dame safety on the ground and gives Thomas an angle to the end-zone that he was sure to make good use of.
And make good use of it Thomas did. Sometimes we lose ourselves in a big wide receiver by simply watching highlights of them out-jumping inferior competition over and over again. Thomas is the rare breed who is able to combine his outstanding play-making ability with the preciseness of a slot receiver in terms of running his routes and making guys miss.
Weaknesses: Production, speed
As touched on before, Thomas didn't exactly have the most productive career at Ohio State. Nearly 800 yards and nine touchdowns a year are nothing to be ashamed of obviously, but for a guy who many say should be drafted in the first round, Thomas' numbers are lower than most of his peers.
Additionally, Thomas was clocked at a 4.57 40 yard dash at the combine. This time was lowered to somewhere in the 4.4 range during Ohio State's pro day -- funny how players always seem to lower their times at their pro day -- but the point remains that Thomas doesn't really possess that second gear that guys like Braxton Miller and Devin Smith have. This fact is backed up on film as Thomas was rarely used as a vertical threat to stretch defenses, and it is yet to be decided whether or not Thomas can consistently beat defenses down the field.
Best Case NFL Comparison: Keyshawn Johnson
Don't freak out. Yes, this comparison is maybe a tad forced, but when an uncle and nephew are actually similarly built wide receivers with the same style of play, the comparison needs to be made. In Johnson's 11 year NFL career he surpassed 1,000 yards four times, and was usually good for 8-10 touchdowns during his prime. Thomas won't be the number one pick like Johnson was, but with Thomas' best case scenario perhaps being an overqualified second wide receiver on a good passing offense, these types of numbers should be seen as Thomas' ceiling.
Worst Case NFL Comparison: Mike Williams
While Williams has size Thomas does not, there is a case to be made that Thomas could be a bust if he fails to be a viable vertical threat in the NFL. Williams was unbelievable in college as part of the mid 2000s USC powerhouse that ruled college football. However, Williams' NFL career lasted just five seasons, and he was consistently plagued by his inability to produce and make big plays. Even a reunion with college coach Pete Carrol in Seattle couldn't save the former first round pick.
At Ohio State Thomas was rarely used on vertical routes, mostly because the Buckeyes didn't need him to run these routes. NFL scouts have recognized this and haven't simply assumed Thomas cannot be a vertical threat, but if this turns out to be the case, it could be a quick fall for Thomas. NFL corners facing off against wide receivers without great speed or separation skills feast. Not having to worry about the guy you're guarding running straight past you must be a nice luxury for a corner, and Thomas will need to prove he can consistently create separation at an NFL level in order to not fall into the same failed career that Mike Williams did.
NFL Draft Projection: Late first round, early second
While some (most notably Matt Miller from Bleacher Report) have Thomas as the outright number one wide receiver in this class, the general consensus seems to be that Thomas will settle in as a mid 20s pick or early 30s. Every team in the NFL could use another great outside wide receiver with size, and Thomas may be the most NFL ready wide receiver of the group.
Most "Michael Thomas" Play
Big game. Great coverage. High pass. Sideline near. Did it matter? Nope, because you can't guard Mike.