Editor’s note: This article was written before it was reported on Friday, July 23 that Michael Thomas would miss the start of the 2021 season.
Michael Thomas had a rough 2020 season for the New Orleans Saints… to say the least. Nagging injuries rendered him less than 100 percent for most, if not all, of the year. When he and Drew Brees were on the field together, they simply did not have the same chemistry we had grown accustomed to seeing — likely a result of both of their injuries. There were even rumors of friction between Thomas and teammates/coaches/ownership. Thomas has always played with a chip on his shoulder, but the infighting with his own organization caught many by surprise. All of these factors had an impact on Thomas’ play and production, and 2020 essentially became a wasted season for the former Buckeye. He had only 40 receptions, for 438 yards, and zero touchdowns. “Can’t Guard Mike” might as well have gone by “Can’t Produce Mike”.
Fantasy football owners (myself included) would have taken Thomas with a high draft pick. While running backs are traditionally first off the board, he became a first round lock in recent years — especially in PPR leagues. We all watched on with frustration as Thomas struggled to stay healthy and put up numbers, and you were lucky if you could find a trade just a few weeks into the season. If you kept him on the roster hoping for a late-season resurgence, well… sorry about your luck. The good news is, “Can’t Guard Mike” will be back. With a new quarterback in New Orleans, the catch volume might change, but the overall production should rebound to where it was during the wide receiver’s first four seasons.
Michael Thomas is just too good for a repeat of 2020 (injuries aside). His name is all over NFL record books for single-season receiving totals — as well as totals accumulated through the first five years of a career. I won’t bore you with all of those totals, but averages for his first four seasons are absurd. These numbers include his rookie season, which would be a career-best for most NFL wide receivers. From 2016-2019, he averaged 118 catches, 1,378 yards, and 8 TD per season. Thomas would have to keep up similar production for many years to catch Jerry Rice, but through those four seasons, one could have made the argument that he was on his way to becoming the most productive wide receiver in NFL history. Should one injury-marred season cast doubt on his fantasy football potential? Absolutely not.
As the Saints' unquestioned WR1, @kyletweetshere says there's no reason Michael Thomas can't excel with Jameis Winston under center.— NBC Sports EDGE (@NBCSportsEdge) July 15, 2021
Full Saints fantasy preview: https://t.co/1ecE0oCga3 pic.twitter.com/xCKsEd6oMn
The Saints will have a new quarterback, and the two potential starters could not combine to make a QB as prolific as Drew Brees. Taysom Hill is a tight end disguised as a quarterback, and he is not accurate with the deep ball. Jamison Winston is not accurate with any ball, but has proven capable of putting up yards and points (for both teams on the field). Thomas can be productive with either player under center. He and Hill played parts of five games together in 2020, and the numbers were not great. The duo hooked up on 23 passes, totaling 249 yards. Less than ideal, but Thomas was targeted 36 times — far more than any other receiver on the Saints during that time. Health was obviously a factor, so who knows what the two are capable of. The numbers at least tell you that Thomas was a security blanket for Hill, and they should have a solid rapport due to the fact that they have played four seasons together.
Jamison Winston is a wildcard — for New Orleans, as well as fantasy football players. He will enter his second season with the Saints having learned the playbook and personnel at his disposal. That playbook could change, shifting more towards Winston’s strengths. He is aggressive to a fault. His aggression leads to copious amounts of turnovers, but it also leads to a lot of points. The former Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback loves to throw downfield, which could actually benefit Thomas as a wide receiver. Drew Brees lost arm strength over time, and became reliant on his superb accuracy. While he was able to throw into tight windows and lead Thomas into the open field, the deep ball became less of a threat. Thomas can go up and make contested catches. He is strong, with solid enough leaping ability, and great hands. Mike Evans thrived with Winston at quarterback, so Thomas could do the same. Evans has the edge when it comes to jump balls, but Thomas is the more skilled and complete receiver. It should be noted that Winston’s last season as a starter resulted in 5,100 yards and 33 touchdowns. There were also 30 interceptions, but those do not affect the fantasy production of his wide receivers.
All told, Thomas has managed to stay very productive in Brees’ absence. In 10 career games without the retired quarterback, he has totaled 77 receptions for 923 yards. Extrapolated over 16 games, that amounts to 123 receptions for nearly 1,500 yards — right in line with a typical Thomas season. Small sample size? Sure… but it goes to show that the former second round pick can prop up just about any quarterback when healthy.
Currently, Thomas can be found somewhere in the 5-10 range of fantasy wide receiver rankings. Some outlets even have him outside the top-10. This for a player who has regularly finished in the top-5 of scoring at his position. Each of the last two seasons, he was often pegged as WR1. There is little reason to doubt his ability to vault back into the top-5, especially in a revamped offense. Drew Brees was a shell of his former self in 2020, particularly in the arm strength department. Thomas became the King of Slants going back a few years now, but in 2021, he should have the freedom to expand his usual route tree.
If Taysom Hill gets the nod at quarterback, I would expect Thomas’ numbers to suffer slightly. Even at 80 percent of his 2016-2019 production, fantasy owners would be looking at 94 catches, over 1,100 yards, and roughly seven touchdowns. In full-PPR formats, that would have placed him on the cusp of the top-10; in Mike Evans territory. Speaking of Evans: when he played with Winston in 2019, he totaled over 1,150 yards and eight touchdowns (in only 13 games) — basically a Michael Thomas-esque season, at least when it comes to yardage and touchdowns. However, he only caught 67 of 118 targets. Thomas has always maintained a much higher catch rate than 57 percent (Evans, 2019). If Winston wins the starting job in New Orleans (which I expect him to do), Thomas could be in line for a monster season. 90 catches, 1,400 yards, and 10 touchdowns sounds pretty good to me. If fantasy owners jump the line on those who are down on “Can’t Guard Mike” after one injury-riddled season, they could be rewarded with another WR1 performance.