In 2019, Michael Thomas produced one of the greatest seasons an NFL wide receiver has ever had... ever. He set an NFL record with 149 receptions (on 185 targets!), and totaled 1,725 yards and 9 touchdowns. This followed a 2018 season in which we racked up 125 receptions and 1,405 yards, to go with an identical 9 TD. All told, over his first four seasons, Thomas averaged 118 receptions, 1,378 yards, and 8 TD.
He was named to the Pro Bowl in three of those seasons (robbed as a rookie), received two First-Team All Pro nods, earned the distinction of 2019 Offensive Player of the Year, and was generally recognized as one of the best receivers in the game. Not bad for a second-round draft pick.
Thomas was so elite, and put up such gaudy stats, that people such as myself recognized him as a potential first pick candidate in fantasy football drafts. Not first WR. First overall. And a few years ago, any WR going first overall would have borderline heresy in the fantasy world. But Thomas was that good. In fact, his 2019 season was the sixth-best fantasy season ever (modern era, excluding Jerry Rice) for a player at his position, and the best by a WR since 2015. Only three players were listed above him: Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, and Antonio Brown.
Unfortunately, his impressive run came do a dead stop after that 2019 season, and now both fans and fantasy players are left wondering whether or not Can’t Guard Mike will ever return.
The former Buckeye suffered an ankle injury during Week 1 of the 2020 season, causing him to miss six games. When he did re-enter the lineup, Thomas lacked explosion and his signature ability to separate from defensive backs. He did not appear 100 percent healthy, but gutted through it anyway. He played six more games before eventually re-aggravating his injury, and was ruled out for the remainder of the season. His totals for the partial season were 40 receptions, 438 yards, and ZERO TD. In addition to playing through injury, Thomas was also catching balls from the corpse of Drew Brees’ right arm, which did not help matters.
Thomas’ ankle injury lingered into the offseason, and in June of 2021 he opted for surgery to address the issue. Multiple ligaments were repaired, and although expected back at some point, he ended up missing the entirety of the 2021 season. It was suggested that Thomas delayed surgery, putting his own season in jeopardy due to a spat with the New Orleans Saints, but the star receiver quickly shot that down as silly speculation. Regardless of why the surgery occurred when it did, he is still working his way back to full health.
Mike Thomas’ latest post on IG pic.twitter.com/hhAP3kF2yn— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) June 7, 2022
The good news is, Thomas seems to be on the right path. The Saints drafted fellow Buckeye Chris Olave and signed Jarvis Landry to give themselves a bit of insurance against their NFL record-breaker missing additional time, but the team would surely love nothing more than to have their alpha receiver on the field at full health. The same goes for fantasy football players. Because at his peak, Thomas is an unassailable WR1 option. The question now becomes: will he reach, or even approach his peak ever again? I, for one, believe in the latter.
New Orleans now has more WR talent than in years past, which might seem counterintuitive to Thomas putting up great stats once again. But what if the presence of Olave and Landry just makes his life easier? Thomas was catching 125+ balls from Brees despite being the only WR opposing defenses cared about. From 2017 to 2019 – when Thomas was producing at the highest level imaginable – the Saints’ No. 2 receiving options (excluding Kamara) were Ted Ginn Jr., Tre’Quan Smith, and Ginn Jr. again. The team tried with Emmanuel Sanders in 2020, but obviously he and Thomas were unable to spend much time together.
Can’t Guard Mike should, in theory, see far less double coverage, making his life easier. 150+ targets may or may not be there, but I would venture a guess that he will find himself increasingly open with increased regularity.
Jameis Winston, the Saints’ presumed starting quarterback, should also play a role in Thomas returning to fantasy football prominence. The former Heisman Trophy winner has had his ups and downs as a professional, but he possesses a big arm and loves to throw the ball around. His predecessor (Brees) was highly risk-averse, and lacked serious arm strength late in his career. As a result, Thomas was forced to make a killing underneath. It certainly worked for both he and the team, but the wideout averaged a career-low 11 yards per reception in 2020. Winston will likely take more chances, and look to push the ball to Thomas downfield. The QB has also shown an ability to keep multiple mouths fed, as he did in Tampa Bay with Evans and Chris Godwin.
Where I believe there is real upside with Thomas is in the scoring department. For everything that he does offer, he has surprisingly never put up double-digit TD in a single season. I would consider this an outlier, especially when looking at a few of his contemporaries: DaVante Adams, Mike Evans, and DeAndre Hopkins are all in the same age range, and they each have multiple 10+ TD seasons under their belt. Thomas’ career high of 9 TD would have barely put him inside the top-10 last year, so if he ends up with something like 12 TD, you would gladly take that to go along with a pedestrian (for him) 90-100 receptions and 1,200-1,300 yards. A 90/1,200/12 stat line would have Thomas knocking on the door of top-5 fantasy WR production, if you like that sort of thing.
Currently, Thomas’ ADP is right around 70, and FantasyPros has him as the consensus No. 30 WR. If you agree with their consensus, then you likely don’t believe in a return to form. Because a healthy Michael Thomas is still a top-10 WR. I am personally willing to gamble on his upside, and I would target him among the top-20 at his position, knowing there is inherent risk. If you are bold, move Thomas up in your rankings. Take a big swing on a big-time player. Otherwise, be patient and try not to let your OSU fandom influence your strategy too much. I will be somewhere in the middle, looking for the right time to strike.