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Buckeyes in the NFL: 2023 Fantasy Football Preview — Michael Thomas

After missing the better part of three seasons, Thomas is looking to make a triumphant return — or any return, really — and remind the NFL universe (and fantasy football players) of his greatness.

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, Michael Thomas produced one of the greatest individual seasons in NFL history. 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 nine TD.

All told, over his first four seasons, Thomas averaged 118 receptions, 1,378 yards, and eight 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 players in the game. Not bad for a second-round draft pick.

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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 been borderline heresy in the fantasy world. But Thomas was that good. In fact, his 2019 season was the seventh-best fantasy season ever (modern era, excluding Jerry Rice) for a player at his position.

Unfortunately, Thomas’ 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 a nasty ankle injury during Week 1 of the 2020 season, causing him to miss six games. When he did re-enter the lineup roughly two months later, Thomas lacked explosion and his signature ability to separate from defensive backs. He did not appear close to 100 percent healthy, but gutted through it anyway. He played six more games before eventually re-aggravating his injury and missing the remainder of the season.

His totals for the partial season were 40 receptions, 438 yards, and ZERO TD (in 7 games). In addition to playing through injury, Thomas was also catching balls from the corpse of Drew Brees’ right arm, which certainly 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 both player and team 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.

2022 brought about new optimism, as Thomas was temporarily healthy entering the season. He scored three touchdowns in the Saints’ first two games, and all of a sudden, Can’t Guard Mike was back, baby! Unfortunately, CGM’s renaissance lasted less than three full weeks. He suffered a toe injury during Week 3, and was expected to miss a few weeks.

But the issue lingered, and then there was a complication, which ultimately resulted in Thomas being shut down mid-season.

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Adding it all up, Thomas has appeared in just 10 games (8 starts) since the end of the 2019 season... 10. And rarely during any of those games has he resembled the dominant player fans and fantasy owners became familiar with. Even when he was finding the endzone last season, he was essentially just a short yardage specialist. Like the WR version of new teammate Jamaal Williams.

In three games (2022), Thomas reeled in 16 catches for 171 yards — barely 10 yards per catch. And of those 171 yards, only 21 came after the catch! That’s an average of 1.3 YAC, which is basically just catching the ball and falling down. While Thomas was never the fastest guy in the world or a YAC superstar – even at his peak – 1.3 YAC might as well be 0.0 for a WR. He was a stationary target out there, as opposed to Jaylen Waddle and/or A.J. Brown, both of whom averaged over 6.2 YAC.

So what should fans and fantasy owners expect from Thomas moving forward? Eh, not much, in my humble opinion. And it pains me to say that because peak Thomas was incredibly fun to root for. Even more so when you think about the football journey he took to super stardom: Redshirted as a healthy sophomore at Ohio State, second-round NFL Draft pick, and so on. But the reality is, he is now 30 years old and has not played a solid month of football since the Trump administration.

Now, can Thomas give his actual team as well as fantasy owners something? Sure, I think so. But expectations should definitely be low(ered). Because health issues, which are very real and a total bummer, are just a small piece of the puzzle. When it comes to fantasy football in particular, Thomas has many (other) obstacles standing in his way.

First and foremost if the fact that this former Offensive Player of the Year is no longer his team’s No. 1 pass-catching option. Fellow Buckeye Chris Olave inherited that crown last year, and I would be shocked if he gave it up anytime soon. The latter nearly matched Thomas’ rookie season output (at least in terms of yardage), and did so with a combination of Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton throwing him passes!

Now that Derek Carr is the Saints’ QB, I would expect Olave to put up bigger and better numbers while still maintaining something similar to his 2022 target share.

Another factor that should be taken into account by those looking to potentially draft Thomas is the undeniable truth that New Orleans has a larger, deeper core of skill players than they did when Thomas was breaking NFL records. Are said players Hall of Famers? No. But they do exist and they will get touches.

In addition to Olave, the Saints can and will get the ball to Alvin Kamara, Jamaal Williams, Taysom Hill, Rashid Shaheed, and Juwan Johnson, just to name a few. The same core in 2019 was comprised of guys like Ted Ginn Jr., Tre’Quan Smith, Jared Cook, and Latavius Murray... Not the fiercest competition Thomas could have faced for targets and touches.

And finally, let’s just acknowledge that David Carr is not peak Drew Brees. The former is a fine QB, but the latter is/was the most accurate passer in NFL history. Not to mention the league’s second most prolific passer in terms of yardage. Carr will likely produce and be just fine for the Saints, but we should not expect Brees (and Sean Payton) numbers. The former Raider has typically been good at feeding one mouth (WR), and Olave is likely to be that one in New Orleans.

If fantasy owners are still willing to gamble on Thomas, I do believe there is some upside in the scoring department. Which sounds strange, given that he has never put up double-digit TD in a single season. I would consider this stat 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 eight TD would have barely put him inside the top-10 last year. But when given opportunities, he has always been reliable in the red zone. Last season was a small but perfect example: Three TD in Weeks 1 and 2. Carr is also used to targeting Darren Waller and/or Adams thanks to his time spent in Oakland and Las Vegas, and Thomas is at least somewhat comparable to both in terms of size, strength, and ability to make contested catches.

According to most outlets, Thomas’ current ADP is outside the top 100. And honestly, I find it hard to disagree with any of those rankings. I will only be targeting Can’t Guard Mike late, if I target him at all. There is just too much risk associated with drafting the former Buckeye, and I would rather roll the dice on a ‘lottery ticket’. Maybe I find the next Cooper Kupp? But if you are bold and decide to move Thomas up in your own personal rankings, well then I guess there are worse strategies than taking a big swing on a big-time player. At least you have proof of concept.

Regardless of whether or not Thomas ends up on one of my teams, I will still (and always) be rooting for him. Here’s hoping he proves me and the other doubters wrong, and enjoys a prosperous and productive 2023 season.