Saints star wide receiver Michael Thomas is expected to miss the start of the 2021 NFL season, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Thomas reportedly had surgery in June to repair ligaments in his ankle, which typically takes four months of recovery.
It's obviously a bummer for a player who also missed time last season. He'll be sidelined through training camp and the first few weeks of the regular season. Depending on his recovery, he could miss the entire first half. The Saints have a bye in Week 6, so Week 7 might be his most realistic return to action.
Let's dive into where this leaves Thomas in 2021 fantasy football drafts, along with the ripple effect for other Saints players.
Where to Draft Thomas
Thomas was the ninth wide receiver going off draft boards this summer just one season removed from finishing as the WR1 in 2019 and breaking the all-time record for receptions in a season. Thomas missed both the first half of the 2020 season as well as the last three weeks. He finished as a top-24 fantasy wide receiver in three of his last four starts.
Thomas was expected to rebound well despite the Saints losing quarterback Drew Brees to retirement. The Saints don’t have many other receiving options, but we have to wonder if Thomas will be the same player after the injuries. Those concerns will be amplified after this surgery. Once he is able to play, it might take him a few weeks before he can be a fantasy starter again, similar to the 2020 season.
Our projections slot Thomas at 50th at the position in fantasy points in 2021. He'll end up going a little higher in fantasy drafts because of his upside when healthy. He should end up around the 40th-45th wide receiver off the board.
Saints Other Receivers
Saints wide receivers were already an area of concern before this news. Emmanuel Sanders was the only New Orleans wide receiver last season to crack 600 receiving yards, but he moved on to Buffalo.
The most experienced receiver on the depth chart is Tre’Quan Smith, who has totaled 85 catches for 1,219 yards over the last three seasons. He has yet to finish a season above a 70.0 PFF grade but will likely be one of the team's starters.
Deonte Harris will become a popular late-round fantasy option after showing promise last year. The 2019 undrafted rookie out of Assumption University caught 28 of 33 targets last season for 268 yards and a touchdown. That includes a seven-catch 83-yard playoff performance against the Bears. He beat out Thomas as the Saints' leader in yards per route run among wide receivers at 1.94.
NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reports the Saints have been looking at free agent wide receivers and will work out a few soon. There are plenty of bigger names available, but Harris and Smith should maintain a role regardless of whom the Saints sign.
Among the veteran WRs available on the free agent market: Alshon Jeffery, Golden Tate, Kenny Stills, Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant, Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook, Danny Amendola, Tavon Austin, Seth Roberts
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) July 23, 2021
Opportunity for TE Adam Trautman?
Tight end Adam Trautman figures to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Thomas’ absence considering he was already in line to seize a sizable target share after the team moved on from Jared Cook this offseason. As a rookie, Trautman led all tight ends in catch rate (94%) and ranked third in yards after the catch per reception (7.7). He also finished as PFF’s No. 1-graded run-blocker (86.9), suggesting he possesses an every-down skill set at the position.
Adam Trautman breakout incoming ???? pic.twitter.com/hP2d1tGun7
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) July 23, 2021
The offense will have no choice but to look to Trautman after losing so many contributors from last season, especially in the red zone. Cook led the team in end-zone targets the past two seasons.
Trautman and Jameis Winston should have a chance to build a strong connection in the red zone, as the polarizing passer has found success targeting his big-bodied tight ends in potential scoring situations. Since 2015, Winston has 32 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions when targeting tight ends in the red zone.
The Saints were already likely to rely more on the run game with the change at quarterback. During last year’s quarterback carousel, they leaned more on the run (fifth in neutral game script run rate at 47%). But the Thomas injury makes those odds even higher.
Alvin Kamara scored the most fantasy points last season in both PPR and non-PPR settings. He was a top-10 fantasy back in non-PPR in 12 of his 16 games. Kamara was already the third player off the draft board in most drafts, and it's reasonable to consider moving him ahead of Dalvin Cook now.
Latavius Murray was a sleeper RB before this news and could benefit even more from Thomas’ injury. Murray is the second-most proven player among the team's skill players, and the Saints will need to find a way to get both him and Kamara the football more. The Browns have shown that it’s possible to utilize two running backs who are both viable fantasy options every week. The Saints should be able to do the same as long as Thomas is out.
The Saints will use a variety of players to replace Thomas during the early part of the 2021 NFL season. Murray and Trautman should see notable ADP bumps from this news, and the remaining Saints receivers will be popular late-round picks.