Fantasy News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: What should we expect from Michael Thomas in the post-Brees era?

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

No proven alpha No. 1 WR has faced more consistent social media scrutiny than Michael Thomas in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, Thomas has brought some of this on himself by 1.) randomly stirring the pot with others on Twitter, 2.) not exactly shining at his brightest in recent playoff performances, and 3.) missing a game after becoming yet another WR to punch Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Still, the general slander for a player who has already accomplished so much in just five seasons of action is a bit alarming.

I won’t argue with anyone who doesn’t want to place Thomas among the NFL’s top-five real life or fantasy WRs, but he fully deserves to be in the conversation. Writing off the NFL’s single-season record holder for most receptions after one injury-riddled season that (again) included plenty of time with a backup QB under center seems unwise.

What follows is a breakdown of how special Thomas has been during his early career and what we should make of his fantasy football stock entering 2021.

The slant-boy slander is overblown

Many are quick to criticize Thomas due to the reality that he’s been borderline unstoppable running slants over the years. The ridiculousness of hating on a player for being too dominant on a single play is just absurd to me — I’ve never heard anybody say Steph Curry should start shooting fewer three-pointers.

PFF is cool enough to provide per-route data from every play of every game. We can use this to identify just how productive Thomas has been when running a variety of routes:

  • Slant route: 6.44 yards per route run (No. 1 out of 145 qualified WRs)
  • Comeback and hitch: 3.64 YPRR (No. 2 out of 126)
  • In, post and crossing routes: 4.59 YPRR (No. 6 out of 150)
  • Out and corner routes: 1.42 YPRR (No. 41 out of 130)
  • Go, wheel, fades and general deep routes: 3.24 YPRR (No. 24 out of 98)
  • Screen: 0.67 YPRR (No. 88 out of 116)

Thomas has certainly been the master of the slant, and he also finds himself near the top of the leaderboard in different routes, too! Before you freak out about the screens: guys including Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper and Allen Robinson II were all even less efficient than Thomas. Randos such as Jakeem Grant, Josh Huff and Adam Humphries are at the top — it makes sense that guys who don’t attract as much attention from the defense have had more success on screens over the years.

Otherwise, it’s pretty clear that Thomas has largely had his way with defenses regardless of what route he’s asked to run. The Saints have certainly placed a larger emphasis on in-breaking routes, and why shouldn’t they? It’s literally what Thomas does best; I don’t know why this needs to be seen as some sort of negative. The same kind of people who want Thomas to run a more complex route tree are the type to complain in an MMA match when the superior grappler stays in their comfort zone and coasts to victory on the ground.

Thomas’ manner of picking up boatloads of yards might not be as entertaining as some other WRs, but this doesn’t make the production any less impressive or meaningful.

And to be clear, one last time: Thomas is perfectly capable of defeating cornerbacks of all shapes and sizes on more than just slants.

Thomas has ripped off 92 receptions-1137 yards-9 TD, 104-1245-5, 125-1405-9 and 149-1725-9 receiving lines in his four fully healthy seasons. Madness. And while last season obviously didn’t go the way he hoped, he wasn’t exactly set up for success considering that he was not only playing through a myriad of lower-body injuries the entire season but that the Saints also had either noodle-armed, 41-year-old QB Drew Brees or Taysom “Steve Young” Hill under center.

I’m not here to hate on Brees. The future Hall of Famer operated at an incredibly high level throughout the majority of Thomas’ career. With that said, Jameis Winston is as good a bet as any QB to help lead Thomas’ 2021 comeback szn.

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Jameis is anyone’s idea of a fantasy-friendly QB

The jury is resoundingly still out on whether or not Winston can resemble the sort of elite talent that most hoped he’d become when the Buccaneers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. However, nobody should doubt his ability to enable high-end fantasy WRs at this point. Overall, Winston produced seven top-24 PPR WRs while starting 70 of a potential 80 games from 2015-2019:

Since 2015, the only QBs to feed a single WR at least 170 targets in a season have been Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brees and Winston. The likes of DeAndre Hopkins (2015, 2017) and Demaryius Thomas (2015) also reached this threshold but did so with a collection of (largely bad) signal-callers under center.

Winston’s willingness to zero in on his top pass-catcher with rather reckless abandon hasn’t produced a ton of real-life success to this point in terms of wins and losses, though it has been great for the fantasy business of his top WRs.

We should also note that Thomas is far from a stranger when it comes to thriving with a different QB than Brees. The Saints were forced to go with Teddy Bridgewater or Hill under center on 10 separate occasions over the past two seasons, and Thomas largely balled out on every occasion:

  • Week 2, 2019: 10 receptions-89 yards-0 TD, PPR WR12
  • Week 3, 2019: 5-54-1, WR22
  • Week 4, 2019: 9-95-0, WR12
  • Week 5, 2019: 11-182-2, WR2
  • Week 6, 2019: 8-89-0, WR15
  • Week 7, 2019: 9-131-0, WR5
  • Week 11, 2020: 9-104-0, WR13
  • Week 12, 2020: 4-50-0, WR45
  • Week 13, 2020: 9-105-0, WR16
  • Week 14, 2020: 8-84-0, WR13

Even the worst performance in Week 12 last season is fairly excusable; that was the messed up Kendall Hinton game where the Saints only needed to throw the ball 16 times in order to coast to a 31-3 victory. The 2020 campaign marked the first time we saw anything resembling a floor from Thomas, and even then, it wasn’t as bad as many made it out to be due to both his aforementioned injuries and issues under center.

Add it all together and …

There aren’t many WRs with a higher target ceiling than Thomas

The Saints basically declined to bring in any sort of replacement for Emmanuel Sanders, meaning that Thomas’ only real competition for targets is RB Alvin Kamara. I’m confident Thomas works as the clear-cut No. 1 pass-game option ahead of Kamara because 1.) that’s the way this offense has done things in the past, 2.) Winston historically boasts one of the highest average target depths in the league, and 3.) Hill’s dual-threat nature leads to more scrambles than checkdowns.

Tre’Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris are fine, but Thomas finds himself as one of the very few WRs who could realistically have a target total starting with a two next season. This sort of volume alone can’t be ignored in fantasy land.

Thomas presently has an Underdog Fantasy and Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of WR9. He’s my WR6 ahead of guys like D.K. Metcalf and Keenan Allen, thanks in large part to his potential to lead the NFL in targets with a true gunslinger under center. I’m not completely freaking out; Thomas is in my “overall WR1 outcome still a possibility” Tier 2 with Metcalf and Allen instead of Tier 1 alongside Davante Adams, A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins.

Many refuted the idea that Thomas was the NFL’s single best WR following his record-breaking 2019 campaign. Fine, but he’s still been anybody’s idea of an alpha WR1 since entering the league, and 2021 might just present the most fantasy-friendly volume of his career. Let the haters make their “slant boy” jokes while you draft the WR3 in PPR points per game since 2016 at a steep discount.

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