Saints’ WR Michael Thomas, who underwent off-season foot surgery, is expected to land on PUP, which will sideline him the first six weeks, per sources. Being that the Saints have an early bye, placing Thomas on PUP would sideline him for at least the first five games.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 31, 2021
The way the Saints ran their offense with Drew Brees behind center led to Thomas developing a reputation for producing on only underneath routes, specifically slants. And Thomas has dominated that route since entering the league. His 100 slant receptions since 2016 are over 30 more than any other wide receiver. That’s what happens when one of the best underneath separators in the NFL is paired with the league’s most accurate quarterback.
However, Thomas has also shown he’s more than a one-trick pony. He was the most valuable wide receiver in the NFL across his first four seasons, according to PFF’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric. Thomas, Alvin Kamara and the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL were the elite returning pieces on New Orleans’ offense that gave reason for optimism, even amid the uncertainty at quarterback and depth concerns behind Thomas at wide receiver.
Thomas was in line for a massive 2021 season. He had generated the highest expected yards per route run mark of any wide receiver in the NFL in his limited action last season, and his target share actually went up from 19% with Brees at quarterback to 32% with any other signal-caller over the past two seasons. With few legitimate threats alongside him on the Saints’ offense, he was set to see massive volume.
Thomas’ current status means that volume will now need to be divided elsewhere.
The salary cap gymnastics that New Orleans navigated this offseason left much of the team’s high-end talent in place. It left its biggest toll on the Saints’ depth, including at wide receiver, where the team parted ways with Emmanuel Sanders to save cap space.
Tre’Quan Smith, a third-round pick out of UCF in 2018, will be asked to step up as the team’s top target with Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris likely seeing increased opportunities, as well. Those three have combined for 127 receptions and 1,532 receiving yards over the past three seasons — totals that Thomas cleared in 2019 alone. It’s arguably the worst receiving corps in the NFL without Thomas and a steep step down from the Mike Evans–Chris Godwin–Breshad Perriman group that Jameis Winston worked with while starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019.
Kamara will likely be asked to take on a larger receiving role because of some of those questions at the wide receiver position. His yards per route run mark increased from 1.51 in weeks that Thomas missed last season to 2.65 in weeks in which he played.
The Saints ranked 28th in PFF’s preseason receiving corps rankings, and that was before the Thomas injury news. Any missed time from Thomas pushes them closer to the bottom of that list, only making it more difficult to compete with the Buccaneers in the NFC South.