Southern Miss' Michael Thomas can develop into a top NFL WR
This is a strange wide receiver class. The headline grabbers in Baylor’s Corey Coleman, TCU’s Josh Doctson and Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell all have their flaws, but if you dig a little deeper into the class, there are good No. 2-type receivers who are likely to be available on Day 2 of the draft and beyond. That’s not to say some of these sleepers can’t develop into top receivers in the NFL, however, which brings us to Southern Miss’ Michael Thomas.
We’ve heard a lot about Ohio State’s Michael Thomas as a potential late first-round draft pick, but the buzz for the Southern Miss playmaker of the same name is much less vocal, though it does exist. Owning the 11th-highest receiving grade of all receivers in this draft class, there’s a lot to like about him.
Let’s be clear though, Thomas isn’t the perfect draft prospect, and as frighteningly good as some of his traits are, there are things that would make me nervous about drafting him high in the second round if I were an NFL general manager. He dropped seven passes from 79 catchable targets this year, giving him a drop rate of 8.97 that ranked 19th-worst of the 45 receivers in this class to see at least 58 catchable passes thrown their way. Drops can be misleading — let’s not forget that Amari Cooper came out of Alabama with a safe set of hands last year and went on to lead the NFL in drops in 2015 — but in addition to a high frequency, Thomas had some really poor drops as well.
When it comes to production his 1,392 yards are impressive, but a lot of his yardage came on moments where he flashed, rather than times where he took games over. He racked up over 100 yards as a receiver on eight occasions in 2015, and in all eight of those games at least 25 percent of his yardage came on one reception. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — and it’s good that he creates big plays — but teams would prefer to see him as a bigger threat consistently, rather than once or twice per game.
While there are reservations about Thomas, it’s time to pivot to his ceiling, which is one of the highest of any receiver in this draft class. There are things he can do that hint to the possibility that he can develop into the best receiver to enter the NFL this year. He’s raw and needs work to get there, but what he does well, he does very well.
Thomas ranks near the top of multiple signature stat categories, highlighting his overall skill set amongst the other receivers in this class. WR rating tracks the NFL QB rating on passes where each receiver was targeted. With 71 catches for 1,392 yards and 14 touchdowns from 112 targets, ranking sixth in the class. Obviously the play of the quarterback comes into the equation here too, but it does give a solid basic look at his production.
Thomas was also a solid deep threat, with his 509 yards on passes traveling 20 yards or more in the air ranking seventh amongst draft eligible receivers. He was actually only targeted 30 times on deep passes, with 10 receivers seeing more looks downfield, but was one of the best in the nation when the ball was thrown his way.
Yards per route run tracks the number of yards each receiver produced with regards to the number of routes they ran. Thomas ran 467 routes in his final year at Southern Miss and racked up 2.98 yards per route run — the fifth-highest mark in this class. On a per-route basis, Thomas was more productive than both Notre Dame’s Will Fuller and Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, both who will potentially be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.
Thomas can make plenty happen after the catch too, forcing nine missed tackles from 71 receptions and averaging 7.1 yards after the catch per reception. Yards after the catch are often impacted by the type of coverage a receiver faces, along with defensive backs taking bad angles. While that is true, you can see from this play against Washington in Southern Miss’ bowl game that Thomas also displays a good burst to create big plays after the catch.
Thomas has the ability to go up and bring the ball down, with numerous circus catches throughout 2015. Not all receivers can make these type of catches so routinely, with only a few receivers in the NFL being able to do so. Being able to increase his catch radius gives an added layer to what Thomas is able to do, as well as adding some wow factor to his film.
While Thomas is raw and not without his flaws, it’s madness to expect a receiver to come into the NFL polished given how open college offenses are these days. When a player like Amari Cooper comes into NFL looking like a complete prospect and has to adjust, that much should be obvious. But if a team can get past the rawness of Thomas, there’s a very good receiver who could prove to be the jewel of this draft class if he develops correctly.