How Michael Thomas went from second-rounder to star

The New Orleans receiver had an eye-popping rookie year. Analyst Mike Renner looks at what went right for the Ohio State product.

| 4 months ago
Saints WR Mike Thomas

(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

How Michael Thomas went from second-rounder to star

[Pro Football Focus recently identified Saints WR Michael Thomas as the No. 93 player overall in the 2016 NFL season. To see the full list featuring the 101 best players of the season, click here.]

Five receivers came off the board in the 2016 NFL Draft before Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas had his name called. An early entry into the draft, Thomas didn’t blow up the combine or have eye-popping stats. When Thomas was eventually selected, few called it a steal and even fewer called it a reach. The middle of the second was generally agreed upon as perfect value for a guy with Thomas’ résumé.

After only one season, that consensus has changed. Leading all rookies in yards, catches, touchdowns and broken tackles tends to do that. Not only did Thomas establish himself as the top rookie wide receiver in the NFL, but he also took over as Drew Brees’ go-to receiver by the end of the season. Thomas’ 119 targets were six more than former first-round pick Brandin Cooks and the rookie caught 77.3 percent of his targets compared to 63.6 percent for Cooks.

The question then becomes, how did a receiver who ran a pedestrian 4.57, 40-yard dash at the combine and didn’t top 800 yards in any season at Ohio State establish himself an overnight success in the NFL? The answer is that New Orleans recognized the rookie’s strengths and played to them. What he may lack in long speed, Thomas makes up for in suddenness. And at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Thomas is already one of the most physically imposing receivers in the NFL. Those two attributes combine to make him a weapon on quick underneath routes and a consistent chain-mover.

Route Targets
Hitch 33
Slant 31
Crosser 15
Back Shoulder 11
In 8
Go 7
Screen 5
Out 4
Post 2
Fade 2
Corner 1

(Harry How/Getty Images)

As you can see, more than half of his targets came on either hitches or slants, a ridiculous rate. For the average NFL wide receiver those two routes account for only 29.2 percent of their targets. It’s one thing to run those routes at a high rate, but another altogether to be as efficient on them as Thomas was. He averaged 8.0 yards per target on hitches (NFL average is 7.0) and 7.5 on slants (NFL average is 7.4).

Even though Thomas has only 16 games to his name in the NFL, it’s become abundantly clear that the Saints found themselves a No. 1 receiver. Not only is he talented, but Thomas also fits seamlessly into New Orleans timing passing offense. It’s a perfect combination, and made Thomas one of seven rookies in PFF’s top 101 for 2016.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I have to believe that most 2nd round WRs would stand an excellent chance of succeeding in an offense driven by Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. A receiver who cant make an impact in those systems probably isn’t going to be much of a force in less passer oriented schemes.

    • Nick Cortez

      That seems reasonable, except that the Saints notoriously spread the ball around. That makes the ceiling on any receiver in that system lower than in other systems. This implies to me that not only did the Saints use Thomas for his strengths, the other receivers in this past class did not develop into #1s in their system in year 1.

      • crosseyedlemon

        I’m not trying to put a knock on Thomas but simply pointing out that he landed in a situation that most other WRs entering the draft dream about. Now that the cat is out of the bag so to speak it will be interesting to see what adjustments opponents make to defense him next season.

        • Nick Cortez

          I agree with that. His route tree was not very developed last season. That said, he worked his 3 routes pretty well. If he can add 2 more, he will be an excellent red zone threat on top of quick-intermediate game target.

        • Nick Cortez

          Completely agree.

      • rictus hood

        yeah but the saints spread the ball because brees can do that, 70% of other teams thomas would be the only guy getting targeted. The thing is brees elevates receivers. So i agree, it’s hard to tell where thomas would be else where but, he is top tier talent. he’d be elevating a QB on pretty much any other team.

        • Nick Cortez

          I agree with you. Thomas could help in many places, but can he develop his route tree some more. He produced on a limited number of routes and used breaking tackles of smaller CBs to provide value. Very Anquann Boldenish.

  • Malachi

    defenders should probably start just jamming him off the line with inside leverage all day long, taking the slant and crosser away while disrupting the hitch

    • crosseyedlemon

      Or they could just take a page from the Saints playbook from a few years ago and put a bounty on him.

      • Malachi

        Kill the head and the body will die, lol

    • Marcus Hunter

      Teams tried that. They did play Seattle didn’t they. And they saw that, not only Thomas, but Saints other receivers were strong and aggressive at the line. Dudes no pushover. In fact if you recall, Seattle complained afterward about the receivers aggressively attacking. Lol, mad cause they got beat at their own game.

      • Malachi

        seattle doesn’t play inside technique too often, they’re a cover 3 shadowstep defense on the outside.

  • Franchise Punter

    “The question then becomes, how did a receiver who ran a pedestrian 4.57, 40-yard dash at the combine and didn’t top 800 yards in any season at Ohio State establish himself an overnight success in the NFL?”

    Simple answer: raw college statistics aren’t all that telling without accounting for the system they play in or their surrounding talent. Obviously he wasn’t going to post Corey Coleman-type numbers playing on a run-heavy team with Zeke Elliott, Braxton Miller, and Jalin Marshall demanding targets. I think it was a writer at FO who came up with a rough formula for looking at receiving statistics as a ratio of total team figures and adjusting for other NFL-bound players on the same team. Worth considering for future evaluation.

    Just watching him on the field in college though, he was pretty clearly an elite prospect. Great hands, natural (but not necessarily refined) route running prowess, and plenty of ability to track and high-point the ball. I can sort of understand Corey Coleman getting drafted first for his explosiveness, but it was baffling to me to see flawed prospects like Fuller, Treadwell, and Doctson get taken ahead of him.

  • rock

    Something very Anquan Boldin about this kid.

  • antispy75

    My candidate for that position this draft class is Jalen Robinette of Air Force. . .he reminds me of Demaryius Thomas. . .another imposing physical specimen that played in a run heavy offense in college. . .10.75 hands @ around 6-3, 215 sculpted lbs., no hip stiffness. . could run a sub 4.5 forty, boosting his stock further. . .could last until the third round. . .