Michael Thomas to the Saints – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

There are few landing spots for a rookie wide receiver that seem better than the New Orleans Saints. The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees has led the Saints to finish as a top-5 passing offense every year dating back to 2008. THE Michael Thomas will enter an offense predicated on passing the ball much more than what he was accustomed to at THE Ohio State. How will that bode for the Saints and Michael Thomas?

The Good

Standing 6 feet 3 inches and 212 pounds, Michael Thomas is one of the more physically imposing WRs in the 2016 draft. According to Player Profiler, his SPARQ score places him in the 75th-percentile athletically for WRs. A further look at MockDraftable compares him to WR stars such as Josh Gordon, Larry Fitzgerald, Keenan Allen and Jordan Matthews. From a physical standpoint, a big athletic WR with 10.5-inch hands seems to be just what the doctor ordered for a team whose top two WRs both measure in under six feet tall.

During the scouting process, Thomas was praised by many analysts and scouts for his route running and after catch ability. Those traits, seemingly backed up by Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception work, allowed Thomas to account for 47 percent of Ohio State’s receiving touchdowns. Numbers like that would be a welcome addition for a Saints team that lost its all-time leader in touchdown receptions in Marques Colston. Thomas also graded out positively when running routes against man, zone, press and double coverage. It will be interesting to see how those numbers translate at the NFL level.

The Bad

How Thomas fits in New Orleans and what his role and opportunity will be in the Saints’ offense is up for debate. Kevin Cole points out that Willie Snead is a valued and possibly better WR commodity that could block Thomas from the volume needed to make an immediate impact. While Marques Colston and his 67 targets are gone, it’s not a given that Thomas is a fit to replace those targets.

Based upon 2015 numbers, both Colston and Thomas excelled at running the same types of routes. Both players were successful with the curl route, but did so from different spots on the field. In 2015, over 66-percent of Colston’s targets came from the slot, a place where Thomas rarely lined up. In 711 college career snaps, Thomas lined up as the outside WR more than 94-percent of the time. Adjusting to new alignments and the intricacies of an NFL offense will be imperative towards Thomas’ success.

Fans of Thomas point to the OSU QB situation as being less than ideal. At face value that seems fair but could also leave cause for concern. From a talent perspective, it is worth noting that both Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller were drafted inside the first four rounds of the draft. I would challenge anyone to argue that Leonte Carroo played with anyone near their talents. As Jon Moore illustrated, in games versus 10 common opponents Carroo more than doubled Thomas’ production. At 23 years old that leaves me to wonder just how developed Thomas is.

The Ugly

For all of the praise heaped onto Thomas from the scouting community, history and production simply aren’t on his side. Since 2005, exactly 100 WRs have been drafted within the top two rounds of the NFL draft. Thomas ranks 89th of 100 WRs in Jon Moore’s Phenom Index and 92nd in Career MS Receiving Yards. In both cases, two of the players below him (Matt Jones and Devin Hester) primarily played different positions during their college careers. To put it bluntly, Michael Thomas’ collegiate career is among the least productive of WRs drafted within the first two rounds. From a production standpoint, Thomas falls within the bottom 17th-percentile. Listed below are all WRs drafted since 2005 with a Career MS Rec Yds less than 20-percent.

PlayerYearDraft SlotSchoolF-AgeF-MS Rec YdsPhenomCar. MS Rec Yds
Josh Gordon201239Baylor19.719.62.490.19
Brian Robiskie200936Ohio State21.127.41.720.19
Phillip Dorsett201552Miami (FL)2226.80.640.19
Cordarrelle Patterson201329Tennessee21.820.50.280.19
Chad Jackson200636Florida20.833.32.550.18
Eddie Royal200842Virginia Tech21.620.60.490.18
Anthony Gonzalez200732Ohio State22.326.30.280.18
Kelvin Benjamin201428Florida State22.923-0.710.18
Michael Thomas OSU201647Ohio State22.831.80.160.18
Roscoe Parrish200555Miami (Fla)22.524.6-0.090.16
Greg Little201159North Carolina20.631.62.650.14
Dexter Jackson200858Appalachian State21.422.80.920.14
Reggie Brown200535Georgia2428.9-1.380.14
Sinorice Moss200644Miami (FL)2223.70.340.11
Mark Bradley200539Oklahoma22.915-1.510.1
Matt Jones200521Arkansas21.70-1.54QB
Devin Hester200657Miami (FL)23.22.6-2.91DB

The two names that immediately stick out as successful are Josh Gordon and Kelvin Benjamin. It’s important to note that Gordon was three years younger coming out with a much higher Phenom Index Score and Kelvin Benjamin put up his rookie numbers inefficiently on 146 targets.  It is impossible to turn back time and doubtful Thomas sees Benjamin’s workload. The rest of the players on that chart are rather uninspiring.

While the list above doesn’t look good for the future, I decided to go to the Box Score Scout App to search for more answers. As it turns out, a very reasonable comparison by the name of Brandon LaFell appeared.

Thomas vs LaFell

The comparison between the two is among the closest I have seen. Just to double down on this comparison, head on over to Player Profiler and type in Michael Thomas and his closest comparison is… you guessed it…Brandon Lafell. Lafell seems quite fitting as a comparison both statistically and as a possible range of outcomes. It is easy to envision Michael Thomas and Drew Brees producing similarly to a Brady/LaFell duo. The problem is your range of outcomes is drastically different from 2014-2015.

Outlook

On the surface Michael Thomas to New Orleans seems like a great landing spot. Whether it’s due to merit or injury, Thomas will have to get over the initial opportunity hurdle. If he can do that, Brees has shown the ability to raise the level of play of those around him. Early rookie rankings have Thomas going in the 4-5 range. I would however, temper my expectations of Thomas making an early impact as both history and production aren’t on his side. With that being said, Brandon Lafell offers a realistic expectation of the type of player Michael Thomas could be.

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