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The Michael Thomas Hit Piece

As a rookie in 2016, Michael Thomas finished as the WR7. This offseason, Brandin Cooks was traded away from New Orleans, and drafters have been going nuts to grab Thomas.

Currently the WR6 with an ADP of 13.4, Thomas is the most likely WR to come off the board once the big five of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and A.J. Green have gone. This is crazy. You’re not even giving him a chance.

Volume and Efficiency

Adding a year of seasoning and subtracting Cooks seems to be how we ended up here. Unfortunately, an expectation of increased volume may be too simplistic, and Thomas’s efficiency is already maxed out – and likely due to regress.

Thomas was remarkably efficient in 2016, most notably carrying an otherworldly catch rate of 76 percent. Drew Brees has a tendency to boost efficiency, but here are Thomas’s 2016 rates (dashed lines) relative to the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile of WR1s (red and green bars) as well as WR1s in the Saints offense (gray histogram).

Michael Thomas

Brees came to New Orleans in 2006, and you’ll note no WR has hit league average in terms of market share since his arrival. Given how frequently they’ve utilized running backs and tight ends in the pass game, the low WR market shares make sense. 2016 was an abnormality in terms of targets directed at WRs, and apart from the addition of Ted Ginn, it seems fair to bet some of Cooks’ targets shift back toward TEs and/or RBs (considering another addition, Alvin Kamara).

2010 0.54 0.23 0.21
2011 0.44 0.25 0.3
2013 0.39 0.28 0.31
2014 0.46 0.27 0.25
2015 0.52 0.23 0.23
2016 0.58 0.16 0.24

To be clear, I don’t think a shift back to the 20s is the most likely outcome for TE target share, but a slight boost could very well be in store (which, as an aside, makes Coby Fleener an attractive late-round TE option).

Looking at raw targets, no Saints player has hit 150 targets in Brees’ 11-year tenure, and Marques Colston’s 2007 is the only example of a WR exceeding 135.1 No matter how good Thomas is, these trends speak loudly toward a systematic desire to spread the ball around.

Meanwhile, the catch rate has to be expected to regress; it’s the highest rate a Brees receiver has ever achieved on that type of volume. He could see a dozen more targets (133, up from the 121 he saw in 2016) and he’d have to carry a catch rate over 69 percent — which would still be high, even for a Brees WR — just to catch the exact same number of passes he did in 2016.

Yards per target is logically elevated by catch rate – in other words, Thomas wasn’t that special in terms of yards per reception at 12.4. Maybe he makes a jump there, or maybe his yards per target comes down with his catch rate. TD rate is perhaps his best chance to repeat efficiency in 2017, simply because it’s more variable and Brees is so good. The point is we have a small sample of extremely high efficiency, and while it’s not impossible he repeats, that’s not the most likely outcome by a long way.

What’s With the Cost?

Thomas can still have a fine year, despite the above notes. I’m fine with him as a mid- to high-end WR2 in drafts, as the suppressed ceiling I discussed above is mitigated by a comfortable floor.

But the price right now implies Thomas’s most likely outcome is a jump I don’t think can be described as anything other than an extremely optimistic interpretation of his range of outcomes.

To wit, the Sim Score App spits out a high projection of 16.5 points per game for 2017.

Michael Thomas

That high projection is nearly a point lower than his per-game average in 2016 when he finished WR7 in a down year for elite WRs. The expected efficiency regression — on display in this projection summary of the N+1 results of the 25 most similar seasons to Thomas’s sterling 2016 — has to be completely ignored to justify drafting such a precarious asset higher than where he finished last year.

Circling back on the down year for elite WRs, Thomas’s 2016 production would have been worth the WR13 season in 2015. So even if you want to grant him a repeat season — maybe more targets and still really high efficiency, regressed some but not as much as the Sim Scores suggest — Thomas could still struggle to reach WR1 status simply due to a rebound in production from the rest of the league.

All of this makes him an easy fade where you have to take him. For me to consider a WR at the 1/2 turn, he better have overall WR1 upside. Simply put, Thomas doesn’t.

In dynasty, Thomas is generally coming in just a touch lower at WR7. He’s an obviously great asset as a talented young WR1 paired with an elite QB, but if you agree with the above, you have to acknowledge the odds of holding his value at this time next year are pretty low. His ceiling is essentially a low-end WR1 season, and even if he hits that, the long-term status of Brees will be another year more pressing. It’s more likely he puts up a solid WR2 season and next offseason we’re looking at the dyno WR10-WR15.

And look, I’ve tried to give Thomas the benefit of the doubt. There are still questions as to how Cooks’ presence impacted Thomas’s efficiency, and if he were to regress closer to league average efficiency for WR1s in the face of more defensive attention, you’re looking at a two-year sample that will make him much less enticing than he apparently is now.

As it stands, the market is severely over-weighting a small sample of too-good-to-be-true efficiency. Thomas looks like a good NFL WR, but the fantasy football community is setting him up to disappoint with that collective optimism.

  1. Jimmy Graham came in between 135 and 150 twice, while hitting 135 on the nose in a third season.  (back)
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