Fantasy Football: Michael Thomas Could Finish 2018 as the WR1

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Fantasy drafters aren’t talking enough about the insane upside Michael Thomas possesses and I’m sick of it. Let’s get to it.

Historical Production

It’s not often historical greatness and production collide on multiple levels. But when they do, we should take note and our eyebrows should be raised. That’s exactly what we have in the passing duo of Thomas and Drew Brees. Thomas is one of only four players in NFL HISTORY to post greater than 1,100 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons in the league. As you can see he’s in pretty good company:

Player Games Receptions Receiving Yards Touchdowns
Odell Beckham 27 187 2,755 25
Bill Groman 28 122 2,648 29
Randy Moss 32 149 2,726 28
Michael Thomas 31 196 2,382 14

Giddy up. He won’t be slowing down anytime soon because he gets to catch passes from Brees, who ranks third in NFL history in passing yards and is tied for third in NFL history in pass TDs.

Team Driven Volume

Last season was an outlier for the Saints but thanks to recency bias, its all fantasy gamers are thinking about. That’s a mistake because a short-sighted view doesn’t account for the likely kick-back to a more pass-heavy attack. Why? Just take a look at the Saints passing and rushing ranks under Sean Payton since 2010 (2012 data is left out because Payton was suspended for the entire season).

Year Pass Attempt Rank Pass Attempts Rush Attempt Rank Rush Attempts
2017 19 536 13 444
2016 2 674 19 404
2015 2 667 20 397
2014 2 659 19 406
2013 4 651 26 391
2011 2 662 20 431
2010 2 661 30 380

The Saints had a fantastic year in 2017 and it seemed like everything fell into place for them, which allowed for a more balanced attack and the most rush attempts in a season since 2010. Will that be the case once again in 2018? It’s fair to wonder not only because of Mark Ingram‘s four-game suspension to begin the season but also because of the passing extremes this sample size produces.

From 2010-2016, the Saints finished in the top four in the league in pass attempts every season and never once threw under 651 pass attempts. In fact, the Saints have finished top five in the league in pass attempts nine times in eleven years under Payton. That level of elite pass volume consistency under Payton is simply unprecedented and should absolutely not be ignored.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images Sport

Elite 2017 Production

The Saints threw 115 fewer passes in 2017 than in ANY other season under Payton dating back to 2010. Still, Michael Thomas dominated.

Targets Target Rank Target Share Target Share Rank Receptions Reception Rank Receiving Yards Receiving Yards Rank
149 6th 28% Tied for 3rd 104 3rd 1,245 6th

Thomas finished sixth or better in the extremely important categories of targets, target share, receptions, and receiving yards propelling him to a WR6 overall finish in fantasy. He did this while seeing only the 17th most air yards in the league.

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Upside Baby

Remember, prior to 2017 the Saints had gone six straight seasons under Payton throwing the ball at least 651 times. So what would happen if the Saints offense boomeranged back to pre-2017 levels with Thomas maintaining his 28% target share from 2017? 28% of 650 pass attempts is roughly 182 targets. That target number would’ve led the league in both 2016 and 2017. If Thomas maintains his 12.0 yards per reception and his 70% catch rate from last season, 182 targets would turn into 127 receptions for 1,528 yards.

Thomas already produced nine TDs on only 121 targets back in 2016 as a rookie so projecting 10 TDs in 2018 after a significant volume increase shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. These numbers would result in 276.3 fantasy points in half-point PPR, which is right in line with the average fantasy points of the overall WR1 over the past three seasons: 277.4.

Conclusion

Thomas has produced historical numbers through two seasons, plays with one of the best QBs in NFL history, plays in one of the best offenses in the league, and plays on a team that has a large sample size of an unprecedented elite passing volume. While his current ADP according to Fantasy Football Calculator of WR5 and 15th overall is more than respectable, clearly I still think its too low. This article is meant to be a thought exercise that provides data to help question consensus¬†groupthink. Now it’s time for you to take a stand and decide what to do with the data. But pass on this budding superstar at your own risk.

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