The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: Michael Thomas
Editor’s Note: This profile is part of our annual Path to a Fantasy WR1 Season series. Make sure you read the 2022 Path to WR1 Series Primer for our methodology and an outline of the process. To remind you, we are not saying Michael Thomas will be a WR1 this season; we are just discussing the path of how he could get there.
Let me paint the picture. The year is 2019. You have a spring in your step looking forward to the start of a new decade, the US Women’s soccer team had just won the World Cup, and you were dominating your fantasy league on the back of New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas. All was right with the world.
No one would have thought that in just a brief two years later, people would be wondering if Thomas would even be able to physically step on the field to play football in 2022. So how did we get here, and what does the future hold for Michael Thomas? What is the path to a WR1 for Michael Thomas?
2021 (and beyond) Recap
When recapping Michael Thomas and his play, we will have to go further back than 2021 due to his ankle injury, but believe me, we will discuss that later. The 2020 season was also riddled with injury for Thomas. In week one of the season, after three catches, he left the game against the Bucs with a high ankle sprain. Fantasy owners across the land shared a uniform gasp as their consensus WR1 off the board hobbled off the field with a paltry three fantasy points. After seven weeks, Thomas was back on the field in week nine, and owners that had hung on to him or stashed him on the IR were hopeful. It didn’t turn out great. In those six games he played, Thomas only finished in the top 24WRs half the time, and the three other weeks were disastrous. He finished WR48, WR56, and WR71. At that point, starting Thomas was a clear detriment to your fantasy team. He ended the year as WR98.
But everything before 2020 was sunshine and roses. From his rookie year to 2019, Thomas had four seasons finishing in the top seven, with one year as the number one WR. Throughout those years, he was highly consistent with TDs, catching nine in three out of four seasons, as well as yards per reception, keeping it between 11.2 and 12.4. He steadily improved in most other stats, primarily targets, receptions, and overall yards. In his WR1 season, he had the league-high in targets (188), receptions (156), and yards (1795).
The Path for 2022
In 2020, there were 496 targets available for the Saints, mostly courtesy of Drew Brees and Taysom Hill. That number dropped to 445 targets in 2021, a year without Drew Brees and a variation of QBs under center. It was complicated in the QB department, with four players starting at least one game for New Orleans. When Thomas played, he commanded targets, even in 2020 when he only played seven games. With 65 targets that season, he was on a 148 target pace, which would have helped him finish with yet another stellar year. The target leader last season was Marquez Callaway with 83 and RB Alvin Kamara coming in with 65 targets. The targets are there for the taking for Thomas, as long as he is on the field. Jarvis Landry and incoming rookie Chris Olave are the only significant additions to the receiving core. With Jameis Winston slinging the football, we can assume that the targets will stay high. In Winston’s last full starting season for Tampa Bay, he threw the ball 626 times. If you take all five of Winston’s full seasons, he averaged 509 attempts. Let’s assume he has 500 attempts; Thomas would easily garner 125 if not more of those targets. Landry and Marquez Callaway are competent, but they will not command the majority of targets. Landrys’ highest target count was 166 in 2015, and Calloway’s high was the 84 targets he had last season. Thomas’s main target competition is Alvin Kamara, who might be suspended for six games. Thomas is set up to have a ridiculous target share this season if healthy.
Thomas has always had a stellar reception percentage – to put it simply, if you throw a football somewhere near Michael Thomas, he is probably going to catch it. The only exception was his injury-riddled 2020 year. To be honest, though, he still wasn’t half bad. With only about a third of his typical targets, he still managed to catch just over 69% of them. Looking at his four other seasons in the NFL, he was in the top seven of WR reception percentage among receivers with 50 or more targets. However, a WR must work much harder to catch the ball when he doesn’t have a QB like Drew Brees throwing it to him. At least you would think so. Thomas did not seem to suffer much reception-wise in the 2019 season, even when Teddy Bridgewater, with his 68% completion percentage, took over for Brees (75% completion rate that year). Jameis Winston‘s career and Saint’s worst completion percentage is 59%. Let’s say he gets it up to 60% (thank you to that eye surgeon), and we have already imagined a world where Thomas garners around 125 targets. That’s about 75 receptions to an average WR. Thomas isn’t average, and I can see a season where he catches 95 balls of those hypothetical 125 targets. That would be a 76% reception rate which would put him in contention for a WR1.
When I think “QBs who love the long ball,” the first name that pops into my head is Jameis Winston. In five years as a starter in Tampa, Bay Winston threw for over nineteen thousand yards – that’s on average about 4,000 yards a season. Jameis throws a lot, and he throws far. Even in the seven games started for New Orleans, he threw for almost 1200 yards, which is a seventeen-game pace of only 3,000 yards. If Winston throws yardage like he used to in Tampa, Thomas will have plenty of opportunities. In 2020, Thomas was on pace for just over 1,000 receiving yards if he had stayed healthy, far short of his incredible 1700-yard 2019, but high enough to put him at WR17 in this scenario. If he manages to pull in above 1,000 yards again this season, a WR1 finish could be in the cards.
TDs were never where Thomas made his hay. Taking away 2020, Thomas averaged just over six TDs in his five other seasons in the NFL. He had several seasons where he caught nine TDs, but he was never top of that category like he was for attempts and receptions. In the seven games he played in 2021, Jameis Winston threw for fourteen TDs, putting him on a seventeen-game pace of 34 TDs. That would have been the ninth most TDs among QBs that season. Winston can definitely support Thomas with 7+ TDs to be a WR1 candidate.
There are two elephants in the room—the lack of Drew Brees and the presence of Michael Thomas‘ dodgy ankle. Because of the delay in Thomas’s ankle surgery – waiting until July 2021 to get the procedure – he is still unable to practice. “I think he’s doing well in his rehab. He’s not ready yet,” Saints head coach Dennis Allen told reporters recently. “But he’s here, he’s rehabbing, he’s getting himself better and we’re certainly anxious to get him out there.” Asked if Thomas would be ready for training camp in July, Allen said it was “certainly our plan,” but he didn’t commit to Thomas’ availability this summer.
Michael Thomas getting some work in. pic.twitter.com/Nr5uUgzuEn
— NOF (@nofnetwork) June 17, 2022
Do not forget about Alvin Kamara and his possible suspension. This muddies the waters even more when prognosticating Thomas’ possible fantasy finish. According to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, Thomas is being drafted in the middle of the fourth round as the 16th WR off the board. On the same site, it says Thomas goes as high as early-round three and as late as the beginning of round five. His Underdog ADP is currently at 76, which is early in the sixth round. I have seen an even more considerable disparity in the mock drafts I have participated in so far this season. I know every statement and statistic mentioned in this article should have a caveat added…if he is healthy. There in is the gamble. With Thomas, you have to shoot your shot. If he is healthy and plays, he could be a league winner. I was one of those owners who drafted Thomas late last season and stashed him on my IR, hoping for the big payoff. I get it. Things could go incredible for Michael Thomas, or he could have a terrible, no good, very bad season. But if he manages to start the season at even 80% of old Michael Thomas, he stands a fair chance of finishing as a WR1.