What’s On Tape: Michael Thomas (Fantasy Football)

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Sometimes the latest hotness in fantasy football becomes the universal flavor of Kool-Aid everyone seems to be sipping on. In the case of Saints WR Michael Thomas, dynasty enthusiasts and redrafters alike who struck gold last year with the rookie WR are probably licking their chops heading into 2016.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I think it’s necessary to look beyond just the numbers and combine our perspective of the Saints sophomore sensation with what we see on film. Is Thomas a legitimate target hog or was he simply the beneficiary of another Drew Brees 5,000+ yard season?

See where Andy, Mike, and Jason have Michael Thomas ranked for 2017 in the recent podcast episode: Early WR Rankings- Part 1

Putting 2016 in Perspective

There are a number of stat nuggets from Thomas’ rookie campaign that are definitely worth mentioning.

-Thomas finished as the WR7 in PPR leagues and WR9 in standard. Since 2003, that finish is tied with Odell Beckham Jr. for second best among rookie wideouts trailing only Anquan Boldin‘s monster WR3 rookie campaign.

-In terms of PPR scoring, Thomas finished with the highest WR1 output (255.7 pts) during the Drew Brees era narrowly outpacing Marques Colston‘s 2012 season. However, 2016 was also the lowest combined PPR scoring (239.2 pts) from the RBs  and TE position during Brees’ tenure. Simply put, Thomas benefited greatly from Coby Fleener‘s fart-fest of a season and the lack of a consistent and dependable pass catching back such as Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the past.

-Thomas scored single digit fantasy points only 3 times last year in PPR leagues while maintaining  one of the most consistent floors among receivers. In fact, Thomas did not have less than 4 catches in any game, something Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, and Antonio Brown could not boast in.

What’s On Tape

However, our goal is to see what happened on film and to look beyond boxscores.  Let’s dive into Thomas’ 121 targets and see what we find.

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-His hands were even better than advertised from his college days at Ohio State.  Thomas caught 76% of his targets, good enough for 3rd in the league, as a rookie! In context, we need to realize that he is catching passes from Drew Brees (the completion percentage king himself) and this could regress in 2017. However, on film, I was certainly intrigued with his catch ability. In Week 12, Thomas caught 9-of-10 targets against the Jeff Fisher-less Rams as he routinely beat CB E.J. Gaines to the catch point. His 3rd quarter catch and run TD included spinning Gaines around and then dragging him into the end zone.

-The Saints run a lot of slants and Thomas seemed to take advantage when given the opportunity. In fact, the Saints loved it so much that they opened Week 7 targeting Thomas on their first drive on back-to-back slants. I was pleasantly surprised that Brees looked the rookie’s way on the road in Arrowhead in tight spots. He absolutely annihilated Chiefs rookie CB D.J. White to the tune of 10 catches for 130 yards. He was a real difference maker in a week also known as Tyreek Hill‘s coming out party.

-For a receiver his size, Thomas’ success rate in the slant, out and curl are some of the most vital towards his long term success as a route runner. Matt Harmon recently tweeted out a preview of Thomas’ Reception Perception success rate versus coverage. Get full Reception Perception data and written evaluations by Matt Harmon on the top 50 wide receivers for the 2017 NFL season in the 2017 Ultimate Draft Kit.

-The Saints tried to utilize him a number of times on WR screens as well, something Sean Payton has done for awhile with bigger receivers in the mold of Marques Colston. While Thomas would never be mistaken for a burner, he is tough to bring down. It reminded me of how the Broncos also use Demaryius “big-WR-with-the-same-last-name” Thomas in a similar fashion.

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-The guy was a red zone monster considering he had 13 red zone receptions, 5th most in the league. He had as many red zone targets (18) as Antonio Brown; curiously, that total tied for the team lead with TE Coby Fleener. I noticed that Brees particularly peppered Thomas during Weeks 3 and 17 against my hometown Falcons. He saw 8 red zone targets on smaller corners such as Robert Alford especially on those slant routes. In case you didn’t realize it, 8 red zone targets in 2 games is absurd. He totaled 17 catches on 25 targets, 227 yards and 2 TDs against his division rival and the eventual Super Bowl runner up. Sigh.

-Seattle decided to press at the line consistently in Week 8 with Richard Sherman and DeShawn Shead but Thomas responded admirably. I still think this proved to be the best tactic from defenses as his worst game came against Denver in Week 10 when the Broncos gave him little room to maneuver. Bradley Roby was all over Thomas as he forced an INT on his first target and punched out the ball to force a Thomas fumble. Thomas fumbled again at a pivotal moment in the 4th quarter which completely shifted the momentum of a controversial game.

-I think part of his game which could bear more fruit in 2017 is the back shoulder grab. Think Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. This type of chemistry is built over time. There were a number of times Brees slung it to the far side of the field in perfect unison as Thomas turned his back away from the defender and tip-toed the sideline. In Week 4, Thomas had a sweet back shoulder TD against Chargers CB Pierre Desir in the 4th quarter which showcased what the future could hold.

Projecting 2017

Thomas is currently being drafted as the 8th WR off the board in the middle of the second round according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. Based on the tape and the exodus of Brandin Cooks, I think this is a fair market price considering the high octane offense Thomas participates in. In order to return this draft price, we are looking at Thomas simply repeating what he did in 2016 across the board. The 9 TDs seem within range while the 1137 yards could certainly increase.

With his success on various routes, an offense that wants to push the pedal to the floor and one of the best rookie WR campaigns in recent memory, Michael Thomas is poised to remain in the conversation as a WR1 in fantasy. Owners who are skeptical of a sophomore slump should know that the tape doesn’t lie.

Check out the rest of our NFL Film Breakdowns on Cameron Meredith, Quincy Enunwa, and Carlos Hyde, and Adrian Peterson.

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