Is the Michael Thomas Hype Justified?

Jun 09, 2017
Is the Michael Thomas Hype Justified?


Sean Payton hates Mark Ingram, but apparently we should have listened to him about Michael Thomas last year.

"No, I’ve got high expectations for him," the Saints head coach told reporters about Thomas.

"Listen, I think he’s gonna contribute early. I don’t follow fantasy football, but shoot, I’d try to have him. I think he’s gonna do well."

Hindsight is 20-20, but in the case of Thomas, it is 92-1137-9 -- the number of receptions, yards, and touchdowns the rookie out of Ohio State produced with Drew Brees slingin’ the rock his way.

Is Thomas Worth His ADP?

Last year, Thomas only cost most drafters a pick in the 10th round or later. A top-10 fantasy finish at his position followed, an outstanding return on investment.

Fast-forward to 2017, though, and Thomas is going to cost you a first- or second-round pick, especially with Brandin Cooks out of the mix.

Thomas Among a Baker’s Dozen

Let’s study what the recent history of WRs who broke out at age 23 or younger tells us about Thomas's floor and ceiling in 2017:

WRs with 90+ Receptions & 1,100 Yards at Age 23 or Younger
Rk Player Year Age Tm G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt
1 Isaac Bruce 1995 23 STL 16 199 119 1781 14.97 13 111.3 59.80% 8.95
2 David Boston 2001 23 ARI 16 175 98 1598 16.31 8 99.9 56.00% 9.13
3 DeAndre Hopkins 2015 23 HOU 16 192 111 1521 13.7 11 95.1 57.80% 7.92
4 Odell Beckham 2015 23 NYG 15 158 96 1450 15.1 13 96.7 60.80% 9.18
5 Larry Fitzgerald 2005 22 ARI 16 165 103 1409 13.68 10 88.1 62.40% 8.54
6 Anquan Boldin 2003 23 ARI 16 165 101 1377 13.63 8 86.1 61.20% 8.35
7 Rob Gronkowski 2011 22 NWE 16 124 90 1327 14.74 17 82.9 72.60% 10.7
8 Brandon Marshall 2007 23 DEN 16 170 102 1325 12.99 7 82.8 60.00% 7.79
9 Mike Evans 2016 23 TAM 16 173 96 1321 13.76 12 82.6 55.50% 7.64
10 Odell Beckham 2014 22 NYG 12 130 91 1305 14.34 12 108.8 70.00% 10.04
11 Jarvis Landry 2015 23 MIA 16 166 110 1157 10.52 4 72.3 66.30% 6.97
12 Michael Thomas 2016 23 NOR 15 121 92 1137 12.36 9 75.8 76.00% 9.4
13 Terry Glenn 1996 22 NWE 15 167 90 1132 12.58 6 75.5 53.90% 6.78

Thomas had just the 13th season in league history with 90+ receptions and 1,100 yards for a receiver age 23 or younger.

Thomas's 76-percent catch rate was the highest among them.

But on only 121 targets (lowest among this group), you have to wonder if this production is sustainable in year two.

So let’s see how this group did the year after their impressive breakout season:

WRs with 90+ Receptions & 1,100 Yards at Age 23 or Younger in Year n+1
Player Year Age Tm G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch%
Isaac Bruce 1996 24 STL 16 150 84 1338 15.9 7 83.6 56.00%
David Boston 2002 24 ARI 8 75 32 512 16 1 64 42.70%
DeAndre Hopkins 2016 24 HOU 16 151 78 954 12.2 4 59.6 51.70%
Odell Beckham 2016 24 NYG 16 169 101 1367 13.5 10 85.4 59.80%
Larry Fitzgerald 2006 23 ARI 13 111 69 946 13.7 6 72.8 62.20%
Anquan Boldin 2004 24 ARI 10 104 56 623 11.1 1 62.3 53.80%
Rob Gronkowski 2012 23 NWE 11 79 55 790 14.4 11 71.8 69.60%
Brandon Marshall 2008 24 DEN 15 181 104 1265 12.2 6 84.3 57.50%
Odell Beckham 2015 23 NYG 15 158 96 1450 15.1 13 96.7 60.76%
Jarvis Landry 2016 24 MIA 16 131 94 1136 12.1 4 71 71.80%
Terry Glenn 1997 23 NWE 9 49 27 431 16 2 47.9 55.10%
Mike Evans 2017
Michael Thomas 2017

DeAndre Hopkins' disappointing season last year stands out, Brees throwing you the ball is a little different than Brock Osweiler.

Just taking the per season averages isn’t fair, because some of the group missed a handful of games (and we don’t yet know what Mike Evans and Thomas will do in 2017). However, if we study the above table on a per game basis, we find this group averaged 5.49 receptions, 74.6 yards and 0.45 touchdowns per game on 9.37 targets.

Those numbers extrapolate out to 87 receptions, 1193 yards and seven touchdowns on 149 targets over a 16-game season. That would have been good enough for Thomas to finish as WR9 last season in both standard and PPR leagues.

But are 149 targets realistic in the Saints offense, even with Cooks gone?

Top Targets in the Brees Era

If Thomas is going to garner 28 more targets than his rookie year, his ceiling in 2017 will be among the elite receivers.

Only three times in the Drew Brees era has a Saints pass catcher reached 140+ targets:

Saints Pass Catchers with 140+ Targets (Drew Brees era)
Player Year Age G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% PPR WR Rank Standard WR Rank
Jimmy Graham 2013 27 16 142 86 1215 14.13 16 75.9 60.60% WR7 WR4
Jimmy Graham 2011 25 16 149 99 1310 13.23 11 81.9 66.40% WR3 WR5
Marques Colston 2007 24 16 143 98 1202 12.27 11 75.1 68.50% WR8 WR8

Jimmy Graham is a tight end, but his production with 140+ targets would have been good enough to rank well within the top-10 fantasy receivers. Marques Colston was also WR8 in his lone season with 140+ targets.

If you want to argue these seasons are statistical outliers, then let’s look at Saints pass catchers with 90+ targets over the past three seasons:

Saints Pass Catchers with 90+ Targets (2014-16)
Player Year Age G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch%
Brandin Cooks 2015 22 16 129 84 1138 13.55 9 71.1 65.10%
Jimmy Graham 2014 28 16 125 85 889 10.46 10 55.6 68.00%
Michael Thomas 2016 23 15 121 92 1137 12.36 9 75.8 76.00%
Brandin Cooks 2016 23 16 117 78 1173 15.04 8 73.3 66.70%
Ben Watson 2015 35 16 110 74 825 11.15 6 51.6 67.30%
Willie Snead 2016 24 15 104 72 895 12.43 4 59.7 69.20%
Willie Snead 2015 23 15 101 69 984 14.26 3 65.6 68.30%
Marques Colston 2014 31 16 100 59 902 15.29 5 56.4 59.00%

You can see the average receptions, yards and touchdowns overall, and extrapolated to a full 16 games, it goes up even more, to 78.4-1016-6.9. However, this may not be the best indication of what Thomas will do in 2017 because this chart includes second or third options in the offense (Willie Snead, Ben Watson), while Thomas will likely be the primary target in 2017.

So here’s what the target leader did in each year Drew Brees has been quarterback of the Saints:

Saints' Leader in Targets (Drew Brees Era)
Player Year Age G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% PPR WR Rank Standard WR Rank
Michael Thomas 2016 23 15 121 92 1137 12.36 9 75.8 76.00% WR7 WR9
Brandin Cooks 2015 22 16 129 84 1138 13.55 9 71.1 65.10% WR14 WR12
Jimmy Graham 2014 28 16 125 85 889 10.46 10 55.6 68.00% WR15 WR18
Jimmy Graham 2013 27 16 142 86 1215 14.13 16 75.9 60.60% WR7 WR4
Jimmy Graham 2012 26 15 135 85 982 11.6 9 46 62.97% WR17 WR19
Jimmy Graham 2011 25 16 149 99 1310 13.2 11 59 66.40% WR3 WR5
Marques Colston 2010 27 15 131 84 1023 12.2 7 43 64.10% WR16 WR19
Marques Colston 2009 26 16 107 70 1074 15.3 9 68 65.40% WR15 WR14
Lance Moore 2008 25 16 121 79 928 11.7 10 70 65.30% WR15 WR14
Marques Colston 2007 24 16 143 98 1202 12.27 11 75.1 68.50% WR8 WR8
Marques Colston 2006 23 14 115 70 1038 14.8 8 86 60.90% WR16 WR14
Per Game Average 8.3 5.45 69.8 0.64

The per game average for Brees’ top target has been 5.45-69.8-0.64. Over 16 games, that extrapolates to 87.2-1116.8-10.2. Those numbers would have been good enough for Thomas to finish as the WR6 last year in PPR and the WR8 in standard.

If you look at the last two columns on the right as a range of outcomes, Brees’s top target was good enough to finish between WR4 and WR19 in standard leagues and between WR3 and WR16 in PPR.

The Saints' top target under Brees has received 8.3 targets per game, a 16-game pace of 132.8 per year. Again though, Thomas’s catch percentage of 76% may be asking too much based on the others in recent years.

Using 132.8 targets, if we combine the 65.3% median catch rate of the Saints' top pass catchers under Brees with Thomas’s modest 12.36 yards per reception as a rookie, we'd get 86.7 receptions and 1,071 yards.

As for his touchdowns? Ultimately, that’s hard to predict. We do know that Thomas was tied for sixth in the NFL with seven red zone touchdown receptions on 18 red zone targets (tied for 20th). Those 18 red zone targets were tied with Coby Fleener for the most on the Saints, but seven Saints saw at least nine red zone targets.

The Bottom Line

Thomas has one of the highest floors among WRs being drafted in the first two rounds, evidenced by every Saints target leader finishing inside the top-20 receivers in the Drew Brees era.

And even though only three times in Drew Brees’s 11 years in New Orleans has his target leader reached 140 targets, Thomas could make it four times in twelve years with Cooks gone if he can stay healthy, which would give him top-five upside.

Once you get past the five big names at wide receiver (Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Mike Evans and A.J. Green), it’s going to be hard to pass on Thomas.


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