Michael Thomas: The Most Valuable Receiver in Football

Derick E. Hingle – USA TODAY Sports

Michael Thomas held out from training camp before this season as he was looking for a contract extension with the Saints. Thomas and the Saints eventually agreed to a five-year, $100 million extension including $61 million guaranteed, a deal that made Thomas the highest-paid wide receiver in league history.1

He deserves every penny of it.

Since being drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Thomas has made a name for himself. Last year, Thomas set both the single-game and single-season reception and receiving yard records for the New Orleans Saints. He reeled in 85.0% of his targets, a league record. The highlight of Thomas’ season came in a Week 9 thriller against the undefeated Los Angeles Rams, where he caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a game-winning touchdown. Thomas was named to the All-Pro first team, a feat that a Saints wide receiver had never accomplished before.

At this point in his career, Thomas has accomplished more than all but a few receivers in NFL history through the same amount of games.

No player has racked up as many catches as Michael Thomas this early on in their career. Thomas finished with 125 catches last season, the 5th highest single-season mark in NFL history and the highest for any player younger than 26-years-old. Through 7 games this season, Thomas is leading the league with 62 receptions. He’s on pace for 142 catches on the season, which would put him just one reception shy from tying Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison’s single-season record.

Do receptions tell the whole story, though? What if Thomas is just benefiting from getting a lot of targets? Of course, this is not the case. Despite having the most receptions of any player in NFL history through the first 54 games of a player’s career, he has just the eight-most targets in this span. His catch percentage of 77.4% is the highest among all 86 players who were targeted at least 350 times through their first 54 career games. He’s even ahead of running backs like Reggie Bush who were primarily targeted on checkdown passes.

Some may argue that Thomas also tends to run routes closer to the line of scrimmage which are more likely to result in completed passes. However, Thomas also has the fourth-most receiving yards through a player’s first 54 games in NFL history.

Thomas is behind only Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, and Randy Moss. Not bad company. He has more yards per target than Beckham Jr., who simply had 83 more opportunities to gain yards than Thomas.

Also, it’s not as if Thomas is mostly catching wide open short passes. Michael Thomas is the primary focus of every opposing defense. The Saints don’t have other high-level receivers who can take pressure off of Thomas. Their wide receiver corps is actually fairly weak and certainly contributed to their demise in the NFC Championship Game last year, as the Rams threw everything they had at stopping Thomas and forcing Drew Brees to throw to the likes of Dan Arnold and Austin Carr.

This year, Thomas is leading the NFL in contested catch rate (81.8%). He did the same thing last season when he set a single-season record for catch percentage. Most people assume that Thomas must be reeling in a bunch of easy catches, but he routinely snags balls with defenders draped all over him.

Granted, it becomes easier to reel in contested catches when you’re playing with a good quarterback, let alone the most accurate passer in NFL history. Drew Brees has a history of bringing out the best in his teammates. Players like Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham were extremely successful in New Orleans but failed to sustain these results on new teams. For this reason, Michael Thomas was often brought down a peg in discussions on the top receivers in the NFL. While Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, and Mike Evans were balling out with quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Brian Hoyer, and Jameis Winston, Thomas benefited from playing with one of the best passers to ever throw a pigskin.

However, Michael Thomas has proven that it does not matter who is lined up at quarterback — he’s going to dominate regardless. After Brees was sidelined with a thumb injury, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was forced to fill in for the past five games. In this span, Thomas has reeled in 80.8% of his targets and has gained 110.2 yards per game. He has not skipped a beat. In fact, Thomas’ stats are eerily similar with or without Brees.

Bridgewater is no slouch, but he’s a pretty average quarterback. He’s not a franchise quarterback and he’s not much more than a game manager. It’s apparently much easier to manage games when Michael Thomas is lined up on the outside. Thomas is currently leading the league in both receptions and receiving yards.

Despite Brees playing just one full game this season, the Saints have the seventh-best passing offense in the NFL this season according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). This is in large part due to the steady contributions of Michael Thomas.

While Michael Thomas’ value to the New Orleans Saints has become increasingly apparent over the past five weeks, he’s been carrying a heavy load for the Saints’ offense for far longer than five weeks. According to Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, Thomas has added more Defense-Adjusted Receiving Yards Above Replacement than any other player over the past two years.

Here’s Football Outsiders’ explanation on DYAR: “[DYAR] gives the value of the performance on plays where this WR caught the ball, compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.” By comparing the performance to replacement level, the metric attempts to quantify the cumulative impact of a receiver on a team’s offense. No player has been as valuable as Michael Thomas.

Furthermore, no receiver rates higher in Expected Points Added (EPA) and Win Probability Added (WPA) over the past two years than Michael Thomas.

Julio Jones, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce are all great pass-catchers who play with elite quarterbacks, but Thomas stands above them all. He’s at the top for both EPA and WPA, both metrics which take the situation of every play in account to quantify true value. After all, a 20 yard catch on 4th and 30 is not very valuable, so these metrics take this into account. Thomas isn’t putting up empty stats. He’s making game-changing plays.

It’s only his fourth season and it’s already obvious that Michael Thomas is the best receiver in New Orleans Saints history. He may even be the best wide receiver in the NFL, and the Saints have him locked up for the next five years. It’s not clear who the Saints’ quarterback of the future will be, but they’ll have at least one reliable target to work with as they develop. For now, Thomas has a chance to do something many all-time great receivers failed to do — win a Super Bowl.

  1. Until Julio Jones inked his three-year, $66 million extension, that is.
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