It’s being talked about a lot, but it’s still not being talked about quite enough: Michael Thomas has arguably been the best wide receiver in football this season.
The pace that Thomas currently finds himself on is ridiculous, and should be recognized as such.
Statistics rarely tell the entire story, but they can often be a decent starting point of an argument. So let’s start with Thomas’ statistics this season: 9 games played, 78 receptions, 950 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Far and away the most impressive part of that? He’s done that all on 87 targets.
Yes, you read that correctly. Michael Thomas has been thrown at 87 times this season, only 9 have resulted in incompletions. That’s a catch rate of 89.7%, which is hard to accomplish during a routes on air session. His average yards per target currently sits at 10.9 yards.
Let’s put those jarring statistics into perspective: The 2013 Denver Broncos scored the most points in NFL history. Their quarterback was Peyton Manning, whose completion percentage was 68.3%, and whose yards per attempt was 8.3 yards.
It bears repeating that when Drew Brees targets Michael Thomas this season, the completion percentage is 89.7% and the yards per attempt is 10.9 yards.
So, how exactly did Michael Thomas go from the sixth wide receiver drafted and a second round pick and turn himself into one of the league’s very best in less than three seasons?
The answer is that he attacked his noticeable weaknesses, and the result can serve as a valuable lesson for draft evaluators.
As a Prospect
At Ohio State, Thomas only had “modest” production in his final two seasons with a combined 1,580 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. The flash plays were prevalent, but consistent game-to-game production was lacking. Some of this was due to quarterback play, as the 2015 version of the Buckeyes struggled to consistently throw the ball all season.
In the 2016 NFL Draft, wide receivers such as Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell were taken in the first round. Thomas would fall to New Orleans at pick 47.
The apparent weaknesses in Thomas’ game came down to refinement and polish. Looking back at his scouting report on NFL.com, some of the concerns were warranted:
“Struggles with footwork out of press release spending excessive time trying to fake and shake cornerbacks. Still figuring out this whole "route running" thing. Will have to work back to the throw more often on NFL level. Won't win over quarterbacks with inability to rescue the off-target throws.”
Thomas had the athletic profile that would suggest he'd thrive in the NFL, and he proved that at the NFL Scouting Combine. Despite a slower 40 yard dash at 4.57s, Thomas was in the 70th percentile or better in the broad jump, short shuttle, 3-cone drill, and bench press. There certainly weren't any questions about his explosiveness or natural strength.
As a Pro
Thomas has taken the concerns over his game in college and turned them into strengths, and when matched with his athleticism it has created an elite wide receiver.
Thomas has dominated press coverage, mixing suddenness with his upper body strength to wipe away the jam of defensive backs. He has become more aggressive in this area since his college days, closing down the space on defensive backs and making them uncomfortable. He's refined his footwork, wasting minimal movements and working at an efficient pace.
Here are some examples of Thomas operating against press coverage this season:
As a route runner is where Thomas has improved his game the most. In college, he didn't necessarily rep a full route tree in games. There was the occasional flash of a stutter and go or double move that allowed him to separate, but he was often relegated to short and intermediate routes.
While his route breaks had fluidity to them, especially for a 6-foot-3 wide receiver, Thomas was often unsure how to attack leverage and wasn't always playing at full speed as a result. The traits were there, but the on-field product had yet to match them.
Playing for the Saints has been a blessing for Thomas because of their efficiency and emphasis on the passing game. He's quickly gained experience and has turned those flashes from college into commonalities in the NFL. He is easily moved around the formation, and he operates against double coverages such as brackets or funnels with ease. His route tree is now as wide-spread as any wide receiver across the league, and his separation is consistent.
Here are examples of his developed route running prowess:
It's obvious when watching Thomas that he has competitive fire. That desire that pours out of him has translated nicely into how he attacks the football on a play to play basis, and is the main source of his otherworldly completion percentage when targeted.
The concern about Thomas' inability to work back to the football or adjust to off-target throws has been completely alleviated, as he consistently makes plays while working downstem, diving for the ball, or above the rim. He is always, always out-competing the defensive back at the catchpoint.
Examples of Thomas' ability to work back towards the football and adjust to an array of ball placements:
The touchdown rep against the Cincinnati Bengals has truly been a microcosm of Michael Thomas' season thus far. Despite working against an excellent cornerback and athlete in his own right William Jackson III, Thomas closed down his cushion and worked to discard of Jackson's initial jam. As he fought pressure with pressure, he sold an in-breaking route with his eyes before snapping into a comeback route. He then adjusted to the ball near the turf and made the reception just passed the outstretched fingertips of Jackson.
On a single rep, you can see the every-down polish that Thomas now possesses. The ability to work against press coverage, the attacking of leverage and quick break in his route running, and how he's been a vacuum at catching passes.
As a prospect, Thomas possessed the hands, athleticism and shiftiness to suggest he could be a solid NFL wide receiver. He has since developed his game and become an all-around player, with no weaknesses to speak of in the pass game.
Added into the traits that he already had, and you have one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League.