Michael Thomas thinks Michael Thomas is the best wide receiver in the NFL.
That's good news and shouldn't bother anyone.
Julio Jones should think he is the best receiver in the NFL as should DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans. In the upper echelon of NFL talent at each position, there are cases to be made for each, but no group is more crowded at the top than wide receiver.
For Thomas' work over the last couple of seasons, why shouldn't he count himself as the pinnacle of the position?
Thomas is known for getting into scraps with detractors and fabricating detractors altogether in his hunt for the next scrap. Thomas took issue with Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker this week after an Instagram poll asked which was more difficult: catching a ball while covered by Stephon Gilmore or breaking up a pass intended for Thomas?
Parker responded with Gilmore being the tougher draw, which led to a long string of commentary between Thomas and Parker regarding Thomas' consistency and dominance against Parker's recent breakout on a team with significantly worse quarterbacking than Drew Brees.
The comparison between Thomas and Parker is an interesting springboard into a conversation about Thomas' place in that upper echelon of receivers. Thomas set NFL records in 2019 with 149 catches in a single season and 470 catches across his first four seasons. Much of the credit belongs to volume — Thomas is third in targets (602) across those four seasons and was first last year (185) by a healthy margin — consistency and high-level skill. In four seasons, Thomas has the highest catch percentage (78.1%) among all receivers with at least 100 total targets.
Thomas' production is smooth and dependable. Parker's is volatile. Thomas' 80.5% catch percentage once again topped the league in 2019 — his 85% catch rate in 2018 was another single-season record — for receivers with at least 100 targets. Parker's (56.3%) was 27 of 30 qualifying pass-catchers. In the same group, however, Parker had the fourth-highest yards per reception (16.7), while Thomas was near the bottom (11.6). Parker was catching far fewer of his targets and receiving fewer targets altogether; but when he snagged a pass, he was ripping off more of the turf than Thomas.
This was a product of air yards, not yards after catch. Both players generally had equivalent yards-after-catch (YAC) production (3.9 YAC per reception for Thomas and 3.7 YAC per reception for Parker), per Pro Football Focus, but Parker markedly outdistanced Thomas before the catch with 13 of his yards per reception coming before the catch to Thomas' 7.7.
Parker was a downfield receiver last year; Thomas was not. Thomas led the league last year in yards per route run at 2.88, despite having only 4.4% of his passes travel more than 20 air yards, according to PFF.
This is a stunning figure. Thomas led the NFL in total targets by almost 30 but is tied 72nd in the number of deep targets he received with only eight to his name. And he is an average YAC player. Thomas isn't generating chunk gains after the catch or deep balls, but with seven of his eight deep targets secured (a league-leading 87.5% catch rate) and 67.7% of his contested catches secured (again, a league-leading rate), Thomas continues to produce because he catches everything.
We're now forced into an impossible question: How valuable is catching the football for a receiver?
If catching the football is the most important thing, then Thomas is the best receiver in the NFL; that feels intuitive. Thomas gets more volume, and in a different offense, wouldn't get the same attention, so his numbers wouldn't be as good. But he earned that numerical trust because of how reliable he is. If other receivers, like Parker, caught more of his targets, he'd get more volume; again, that's intuitive. But there's a tipping point, and Thomas might lay on the other side of it.
Athletically, Thomas is not a deep separation player. He struggles to generate a downfield stack on his vertical stems with the same consistency and dominance of other top receivers and is targeted on back-shoulder fade placements instead of upfield passes that generate more yardage. Why bother targeting him on downfield routes, then, when a passer could feed him where he's consistently dominant: in the underneath areas on quick-breaking routes and in tight zone windows?
It’s when the team wants more yards.
While it is valuable Thomas catches a mind-boggling number of his targets, it's also true that his yards per target are 9.3, and Parker's are 9.4. It would be more valuable if Thomas were catching his passes further downfield or creating more yardage after securing the catch.
There is a chicken-and-egg phenomenon between Thomas' skill set as a receiver and what he's asked to do in his offense. As is often the case for players with elite production, there's a perfect marriage between Thomas' skills and the scheme he plays in. Thomas is a quick, violent separator with tremendous feet. He has snappy breaks and a disturbing eagerness to initiate contact and break his defender's base, preventing a defensive back from recovering and playing on the football. With Thomas’ ability to get off of press coverage and win in contested situations, and his fearlessness when getting hit, he is a move receiver to attack different man or zone matchups with the ability to get into any route break with consistent timing and location. Quarterbacks with elite placement, timing and anticipation will maximize Thomas, while passers who want to hang onto the football and push downfield routes won't give him the quick strikes across the middle that he deserves.
Thomas’ occupation of the underneath and intermediate windows allows the Saints to pour Jared Cook, Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre'Quan Smith into vertical routes to stretch the field; and with Brees' limited arm and devastating ability to throw in rhythm, Thomas hogs the targets. Since nobody is more dominant underneath, Thomas remains there while the Saints continue to try and find better deep receivers to pair with him. As they continue to fail, Thomas continues to gobble up targets. This is the chicken and the egg: The routes which Thomas is targeted aren't of the highest value for the team as a whole, but when he catches so many of them and gets such a high volume of targets, he continues to produce at extremely high levels.
Considering an alternate reality is a necessary exercise here. If Thomas were in another offense, he wouldn't be as productive and likely wouldn't enter the conversation of the top receiver. But he wouldn't be any less productive because of his toolset. He has the route-running, contested catch ability and physicality to be a better downfield receiver or better YAC threat, even though he doesn't have top-end athleticism. He'd be less productive because he'd get fewer targets.
Thomas is a product of his opportunity more so than most receivers in the league, but that's no fault of his. Rather, it's to his credit. While his primary contemporaries are Cooper Kupp and Jarvis Landry, Thomas has landed in the offense that will get the most out of him and continues to demand even more volume from that offense accordingly. He is the best underneath receiver in the league.
Is Thomas the most valuable wide receiver in the NFL? I don't think so. He'd need to create more for himself after the catch or warrant more downfield targets with deep separation in order to do so. But from a pure film perspective, Thomas has some of the best tape, and it's tough to argue with how regularly he gets open and catches the dang thing.
Maybe that's all that matters to Thomas: that when he lines up across from a cornerback, nobody's as likely to catch a ball on that cornerback than he is.