Is New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas going too high in fantasy football drafts? It’s a question I’ve pondered all offseason and wanted to explore in depth.
The consensus top two overall picks in PPR leagues are running backs, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. You’ll get no argument from me there. Thomas is the next pick more often than not, so far, coming off the board with an average draft position of 3.8. He’s the only non-RB going in the top seven picks.
Upside, value, and safety are the biggest factors one must consider with their first-round pick. Successful fantasy managers weigh a player’s upside alongside the likelihood of that upside occurring, the opportunity cost of missing out on other top players, and what the player’s reasonable floor is. That said, is it worth it to be bold and take Thomas in the top three, or is the traditional path of selecting a top running back more prudent?
We’re all aware of what Thomas’ upside is—we saw it last season. He caught an NFL-record 149 passes for a league-leading 1,725 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. Counting Weeks 1-16, Thomas had 366.9 PPR fantasy points, the third-best total in the NFL behind only McCaffrey (448.4) and quarterback Lamar Jackson (421.7). Thomas finished with 90.8 more fantasy points than the next-best WR (Chris Godwin, 276.1) and outpaced him on a per-game basis by nearly five points. For context, 4.8 points per game was about the difference between WR2 Godwin and WR19 Marvin Jones Jr., and between RB2 Dalvin Cook and RB11 Mark Ingram in 2019.
That was the best-case scenario. What’s the most likely scenario for 2020?
Going strictly by where sportsbooks have set his over/under, 120 catches for 1,400 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns seems like a good place to start. That would equal 314 fantasy points in total or about 294.4 from Weeks 1-16—that’s a per-game average of 19.63 points. Last season, that would’ve ranked as the second-best wide receiver and sixth-best non-quarterback on a per-game basis. Are those numbers fair to use?
Taking a look at Thomas’ career averages, the fact that he doesn’t miss games due to injury, and that last season was a bit of an outlier, it’s reasonable to expect he’ll get around 150 targets in 2020. At his career average of 9.2 yards per target, he’ll be right around 1,400 receiving yards. At his 78.1% career catch rate, he’ll be around 117 receptions. He’s also caught exactly nine touchdowns in three of his four NFL seasons.
If anything, his 2018 season is the best comp for what’s reasonable to expect in 2020: 125/1405/9 on 147 targets. He finished that fantasy season as the 11th-best non-QB and third-best wide receiver on a points-per-game basis (20.5). He was taken as either the WR3 or WR4 (behind Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins and with a nearly identical ADP to Julio Jones) the following season with an ADP of 10.4.
There’s no doubt Thomas should be the first wide receiver off the board, but he shouldn’t be going in the first three picks. I’d be comfortable taking him No. 5 overall behind McCaffrey, Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara. A premier RB1 is so valuable and I just can’t pass on Elliott, who’s finished 3rd, 3rd, 7th, and 5th among all running backs on a per-game basis since he entered the league, and Kamara, who’s due for major positive touchdown progression and a return to the elite tier of running backs.
Thomas may be the “safer” pick since his injury risk is much lower than any running back and he has a high floor, but I expect the top receivers to be a lot more bunched up this year than they were in 2019. On the other hand, with Dalvin Cook holding out, I believe there are only four truly elite running backs. The depth at the wide receiver position, a likely return to just elite status from otherworldly, and the scarcity of premier running backs lead me to say Thomas is going a little too high in fantasy drafts.