According to New Orleans Saints Head Coach Dennis Allen, wide receiver Michael Thomas must clear a “few more hurdles” before returning to the field in 2022. A one-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year and three-time Pro Bowl selection, Thomas appeared in just seven regular-season contests in 2020 before failing to suit up for a single game in 2021 as he continues to struggle with recurring ankle injuries.
Thomas was expected to play this past season despite undergoing offseason surgery in July of 2021. Thomas then suffered a setback during his rehab process, an occurrence that kept him on the sidelines for the entirety of the 2021 campaign. Allen’s comments qualify as particularly concerning given Thomas’ difficult and unpredictable two-year path to recovery.
The Saints fielded what was quite possibly the worst group of pass-catchers in the league in 2021. The situation bears continued concern should Thomas struggle to regain his previous form and remain healthy throughout the upcoming campaign. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis attempted to address the team’s dire situation at receiver by trading up in the 2022 NFL Draft in order to select former Ohio State pass-catcher Chris Olave.
Olave is undeniably an excellent get for a Saints offense that must achieve more success passing the ball in 2022 than they did in 2021. Olave is a technically-gifted route-runner that possesses every trait necessary to hit the ground running in New Orleans. Given their lack of activity at the position behind Olave and Thomas however, New Orleans’ best bet to rehabilitate their passing offense is to pair Olave with a healthy and productive Thomas. The Saints haven’t done enough to address their underperforming passing offense should they be forced to play an extended period of time without Thomas in the fold. A rookie can only carry such a heavy workload.
Second-year undrafted free agent Marquez Callaway was tasked with stepping into the limelight in Thomas’ absence but managed to record just 46 receptions for a team-high 698 yards and six touchdowns. Callaway earned the team’s only 100-yard outing from a wideout in 2021, however, it didn’t occur until Week 15. It’s a statistical fact that appropriately highlights New Orleans’ struggles at the position. Callaway is best suited as a role player.
Salary cap-related difficulties largely forced the Saints to sit on the sidelines throughout the more aggressive free agency periods, which hampered their ability to sign another proven veteran pass-catcher. While the front office managed to re-sign Tre’Quan Smith to a two-year contract extension worth $6 million earlier this offseason, the Saints ultimately possess little in the form of receiver talent behind the proven Thomas and what Olave projects to become. Alvin Kamara undeniably remains one of the most effective dual-threat running backs in all of professional football, but the Saints would be wise to diversify their attack going forward. Kamara missed four regular-season contests in 2021, and can only handle so many more 350-plus-touch annual workloads.
The Saints are in pursuit of offensive improvement after averaging a league-low 187.4 passing yards per contest in 2021. As a blanket statement, analyzing New Orleans’ passing offense in a post-Jameis-Winston world is considerably unfair. Essentially every team struggles when/if forced to play without their starting quarterback, but analyzing New Orleans’ offensive outputs throughout Winston’s seven starts does little to change the overall narrative. The Saints averaged just 167.1 passing yards in those seven games, with Winston failing to top 148 passing yards in their opening three contests. Winston was beginning to play at a higher level before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in a Week 8 defeat over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but there’s no denying that New Orleans’ passing offense left something to be desired with or without Winston under center, and a lack of clear-cut weapons was largely at fault.
It’s also worth mentioning that long-time head coach Sean Payton “retired” earlier this offseason, and has been replaced by a defensive-minded leader in coach Allen. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael remained in his role despite Payton departing the franchise, but it’s fair to assume the Saints will miss Payton’s offensive brilliance. It’s reasonable to believe New Orleans may have to overcompensate for his loss, and that’s going to be impossible to realistically achieve should Thomas struggle to remain healthy.
Luckily for the Saints, September is a ways away and Thomas has plenty of time to get healthy ahead of the impending 2022 campaign. Allen’s comments are however worrisome given Thomas’ recent injury history. Should the 2019 receptions leader struggle to overcome his health-related woes, New Orleans’ 2022 passing outputs may look eerily similar to the underwhelming unit we were exposed to in 2021.