The road to a WR1 fantasy football season: Michael Thomas

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our annual Path to a Fantasy WR1 Season series. Be sure to read the Introduction to the 2022 Path to WR1 series for our methodology and an overview of the process. As a reminder, we’re not saying Michael Thomas will be a WR1 this season; we are discussing the way he might get there.

let me paint the picture The year is 2019. You are excited to start a new decade, the USA women’s soccer team had just won the World Cup and you were dominating your fantasy league on the back of New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas. Everything was right with the world.

No one would have guessed that just two years later, people would be wondering if Thomas would even be able to step onto the field to play football in 2022. So how did we get here and what does the future hold? Michael Thomas? What is the road to a WR1 for Michael Thomas?

2021 (and beyond) recap

If we summarize Michael Thomas and his game we have to go further back than 2021 due to his ankle injury but believe me we will discuss that later. The 2020 season was also marked by injuries for Thomas. In week one of the season, after three catches, he left the game against the Bucs with a high ankle sprain. Fantasy owners across the country shared a unified gasp as their consensus WR1 hobbled off the board by a paltry three fantasy points. After seven weeks, Thomas was back in the field at week 9 and the owners who had held onto him or hidden him in the IR were hopeful. It didn’t turn out that great. In those six games he played, Thomas finished among the top 24WRs only half the time, and the other three weeks were disastrous. He finished WR48, WR56 and WR71. At this point, starting Thomas was a definite disadvantage for your fantasy team. He ended the year as WR98.

But everything before 2020 was sunshine and roses. From his rookie year through 2019, Thomas had four seasons in which he finished in the top seven, including one year as WR number one. During those years he was very consistent with TDs, catching nine in three of four seasons and yards per reception, and holding it between 11.2 and 12.4. He steadily improved on most other stats, primarily goals, receptions, and total yards. In his WR1 season, he had league-high goals (188), receptions (156) and yards (1795).

games played Goals receptions meter J/C TD YAC ONE POINT
2016 fifteen 121 92 1137 12.4 9 478 8.1
2017 16 149 104 1245 12 5 515 10.1
2018 16 147 125 1405 11.2 9 574 8.3
2019 16 185 149 1725 11.6 9 599 8.2
2020 7 55 40 438 11 0 104 9.9

The way for 2022

Goals

In 2020, the Saints had 496 destinations available, mostly courtesy of Drew Brees and Taysom Hill. That number dropped to 445 goals in 2021, a year without Drew Brees and a variation of QBs below center. Things were complicated in the QB department, with four players starting at least one game for New Orleans. When Thomas played, he ordered goals, even in 2020 when he only played seven games. With 65 goals this season, he had a 148-goal pace that would have helped him cap off on another stellar year. The leaders last season were Marquez Callaway with 83 and RB Alvin Kamara with 65 goals. The targets are there for Thomas as long as he is on the field. Jarvis Landry and new rookie Chris Olave are the only significant additions to the reception core. With Jameis Winston hurling football in a race, we can expect the goals to remain high. In Winston’s last full starting season for Tampa Bay, he threw the ball 626 times. If you take all of Winston’s five full seasons, he averaged 509 tries. Let’s say he has 500 tries; Thomas would easily reach 125 if not more of those goals. Landry and Marquez Callaway are competent, but they won’t command the majority of targets. Landrys’ highest goal count was 166 in 2015, and Calloway’s peak was the 84 goals he had last season. Thomas’ main target rival is Alvin Kamara, who may be suspended for six games. Thomas is set to have a ridiculous target stock this season if he’s healthy.

receptions

Thomas has always had a stellar reception percentage – simply put, if you throw a football anywhere near Michael Thomas, he’s likely to catch it. The only exception was his injury-plagued 2020. But to be honest, he still wasn’t half bad. With only about a third of his typical targets, he still managed to catch just over 69% of them. Looking at his other four seasons in the NFL, he was in the top seven of the WR receiving percentage among receivers with 50 or more goals. However, a WR has to work a lot harder to catch the ball when they don’t have a QB like Drew Brees throwing it to them. At least one would think so. Thomas didn’t seem to suffer much reception-wise in the 2019 season, even when Teddy Bridgewater took over Brees with his 68% completion rate (75% completion rate this year). Jameis Winston’s career and Saint’s worst graduation percentage is 59%. Let’s say he gets up to 60% (thanks to those eye surgeons) and we’ve already imagined a world where Thomas accumulates around 125 targets. That’s about 75 receptions for an average WR. Thomas is not average and I can imagine a season where he catches 95 balls of those hypothetical 125 targets. That would be a 76% reception rate that would make it questionable for a WR1.

Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

meter

When I think of “QBs who love the long ball,” the first name that springs to mind is Jameis Winston. In five years as a starter at Tampa, Bay Winston threw for over nineteen thousand yards — that’s averaging about 4,000 yards per season. Jameis throws a lot, and he throws far. Even in the seven games started for New Orleans, he threw for nearly 1,200 yards, a seventeen-game pace of just 3,000 yards. If Winston throws yardage like he used to do in Tampa, Thomas will have a lot of options. In 2020, Thomas was paced for just over 1,000 yards if he had remained healthy, well short of his incredible 2019 1700 yards, but high enough to put him at WR17 in that scenario. If he can streak for 1,000 yards again this season, a WR1 finish could be on the cards.

landings

TDs were never where Thomas earned his hay. Aside from 2020, Thomas averaged just over six TDs in his five other seasons in the NFL. He had several seasons catching nine TDs, but he was never top in that category like he was in tries and receptions. In the seven games he played in 2021, Jameis Winston threw for fourteen TDs, which put him at a seventeen-game tempo of 34 TDs. That would have been the ninth-most TDs among QBs this season. Winston can definitely back Thomas with 7+ TDs to become a WR1 candidate.

Conclusion

There are two elephants in the room – the absence of Drew Brees and the presence of Michael Thomas’ dodgy ankle. Due to the delay in Thomas’ ankle surgery – he’s waiting until July 2021 to have the procedure – he’s still unable to train. “I think he’s doing well in his rehab. He’s not ready yet,” Saints head coach Dennis Allen recently told reporters. “But he’s here, he’s in rehab, he’s getting better and we’re definitely keen to get him out of there.” When asked if Thomas was ready for July training camp, Allen said it was “certainly ours Plan” is, but he has not committed to Thomas’ availability this summer.

Don’t forget Alvin Kamara and his possible suspension. This clouds the water even more when it comes to predicting Thomas’ possible fantasy ending. According to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, Thomas finishes 16th midway through the fourth roundth WR from the board. The same page states that Thomas goes high until the start of the third round and until the start of the fifth round. His underdog ADP is currently at 76, so early in the sixth round. I’ve seen an even more significant disparity in the mock drafts I’ve participated in so far this season. I know that every statement and statistic mentioned in this article should have a caveat added to it… if it’s sane. Therein lies the gambling. At Thomas you have to take your shot. If he is healthy and plays, he could become a champion. I was one of those owners who drafted Thomas in late last season and stashed in my IR hoping for the big payout. I get it. Things could be incredible for Michael Thomas, or he could have a terrible, not a good, very bad season. But if he manages to start the season with even 80% of the old Michael Thomas, he has a fair shot at finishing as WR1.

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