For those of you who follow me on twitter, or who listen to the SaintsNation podcast, you are familiar with the running joke that I hate Michael Thomas. For those of you who actually think its true, shame on you. Ignoring the fact I mocked him to the Saints and talked about how he was a perfect fit (and I STILL undersold him), I’ve been one of his biggest fans since he put on the black and gold not only because of his production, but his demeanor. I don’t hate Michael Thomas, but what I have refused to do is to put him in the top echelon of receivers, at least not yet, and there’s a reason for this. There are 5 receivers in the top tier in my book, and below I’ll outline what I believe is required to be in that tier, but understand this if nothing else. I not only hope Michael Thomas kicks that door down soon, I fully expect him to. Saying he isn’t there yet isn’t an attack on his greatness (he’s been amazing), its understanding what the very top of the mountain really looks like, and believing that he has what it takes to get there, but isn’t there just yet. TLDR: Michael Thomas is insanely good, and he can still get better. Now lets take a look at what makes Thomas great, and what I believe currently separates him from the very top.
What Makes Michael Thomas so good?
First of all, a twitter handle has never been a better descriptor of a player’s game. Michael Thomas goes by @cantguardmike, and if you watch his film you can’t. Thomas plays with exception strength and leverage, and his hands have been his hallmark trait since coming out of Ohio State as a rookie, but what really sets Thomas apart is his feet. Michael Thomas is absolutely vicious at the line of scrimmage abusing defensive backs and creating separation almost instantly. His ability to win early, and with consistency on routes is one of the key factors behind Thomas’s production as he has been one of the most consistent players in the league from game to game. Thomas being able to win right off the line also helps him be a reliable option on 3rd down, and combined with his excellent hands and catch radius he’s been the Saints most reliable option in that regard.
Beyond just his ability to run routes and to create initial separation, the thing that has really helped Thomas stand out is his ability to create extra yards after the initial catch. Thomas is not only the first Saints receiver to not suck on screens in years, but he is also effective coming across the middle of the field (a featured component of the Saints passing game). Thomas’s footwork and balance allow him to stutter step, cut, shift, and start-stop-start to force defenders to over pursue, or just flat-out miss him in the open field. Thomas frequently turns shorter gains into longer ones by using his lateral agility, excellent footwork, and body control to abuse defenders.
What Makes a receiver ‘Elite’?
This is the part where I get into trouble on twitter, and also where I am at once being too hard on an incredible player, but also holding him to an insane standard I fully believe he can reach. Before getting into positional specifics, let me be clear on my stance on the word ‘elite’: its used WAY too loosely. We all remember a few years ago when there was the debate about Joe Flacco being ‘elite’, even though film and production numbers were clear he was solid, but not the catalyst behind the team’s wins. We all would like have agree to the statement “he’s really good, but elite is just too much”, yet as soon as he won a SuperBowl that suddenly changed. The trophy didn’t change the player, it changed our perception. I like to reserve the word elite for the absolute best of the best. Since I work in analytics I’m a stickler for details (obnoxiously so at times), but also I like to classify things in ways that are accurate, especially when so much context can be applied. So lets just say in the NFL there are two tiers of great receivers, tier 1 guys are the ‘elite’, and tier 2 are players who are extremely talented/productive, but haven’t broken that ceiling.
Here’s what, in my opinion, seperates a tier 1 player from a tier 2 player. Part of it is production, top guys put up top numbers. Part of it is timing, big players come up in big moments (although that cliche has its issues). But the clearest separator between top tier players and everyone else is that they not only do what others do numerically (lots of catches, yards, tds, etc depending on scheme and usage), is the ability to dominate. Not just a matchup, not just a snap, but a game. The ability to enforce your will upon others is the clearest separator between the elite, and the really good. Dominance can manifest in different ways, statistical domination, dominating at key moments, or getting the better of important matchups consistently, it can even be the ability to draw the attention of the entire opposing defense. There isn’t just one way to define an elite player or how a guy can dominate, but there is one other attribute that elite players have that others don’t. Elite players improve with better help (duh), but they don’t drop off without it. Dez Bryant was an animal with Tony Romo, he’s not the same with Dak. Players like OBJ, AJ Green, Deandre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Antonio Brown have production of the highest level, have dominated games in every way imaginable, and would fit in any offense in the league and could produce (and in Hopkins case can produce with garbage at quarterback).
How Close is Mike to that level?
Very close. Michael Thomas has the numbers (see below) to put himself in any discussion among players in their first two years you want. The only 2 guys he can’t touch are Randy Moss and OBJ. Thomas has been incredible by any metric, but he hasn’t yet started to dominate. Michael Thomas hasn’t shown the ability to make gamebreaking plays, he hasn’t (until recently) shown the ability to take a game over and put the team on his back, and his ‘dominance’ is through consistency not explosion (which isn’t a negative mind you). He’s still in that second tier, but if you watch him, if you see the numbers he’s putting up, and you see the way he improves week to week, you shouldn’t have any doubt that he’s going to start checking those final boxes very soon. Michael Thomas may be the player closest in the NFL to stepping into that category (it’s him, Mike Evans, and Adam Theilen for different reasons in my opinion).
If there is one thing we know about Michael Thomas it’s that you can’t guard him, but more than that, never underestimate him. Thomas is very close to breaking through to that final tier, and if he can show what he showed us against the Jets last week a few more times…the wait could be over. Its not just about the numbers, how you get them matters. If Michael Thomas is ready to dominate, and not just be incredibly reliable, then the league better be very afraid.