The sophomore slump is an unfortunate phenomenon that athletes of all sports commonly fall victim to. Is Michael Thomas next?
Michael Thomas certainly put together an impressive rookie season. One which saw him turn 122 targets into 92 receptions for 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns. Heading into his second season, I don’t expect him to slow down. Actually, I see a monster 2017 season looming for a number of reasons.
First, the Saints have led the NFL in passing yards per game in each of the past two seasons. For eleven years Drew Brees has been the Saints signal-caller. And for all eleven it’s been no secret that this offense relies heavily on his arm. In the Saints pass-happy offense there should be no shortage of targets heading Thomas’ way, which brings me to my next point.
Perhaps the most noteworthy move of the Saints’ offseason came when they agreed to terms sending Brandin Cooks and a 2017 fourth-round pick to Foxborough in exchange for the Patriots’ first-round pick (no. 32) and third-round pick (103).
Leaving with Cook was a ton of offensive production, in fact, 117 targets, 78 receptions, 1,173 yards and 8 touchdowns worth of it. If the Saints are to be successful in 2017, somebody has to pick up the tab, and I expect Thomas to take on a large chunk of it.
Below I’m going to focus on why I believe Thomas’ ability as a receiver puts him in a great position to top his rookie season numbers. I won’t say crush them, but that is entirely possible. I went back to the film and cut up some plays to really demonstrate where Thomas excels as a receiver: route running, strength, and ball skills.
Michael Thomas runs deadly slants. His combination of crisp releases and strength makes him a very difficult guy to play press coverage against. On this particular play, Raiders CB Sean Smith is tasked with taking away Thomas’ inside, so he splits Thomas and stacks himself with inside leverage. At the snap of the ball Thomas knows that despite the inside leverage he’s facing he must somehow beat Smith across his face. In order to do so, Thomas sets Smith up to the outside with a quick release, swipes Smith’s arm and makes a cut inside for a successful completion.
These top two plays are great examples of all three of the traits I mentioned previously. His smooth footwork at the snap of the ball causes the Cardinals corner to lunge, in an attempt to bump Thomas. Consequently, Thomas extends his arm and keeps the corner to his inside, giving him the leverage he needs to get into his fade route. Finally, Thomas goes up and rotates his body in the air to secure the catch.
On the second play, Thomas once again gets a strong release with clean footwork. A quick swim move of the Atlanta defender’s reach gets him over and on top of him. And to secure the catch he makes a sweet adjustment to the ball, twisting his body. Worth noting is the fact that Thomas sports a pair of mammoth paws at 10.5 inches. For reference, his hands are a full inch bigger than Giants superstar Odell Beckham Jr., who wears 4XL gloves
Thanks to Nick Underhill of The New Orleans Advocate, we can understand how Brees views his number one receiver:
"“There are a lot of things that are hard to defend with Mike. He’s a physical guy. He plays with violence, especially when guys come to play him on a bump-and-run. I don’t think they realize how strong he is.”"
The two plays above are a true testament to Brees’ statements regarding Michael Thomas. Against the Cardinals, Thomas begins by immediately running through the defender. He throws a stiff jab, gets to the top of his hitch and gives him another swift nudge to create separation. And after securing the catch, Thomas is relentless in his fight for extra yards.
The same can be said for the second play when Thomas again creates separation at the top of his route with a violent shove on All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
The Bottom Line
This was just a glimpse into what Thomas is capable of, as the film is loaded with these types of plays. He won’t burn you with his speed (4.57 second 40-time) but his explosive cuts get him open. Physically, Thomas can overpower bump-and-run coverage with violent hands, strength and his 6’3”, 212 pound frame. His 18 bench press reps of 225lbs. at the NFL Combine were second most by a receiver. And when that ball is in the air, I’d bet Thomas is the guy coming down with it.
Sophomore slump? Leave it to Zeke or Tyreek Hill… Michael Thomas is here to stay.