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The Great Debate: Michael Thomas (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 9, 2021
Michael Thomas

Fantasy football draft season is officially here, and the time has come to refine your stance on players. What better way to do that than a good, old-fashioned debate! We’re rolling out our debate series where one writer higher on a given player will take on another that’s lower than our expert consensus rankings.

We got the party started with Diontae Johnson. Up next, we have Josh Shepardson and Mike Maher debating New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas.

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The Debate

Listen, I understand the concerns about Michael Thomas this year. I harbored them. When diving into my rankings, I expected to be lower than the consensus. A funny thing happened, though. I ended up slightly higher than the consensus, ranking him as my WR6 in point-per-reception (PPR) formats.

Changing quarterbacks from sure-fire future Hall of Famer Drew Brees to one or both of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill isn’t ideal. Even in Brees’s diminished state, he played a major role in leading the Saints to top-five offensive scoring finishes. Do you know who else can claim they quarterbacked a top-five offense recently, though? According to Pro-Football-Reference, Winston started 16 games for the Buccaneers in 2019, leading them to a tie for the third-highest scoring offense at 28.6 points per game. As for Hill, the jury’s out.

What isn’t up for debate is that Thomas has played at a high level each of the last two years when Brees has missed games.

* The Saints played a Broncos offense led by practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton playing quarterback.

The table above shows Thomas's weekly wide receiver rank in six games in which Teddy Bridgewater played the bulk of the snaps (five starts and one relief appearance) in 2019 and Hill's starts in 2020. Teddy Two Gloves is a game manager. Yet, Thomas produced four top-12 finishes among his peers, added a WR15 finish, and his worst showing was a still-respectable WR22 finish. Last year, his ranks were WR13, WR46, WR16, and WR22. Are they elite finishes in 2020 one would want from a top-10 wideout? No. They come up short of that lofty expectation. However, there are caveats abound.

First, you can toss out his WR46 finish. The Saints were in an advantageous position against the Broncos, led by a practice squad receiver playing quarterback. Additionally, Thomas was likely well short of playing at 100%. He was sidelined from Week 2 through Week 8 with a high-ankle sprain. He also dealt with a quad injury, and he spent the last three weeks of the regular season on injured reserve to tend to his troublesome ankle. If you're concerned about the ankle being a long-term issue, I can't assuage your concerns, as I"m not a doctor. Until I see medical professionals cautioning fantasy gamers about the ankle injury, though, I'm giving him a pass.

We're one year removed from Thomas, setting the NFL record for receptions with 149 in 2019. He was largely viewed as the top receiver entering 2020. I'm cutting him some slack for a rough year and salivating at the thought of drafting a receiver with career averages of 7.3 receptions and 85.0 receiving yards per game with 32 touchdown receptions in 70 games at a discount. Of course, this wouldn't be a debate if there weren't counterarguments. And analysts and gamers should be open to having their opinions changed with more information. So, let's hear your rebuttal, Mike.
- Shepardson

Thanks, Josh. Like you, I expected to be lower than the consensus when I started diving into my rankings. Unlike you, my expectations proved to be correct.

You hit the nail on the head at the beginning of your analysis when you mentioned that going from Drew Brees to either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill isn’t ideal. Going from Brees to pretty much anyone other than Tom Brady isn’t ideal for a wide receiver like Michael Thomas. Still, this situation is obviously much more complex than just the quarterback situation. I agree with you that Winston winning the job would be better for Thomas than Hill.

The Saints restructured Thomas’s contract this offseason, essentially tying themselves to Thomas for at least the next two or three seasons. But that doesn’t mean fantasy managers in redraft, and keeper leagues have to do the same. Thomas was a disappointment for fantasy managers in 2020 and needed shoulder and ankle surgeries this offseason. With those built-in injury concerns and a questionable quarterback situation, why should fantasy managers be confident about Thomas heading into this season?

After being one of the first wide receivers taken in drafts last season, Thomas is considered a fringe WR1 heading into 2021. That may seem like a bargain or a buy-low opportunity, but that ranking is justified and should arguably be even lower. His current ECR has him ahead of Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, Keenan Allen, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Julio Jones, and I will have a hard time taking Thomas ahead of any of those wideouts.

Thomas indeed had a record-setting 2019, but this is 2021. In 2019, Thomas had a Hall of Fame quarterback (at least for 11 games) who perfectly matched Thomas’s skill set. Brees and Thomas had perfect chemistry, and Brees’s accuracy and ability to anticipate and hit open receivers meshed with Thomas’s route-running ability, which was arguably the best in the NFL. But Brees is gone, and the New Orleans offense will look much different regardless of who wins the quarterback job.

Thomas scored exactly zero touchdowns while playing in seven games in 2020, and his floor is just too low to justify taking him over some of the receivers mentioned earlier. I’m always willing to hear counter-arguments and am open to the idea that Thomas could be a bargain if he falls far enough in drafts, but I don’t anticipate having many shares in 2021. But I’m thrilled to be matched with Josh for this series because I read a ton of his work and value his opinion, so I’m very interested to see where this debate goes.
- Maher

It's a pleasure engaging in this cordial debate over Michael Thomas's fantasy value, Mike. I can't argue with your assessment that Thomas and Drew Brees had remarkable chemistry. However, I can counter that it remains to be seen what Thomas can do with a quarterback who possesses more than Brees's diminished arm. We know Thomas is a monster in the intermediary area of the field. His deep-ball ability is largely an unanswered question.

As for the other receivers being drafted after him you prefer, I think it's important to address them when considering selecting Thomas. CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper are tied to an uptempo offense with an excellent quarterback. However, they cap one another's ceilings -- saying nothing of Michael Gallup, a returning Blake Jarwin, perennial bell-cow Ezekiel Elliott, and emerging change-of-pace back Tony Pollard. Julio Jones is now arguably the second fiddle to supremely talented A.J. Brown. More alarmingly, though, he goes from a pass-happy offense to a run-heavy, Derrick Henry-powered offense. Keenan Allen's efficiency plummeted last year, despite the superb rookie campaign of Justin Herbert. Make no mistake. I like each of these receivers around their ADP. However, they have their own worrisome floors with a lower ceiling than Thomas has on his resume.

I bypassed discussing Allen Robinson and Mike Evans because both bring me to my next points. A-Rob is the poster child of volume being king, regardless of the caliber of quarterback slinging the rock. A-Rob has played with a sad lot of quarterbacks in his career. Still, gaudy target totals presented to him as the unquestioned No. 1 receiver in his offense have resulted in excellent finishes at the receiver position. Even in the worst case that Winston and Hill play terribly, the volume as the Saints' unrivaled No. 1 receiver should keep Thomas's value afloat, ala A-Rob's annual production with disastrous quarterbacking.

Further, while there's merit to the old saying, if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback. It's probably good for Thomas's floor that there's a fallback option for head coach Sean Payton to turn to in the event the winner of the quarterback competition faceplants.

Also, I haven't forgotten about Evans. He has significant competition for targets on the loaded reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. I prefer Thomas's guaranteed target share. Regardless, Evans provides me ammo for supporting Thomas. With Winston leading the 2019 Buccaneers, Evans finished as the PPR WR11 in total points and WR5 in average points per game during the fantasy season (Week 1 through Week 16). Remarkably, he was only the second-best receiver from a fantasy perspective on that team. Chris Godwin finished second in total points and points per game to Thomas that season. In other words, Winston's proven to be an incredibly fantasy-friendly quarterback for his receivers. If Winston wins the job, I believe overall WR1 is within Thomas's range of outcomes. While a high floor is nice early, there's still something to be said for getting a player with Thomas's ceiling in the early rounds, as he has league-winning upside.

Of course, there may be other considerations I'm overlooking. I'm sure Mike will bring them to my attention and provide more food for thought about approaching Thomas in drafts.
- Shepardson

Agreed that this Michael Thomas debate has been a fun experiment, although I may never fully forgive you for taking my wide receiver comps and using them against me.

I’m not sure that Thomas’s deep-ball ability is a completely unanswered question. Over the last few years, he has excelled because of his elite route running. But he has never been a burner. Coming out of college in 2016, Thomas ran a 4.57 40-yard dash. For comparison, Jalen Hurts ran a 4.59 in 2020.

And that 40 time was more than five years ago for Thomas. With the reports that Thomas had to undergo offseason ankle surgery to repair multiple torn ligaments and is still receiving treatment, it’s fair to wonder if his top-end speed and quickness will even be close to what we saw in 2019 in 2021.

For the sake of argument, let’s toss out Thomas’s injury-plagued 2020 and focus on 2019. In 2019, Thomas’s “Target Accuracy” score was 8.02, the best in the NFL. His TAY% (Share of Team’s Air Yards) was 41.35%, second only to Courtland Sutton. His Catch% was 80.54%, secondly only to Kyle Rudolph, who only caught 39 passes. Regardless of who plays quarterback for the Saints in 2021, none of those numbers is likely to be anywhere close to what we saw in 2019.

It’s perhaps more likely that the Saints air out the ball more if Jameis Winston wins the job (and can limit the interceptions), but I think we’re going to see a different offense in New Orleans this year. Even if Thomas comes back healthy, I don’t see anything close to that 2019 volume returning, despite the questionable depth at the wide receiver position. Volume is king, but the Saints aren’t going to take the same Thomas-heavy approach without Brees as the distributor.

I get that Brees wasn’t exactly airing the ball out down the field towards the end of his career, but I find it hard to believe that Thomas’s 11.6 yards-per-reception (tied for 70th in the NFL) number was entirely due to Brees. Do you know who else averaged 11.6 yards-per-reception in 2019? Cole Beasley.

In 2019, Thomas probably won a ton of fantasy managers their leagues, especially in PPR formats. But with the injury concerns and the questions about the offense in New Orleans, I’m probably not going to be comfortable taking Thomas where he is going in drafts.
- Maher

The Analysts

It feels like too many people are dismissing Thomas this year, falling into borderline WR2 territory. Did everyone forget he was the consensus No. 1 wide receiver last year? Sure, Drew Brees is gone, but are we going to pretend that Brees' arm was as strong as it used to be? Now, the next question is whether Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill is under center. If it's Winston, Thomas should be locked and loaded as a WR1. If it's Hill, there should be a conversation, but don't forget what Thomas did in the four Hill games last year: 9/104/0, 4/50/0, 9/105/0, and 8/84/0. Those are rock-solid numbers, though the touchdowns were obviously not there. If you get Thomas in the third round of drafts this year, you should feel great about it, especially if Winston is the starter.
- Mike Tagliere

It will be tough to get past the pain that fantasy managers endured last season with drafting MT. After being drafted as the consensus WR1, Thomas finished with exactly zero receiving touchdowns in the regular season! He obviously missed a lot of time, which certainly affects those numbers, but that stung fantasy players badly last year. Now, Thomas doesn't have Drew Brees to throw him the ball time and time again, and we're entering into a bit of unknown territory on how to view Thomas for fantasy football. In my opinion, Thomas should still soak up targets in this offense, and he'll bounce back. With that being said, I don't believe that he's going to truly bounce back to consensus WR1 levels. Thomas is the perfect addition to your roster as a low-end WR1/high-end WR2 that should provide a safe floor week after week. However, the days of him soaking up 185 targets may very well be behind us. My Very Early Projection: 100-1177-7 receiving.
- Kyle Yates

The Public

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