Join the Footballguys Daily Update
Start your morning with our roundup of the most important stories in football - with the fantasy insight you need to make league-winning decisions. Delivered straight to your inbox, 100% free.
A prevailing sentiment ahead of this year's draft was that the 2016 class lacked wide receiver talent. Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell all became first round picks but none were selected in the top 10. Despite some big plays from that quartet, it's fair to say that the the first-round receivers this year have been disappointing. Doctson and Treadwell have barely played while Coleman and Fuller have sporadically produced.
Fuller has the most receptions of any first-round rookie. He has caught 30 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns through Week 12. Five other rookie receivers have caught more passes than Fuller.
Second-round pick Michael Thomas leads the league in every category. He has 65 receptions, 20 more than the next receiver, 789 yards, 313 more than the next receiver, and seven touchdowns, two more than the next receiver. Thomas is benefiting from being fully healthy and playing with Drew Brees, but his quality has been repeatedly highlighted by the opportunites that he has been given. He has quickly earned the trust of his quarterback and become a focal point of the passing game.
Thomas was a polarizing prospect leading up to the draft. For many, he wasn't even the best Michael Thomas in the draft. A poor combine performance was likely the difference between him going in the first round and him going in the second. Thomas has good size, he is officially listed at 6'3" and 212 lbs, but his size has been less a protagonist for success than his precision.
In simpler terms, Thomas has a small receiver skill set in the body of a big receiver. On Sunday, Thomas caught nine passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns against the Los Angeles Rams while showing off his wide skill set.
Sean Payton is a brilliant offensive coach. If you have a narrow skill set, he will use you in specific ways to maximize your output and impact. If you have a wide skill set, you will open up the offense for him while he creates opportunities for you at different levels of the field. Drew Brees knows that if Thomas is uncovered outside he can flip the ball out to him and expect him to create yardage after the catch. That is what happens in the above gif from the secnod quarter of the Rams game.
This play only gains six yards but the elements of it reflect positively on Thomas. First, he bends his legs and catches the ball away from his body to transition from catching the ball to running after the catch as smoothly as possible. When he squares up to the line of scrimmage E.J. Gaines is in a good position just three yards away.
Thomas doesn't evade or break the tackle but he still creates yards. Gaines should tackle Thomas one or two yards after the line of scrimmage. The receiver's quickness and acceleration allows him to push upfield before Gaines can close on him. After pushing upfield Thomas makes a very sharp cut to push back across Gaines' face and create momentum moving past his inside shoulder. Thomas' combination of size and acceleration means that Gaines can't stop him in his tracks.
During the lead up to the draft, a favorable comparison for Thomas was Michael Crabtree. Crabtree has always excelled at setting up his yards after the catch before he actually touched the ball. His body shape, setup of his feet and whether he catches the ball with his hands or into his chest are always working together to best position him to attack or create space around him. In the first gif you can see Thomas catch the ball with his hands and shift his weight because he wants to square up to the defender.
In this gif, you can see Thomas is aware of the defender coming in fast so he runs back through the ball, catches it into his body and continues upfield for a big gain. Neither Crabtree or Thomas are burners in a straight line or even exceptionally elusive, but they show off refined technique and awareness to attack space.
Later in the second quarter after the initial catch underneath, Thomas showed off the other side of his size.
At the top of the screen, Thomas releases vertically so that he is isolated on the safety. He feigns an inside break before bending his break back towards the outside. The safety has been comfortably beaten by Thomas' precise, quick route but the cornerback is still waiting outside. That cornerback forces Brees to fit the ball over him. This is a difficult throw for Brees and his pass isn't perfect. The ball floats slightly more than it should and arrives further infield than it should. It doesn't matter though.
Thomas reaches up and pulls the ball in above the defenders around him, showing off impressive ball skills and strong hands to secure possession through the catch. Brees giving Thomas this opportunity to win the ball is something he is less likely to do with Willie Snead or Brandin Cooks. Thomas' skill set affords him that opportunity.
Midway through the third quarter, Thomas' catch radius came into play again.
Thomas again runs a good route as he releases at an angle towards the outside cornerback before sharply cutting back upfield. A defender is trailing underneath him as he moves towards midfield and the ball arrives. Brees uses Thomas' height and ball skills to push the ball further away from the trailing cornerback. Thomas is willing to expose his body to the potential punishment from the arriving safety while also showing off comfortable body control to keep moving towards the middle of the field as he catches the ball.
Because he never breaks stride he is able to continue upfield away from the defender arriving from the other side of the field.
It was during the third quarter when Thomas scored his second touchdown and, coincidentally, made his most impressive play of the game. Before you watch the gif below, remember that the main criticism of Thomas was that he lacked athleticism, that the other Mike Thomas was a much greater athlete and was a better prospect because of that athleticism. Now, as you watch it, try to figure out where Thomas' lack of athleticism is showing up.
Thomas is the only receiver to the top of the screen. The defensive back across from him has his eyes in the backfield but is aligned slightly wider than Thomas so he can also see the receiver. Thomas makes a sharp move off the line that is perfectly timed with the play fake in the backfield. This makes the defensive back jump inside and lets Thomas escape outside cleanly. Once that happens, Brees knows that he can fit the ball into Thomas before the covering safety arrives.
As the ball arrives, it would be completely acceptable for Thomas to catch the ball and go down immediately. He isn't in position to make a defender miss and he is more likely to be punished by a big hit than deliver a big hit because he has to look back for the ball.
Instead of simply absorbing a big hit and protecting himself (and the ball), Thomas shows off quick-twitch athleticism and strength to stop before swatting the contact off of him. Stopping like that is a move a small receiver makes but a bigger receiver isn't expected to make. After making the smaller receiver move, Thomas then drags the recovering cornerback into the endzone with him for the touchdown.
We've seen what a healthy Michael Crabtree can do in the NFL. Thomas' parrallels to him as an individual are strong enough to use Crabtree's career as an expectation moving forward. The one key difference is that Crabtree never played in the type of offense that Thomas is currently in. Even with Derek Carr in Oakland, Crabtree hasn't been in this kind of expansive, efficient and explosive offense. Sean Payton and Drew Brees know how to get the most out of limited receivers. Thomas isn't limited. Thomas should be the team's best pass catcher since Jimmy Graham departed.