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Rewind: The Dynasty-Fantasy Value of Michael Thomas in 2017

Date:
January 21, 2018 8:25 PM
May 11, 2016 10:11 AM
— Our offseason ‘Rewind’ reports are where we look at an individual player’s previous season(s) of work–analyzing and researching it for clues on whether it was a ‘blip’ performance, or signs of future greatness…or signs of a mega-bust approaching. We try to do two per week in the offseason. —

From the jump, I have not been a Michael Thomas fan. He was sold to the world as an ‘A’ prospect. He fell to the #47 pick in the 2016 draft because the tape and his pre-draft measurables showed more of a ‘B/C’ grade WR. I thought Thomas would be a ‘third wheel’ option on the Saints in 2016, and not a fantasy performer to count on…despite the impact that ‘the Saints‘/Drew Brees can have on a fantasy receiver. I watched Thomas in the 2016 preseason and was not impressed. He went on to catch 92 passes for 1,137 yards and 9 TDs…making me look like a fool.

I’ve been a fool on occasion.

I’m not one here with my original scouting.

I just watched a majority of Thomas’s 2016 season games, especially focusing on his second half (after he got established). There is a good reason to be a skeptic on Thomas going forward.

Let me just throw a bunch of thoughts out from my notes and we’ll see if we can tie them all together by the end of this…

Michael Thomas may be the worst #1 wide receiver in the NFL, and could be the reason for a drop-off in Drew Brees in 2017 fantasy…and will further precipitate the Saints’ overall win-loss decline, and get the entire coaching staff under intense pressure (the management team and coaching staff should be replaced, but won’t be).

It’s all Michael Thomas’s fault. Really, it’s the GM’s and coach’s fault for putting Thomas in a position to bring the entire machine down (some ‘machine’…the Saints have won 7 games four of the last five seasons).

If we were drafting just WRs, a draft containing the considered-best WR from each team…how long would it be until you selected Thomas? He’s not more talented than the top guys…not even in the conversation with Julio, OBJ, Antonio, et al.

Not more talented than DeAndre Hopkins, Corey Davis (or Rishard Matthews), T.Y. Hilton, or Allen Robinson. That was the AFC South’s #1 group. I could go division by division rattling off names that are better than Thomas. In the end, Thomas is arguably better than Kenny Britt/Corey Coleman (Cleveland)…and that’s it (and Coleman may be about to push him to #32).

Yeah, the #31 ‘best’ wide receiver among the 32 teams. Go ahead and look at it yourself. I’ll wait.

Not more talented than Quincy Enunwa…or Cameron Meredith…or Pierre Garcon…or healthy, non-fat Kelvin Benjamin…or Breshad Perriman. He isn’t better than Cooper Kupp.

How can Michael Thomas be the 31st-best ‘#1 WR’ in the NFL (or #27 or #29, wherever near the bottom you want to put him), and yet be a top 10 projected fantasy WR today? Because ‘Saints‘, and that understandable logic might be a massive fantasy mistake in 2017, and I’ll tell you why after re-watching his 2016…

…Oh, and Michael Thomas isn’t the best WR on his own team. That honor goes to Willie Snead.

There is fantasy value in being the Saints’ ‘#1 WR’, I get that. The problem really is that Thomas is lacking in #1 talent. He is not a burner. He’s not overly physical. He’s a solid size (6′2″+/210+) WR, a solid/average athlete with nice hands, but will drop passes working underneath in traffic. Some NFL teams have 3–4 WRs on their roster more talented than Thomas – he should not be a team’s #1 WR…especially for the Saints. What the Saints are doing with their offense makes absolutely no sense and should get people fired at year’s end. The Saints have a Hall of Fame quarterback, play in a fast-track dome, and with a pass-friendly offense/coach…and yet have given Brees two slower, possession WRs as their 1-2 punch (Thomas-Snead).

Drink this in – the Saints are rolling with one of the best quarterbacks in the history of football, and in the twilight of his career, they have surrounded him with Thomas, Snead, Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, Coby Fleener, and Josh Hill. HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN? In an era of bountiful WR prospects, and a sudden surge of tight end talent from college…this is the weaponry the Saints have provided Brees with in his final year or two at the top of his game? It’s criminal. The Saints had one WR straw that stirred the drink…Brandin Cooks. True to form, the Patriots came along and stole their straw so that the Saints could draft a slow, injured guard from Wisconsin at pick #32.

The Brandin Cooks aspect is half the Thomas issue here.

As I was re-watching the Saints passing game, focusing on Thomas, I couldn’t help but watch Cooks at work as well. Cooks is unbelievably talented…and was way underutilized in that offense. I screamed about that all last year, and we see how it turned out – Cooks was frustrated with it too and was traded (and that was the point Sean Payton probably signed his coaching death certificate in New Orleans). When you watch the 2016 Saints passing game at work, defenses mostly had Cooks as their focal point. The #1 corner was on Cooks, and safeties had to pay attention over the top. He freed up a lot of underneath activity.

As time went on, teams started to realize that Cooks was a decoy/something was wrong and they started to put more attention on the emerging Michael Thomas. Whenever Thomas drew top coverage, he was reduced to insignificant. When that would happen, Brees would start to look for Cooks…and that’s when Cooks would go off. When the top coverage moved back to Cooks, Thomas started to have better numbers.

There is no Brandin Cooks shield of protection for Michael Thomas this year…nor for Drew Brees.

The best examples of the Thomas issue against top coverage was in his Week 9 game versus Denver and his Week 16 game versus Tampa Bay.

In Week 9, Michael Thomas embarrassed himself. Denver had the NFL’s top secondary – so, all the Saints WRs had trouble working, Thomas especially. He bobbled a pass up into the air for an INT early. He then fumbled twice after the catch on passes over the middle. Working against the league’s top pass defense, Thomas was scared and a detriment to his offense. His limitations were glaring versus Denver.

Thomas is not an over-the-middle warrior but he has to do some work there because he’s not a fast enough WR to blaze his way past corners. Really, what I saw in 2016, was most all activity Thomas had was timing passes/back shoulder work and alley-oops against smaller DBs. Otherwise, Thomas was stuck. He did not dominate any opponents…he can’t because he’s not a dominant receiver. He just saw a lot of timing targets.

Late in the season, versus Tampa Bay, Thomas saw top coverage for most of the game. Cooks had gone into that target funk and Thomas was becoming the top target. Tampa put talented veteran Brent Grimes on Thomas a lot in this game, and Thomas was reduced to insignificant again. Just some simple timing passes for not much output against Grimes. Brandin Cooks was teaching Vernon Hargreaves a lesson on the other side – when Brees bothered to look. When Grimes switched over to Cooks on occasion, Thomas then started having targets versus Hargreaves. The difference in Thomas when Grimes had him to when the rookie Hargreaves did was obvious. In most games in 2016, Thomas was drawing the second- or third-best cover man the opponent had…whenever he got stuck with the top cover guy, he really disappeared/reduced.

With Brandin Cooks gone, teams can and will throw their top coverage at Michael Thomas…and that’s not going to be good for Thomas for fantasy. Thomas was meant to be a #2–3 WR in part of an ensemble. He was not meant to be a #1 WR…but he is now, and there will be trouble from it. Xavier Rhodes, Malcolm Butler, and James Bradberry right out of the chute for Thomas to start 2017.

I understand ‘it’s the Saints‘, which means they will be throwing a lot and down a lot…so there could be some offset with Thomas’s 2017 numbers. He could be a great garbage-time performer. Thomas is not an incompetent wide receiver, he’s just not a #1 WR. He’s basically Kamar Aiken but with more fanfare because ‘Ohio State’. Three years ago, Aiken was a slippery, on-the-rise #3 WR for the Ravens everyone from the football media to fantasy analysts loved as a sleeper. The following year, due to injuries, Aiken was pushed to the #1 WR role mid-season…and had some numbers on heavy targets but also killed the overall passing game because no defense was afraid of this slower, ‘good hands’ target. Once Baltimore realized this, the next year (last season) after being the #1 WR for a spell prior…Aiken went back into hiding as they drafted/signed/brought along other receivers. Now, 2017, Aiken is a forgotten, cheap free agent signee for the Colts…signed to be their #3-4-5 WR. There was a time Kamar Aiken was a media and fantasy ‘sleeper’ darling (not by me – I fought it all the way for the same reason I fight against Thomas). No more is Aiken a darling. I think Michael Thomas is headed on that same path. Top guy to bit player/#3 WR in a span of the next two years.

Thomas isn’t going to bust in 2017, per se, but he’s not a top 10 WR talent-wise, and the lack of Brandin Cooks to help everything could really crush Thomas in terms of performance against the better pass defenses. Where Thomas is valued today and what his 2017 reality will likely be…and what he’ll be seen as in 2018…it is a giant valuation chasm. You’re at ‘peak’ Michael Thomas value right now. Everyone assumes Saints + Ohio State WR + the media’s, and thus the fans’, love = fantasy gold. Hell, Thomas has better preseason fantasy rankings in 2017 than Cooks ever did. Cooks was always undervalued, seen with a skeptical eye for all his preseasons…while fans lap up everything on Thomas because the media loves him. It makes absolutely no sense…people have talked themselves into this story without really studying it (which is the definition of football media). The marketplace is way, way, way overvalued on Thomas. At best he’ll be a WR2 with WR1 moments in 2017, but it’s possible Thomas gets lost and Willie Snead is the more important Saints WR for fantasy 2017.

You look at the top 15–20 ADP WRs right now, and assume they all stay healthy for 2017…and there are only two names that if I visited you from the future and told you one of them would end up his team’s #3 WR performer for fantasy in 2017, that you’d not be totally surprised – Keenan Allen and Michael Thomas. I would not be shocked if Ted Ginn outscored Thomas in 2017.

The lack of Brandin Cooks in 2017 is going to be breathtaking in its magnitude – it’s going to hand the Patriots a Super Bowl, it’ll get the Saints’ staff in turmoil/potentially wiped out, and it’s going to expose Michael Thomas as a Kamar Aiken-like talent…i.e. boring and not high-end. It’s also going to burn many Thomas owners in fantasy. I would be a seller of ‘peak Michael Thomas‘ right now.

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About R.C. Fischer

R.C. Fischer is a fantasy football player analyst for Fantasy Football Metrics and College Football Metrics. 

Email rc4metrics@gmail.com

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