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Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is in about as good a situation as it gets. Here’s what he has in his favor:

  • The Saints pass the ball a ton. The last three years, New Orleans ranked 2nd each season in pass attempts, finishing 2 attempts behind the Colts in 2014, 9 attempts behind the Ravens in 2015, and 5 attempts behind the Ravens last year. The Saints have an even 2,000 attempts over the last three seasons, the Ravens are 2nd with 1,909, and the Colts are 3rd with 1,864. It’s true that New Orleans did just add Adrian Peterson, but the Saints are well-established as the league’s preeminent pass-heavy team.
  • Thomas, unlike players on the Ravens, gets to play with a superstar quarterback in Drew Brees. Because more important than the 2,000 attempts is that New Orleans has thrown for 14,808 gross passing yards the last 3 years, more than 1,000 yards more than anyone else. Only the Falcons, Steelers, and Patriots have even 13,000 passing yards.
  • As a rookie, Thomas and Brandin Cooks were essentially WR1A and WR1B in New Orleans. Cooks had 117 targets, 1,173 receiving yards, and 8 TDs in 16 games, while Thomas had 121 targets, 1,137 yards, and 9 TDs despite missing one game. But here’s where it gets exciting for Thomas: Cooks was traded in the offseason, and will be replaced with 32-year-old Ted Ginn.

Is there a more favorable situation for a WR to produce massive stats? Unless you just think Thomas will be harmed by all the attention — and that’s where Peterson should help — this is basically as good as it gets. He’s on the league’s most pass-happy offense, with a top-3 quarterback, and he is likely going to get fed a significant amount of targets. As a rookie, Thomas was targeted on 18.2% of passes. That number is almost certainly going to rise this year. The most targets any Saint has had with Brees is 149, set by Jimmy Graham in 2011.

But there is one other thing that helped Thomas last year. The Saints threw 59% of their passes to wide receivers last year, a new high in the Brees era. That coincided with just 17% — a record low since 2008 — of passes going to tight ends. In 2006 and 2007, Reggie Bush was a target monster while Mark Campbell and Eric Johnson were the top tight ends. But beginning in ’08, the Saints had Jeremy Shockey and then Jimmy Graham and a breakout season from Ben Watson in 2015. Last year, Coby Fleener was the tight end, and he was underwhelming. Fleener had a lower catch rate than any Saints wide receiver last year, and that’s not exactly how its supposed to work.

In 2014, Siants receivers had 47% of targets, then 54% in 2015 and 59% last year. Meanwhile, TE targets dropped from 27% with Graham to 24% with Watson and then 17% with Fleener. Take a look: the graph below shows the percentage of targets in New Orleans by position since 2006:

The presence of Brees will lead to strong numbers for any Saints receiver, but Colston’s 1,202 receiving yards remains the most any wide receiver has had with Brees (Graham topped that mark twice, including 1,310 yards in 2011).  In fact, Joe Horn remains the Saints single-season record-holder in receiving yards. Thomas had 1,137 in 15 games last year, and the departure of Cooks could be enough to have him clear 1,300 yards this year. We know Brees likes to spread the ball around, but without a great pass-catching back (although New Orleans did trade up to draft Alvin Kamara with the hopes that he’ll be the team’s next Bush or Sproles) and mediocre options at TE and WR2, Thomas is in the perfect position to have the best year any Saints wide receiver has ever had.

  • sacramento gold miners

    The only red flag I can see would be inevitable decline of the 38 year old Brees. Players bravely talk about continuing for years, but it’s not really up to them. Broncos fans remember how great Manning looked in 2013, but the decline began the following season.

  • Richie

    I had no idea the Ravens led the league in pass attempts the past 2 years. Surprising to me.

    • Anders

      Seems to be why Maclin should be a big help if he can stay healthy

    • david_rafkind

      I love the sleeper potential of Perrimen. Ton of targets to go around with Smith, Pitta and Aiken all gone. Throw in the fact that Morninweg’s #2WR has had 90+ targets in 4 of his 9 seasons, and all signs point to great value.

    • david_rafkind

      Aiken is another break out candidate as he ends up in pass happy Indy. Dorsett has been awful. The #3WR spot should become Aiken’s fairly quickly.

  • Mark Growcott

    The loss of Brandin Cooks is going to be massive for Brees and the Saints Offense in 2017.  Cooks had 98 Yd and 87 Yd TD Receptions last season (plus a 65 Yd TD). 

    • Joseph Holley

      They didn’t have to draft a receiver to replace Cooks, b/c they did that LAST year. Ginn will replace Cooks for the deep passes (about 1/2 of Cooks’ production), and other players will pick up the slack. You do realize that our WR3 (Snead) had 900 rec yds last year, right?
      I predict that Thomas picks up about 100 yds of Cooks’ production, Ginn picks up about 500, Snead picks up 100, Fleener picks up 100, and the other 300 become rushing yards for Adrian Peterson. Peterson is the reason that Brees won’t pick up 5000 pass yds, because they will be running more.
      If you look at the year the Saints won the SB, they were extremely effective running and passing–iirc, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, they were #1 in rushing offense that year. The Saints have been playing catch-up too much, and have become too reliant on passing–which is easy to do with Brees. I am NOT saying they need to run the ball 30-35 plays per game to win–but if they run the ball 20x in the 1st 3 Q’s, then have 15 runs in the 4th Q b/c they are killing clock–then so be it.