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.