The Saints’ transformation on offense from a high-flying, up-tempo, pass-it-all-over-the-yard style to a physical, dominating rushing approach has turned rookie Alvin Kamara into a household name, helped veteran Mark Ingram finally get his due, and made New Orleans one of the most balanced teams in the league. But don’t let the fact Drew Brees passed for fewer yards and touchdowns than he did any of his previous seasons with the Saints fool you—this squad can still do damage through the air, especially when second-year receiver Michael Thomas is Brees’s target. The former Buckeyes pass catcher proved his 2016 rookie campaign (92 catches, 1,137 yards, nine touchdowns) was no fluke this season, grabbing a Saints franchise-record 104 balls, amassing 1,245 yards and five scores, and emerging as a top-tier no. 1 receiver. And as the focal point of a still-dangerous Saints passing attack, the budding superstar looks primed to make some playoff noise.
What Thomas has done so far in his two-year career is unprecedented. Not only did he become the first Saints receiver to eclipse the 100-catch benchmark in a season—no small achievement considering Brees has led the NFL in pass attempts four times but was just ninth this year—he set the new mark for most catches (196) of any player in his first two years in the league, moving past Miami’s Jarvis Landry. Thomas’s six-catch, 94-yard performance Sunday also pushed him into a tie with Anquan Boldin for most consecutive games with three-plus catches to start a career since 1970.
Thomas accomplished all that with a blend of size, speed, physicality, and body control—oh, and vise grips for hands. A few of those attributes were on full display in the first quarter last week when he tracked down a deep throw from Brees. After making two sharp cuts, Thomas got open on a route toward the sideline and turned his head to the right to look back and find the ball. Except Brees had led him toward the middle of the field, so like a seasoned centerfielder, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound pass catcher smoothly turned his head to the other side, found the ball in the air, and dove as he secured it over his shoulder, Willie Mays–style, holding onto it as he hit the ground.
The week prior, Thomas made a similarly impressive over-the-shoulder catch despite blanket coverage from Falcons corner Brian Poole.
It’s these kinds of grabs by Thomas that have helped make him Brees’s favorite target downfield, where the 24-year-old’s size and catch radius often mean that even if he looks covered, he’s open. Against the Panthers, a double-move (along with a shoulder-shake by Brees) helped Thomas get the slightest bit of separation down the sideline—and with thanks to the use of the SkyCam angle—we got a little glimpse of what Brees is seeing when he unleashes a pass downfield to his big wideout. There’s little room for error, but Brees can throw it to a spot where only Thomas can get it, and the second-year pro can reel in these types of passes with ease.
We saw a few of those types of throws against the Bills in Week 9. On the first, in the second quarter, cornerback Leonard Johnson’s coverage wasn’t bad—Brees simply threw the ball high and away from the defender and let Thomas go up and get it.
On the second, Thomas’s incredible catch radius was even more apparent. Brees’s pass was a little off-target as he led his receiver too far inside, but Thomas adapted, jumped, spun, and somehow came down with it.
Thomas’s ability to go up high and come down with seemingly overthrown passes can surprise even seasoned defenders. Against the Packers, Brees led Thomas with a pass downfield. It came in so high that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix thought it was headed straight to him and altered his angle to catch what looked like an air-mailed pass. At the last second, though, Thomas went up and grabbed what Clinton-Dix thought was a sure interception.
Thomas lined up primarily on the outside, but got plenty of snaps on the inside, too (22.3 percent, per Pro Football Focus), where he caught a team-high 36 passes for 421 yards and two scores. He was effective out of the slot because of his quick release; without the boundary as a natural barrier, defensive backs had to defend sideline routes or slants to the middle, and Thomas often made them pay. Against the Rams in Week 11, he caught two passes for first downs, turning cornerback Trumaine Johnson around on both.
Thomas has incredible strength at the catch point, too. That was clear on two of his receptions against the Dolphins, where he shrugged off the pair of Miami defensive backs draped all over him to hold onto the ball and pick up yards.
The Saints’ new rush-oriented identity has meant that Brees hasn’t had to do quite as much with his arm as in previous years, and Ingram and Kamara have enjoyed most of the spotlight in New Orleans. There’s a good reason for that, of course, and the Saints will look to run the ball early and often in their wild-card matchup with the Panthers on Sunday.
But the thing that makes this Saints offense so dangerous is that they have a future Hall of Famer throwing to one of the league’s best wideouts. Brees isn’t throwing as much as he used to, but he can still make defenses pay when he tosses it to Thomas. The young receiver can beat a defense over the top, make acrobatic catches at the sideline, and get off the line with quick feet and explosive cuts to pick up crucial first downs. Ingram and Kamara might get more glory, but the Brees-Thomas connection could be the key to a long Saints postseason run.