clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why Is Michael Thomas the Receiver the Saints May Finally Pay?

Despite posting prolific passing numbers, New Orleans has never given a wideout a big contract in the Sean Payton–Drew Brees era. That may change.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Pelicans drafted Duke’s Zion Williamson on Thursday night, but New Orleans is still a football town. That would not change if the Pelicans were to trade for LeBron James, fix Kevin Durant’s Achilles, or make Bourbon Street the setting for Space Jam 2. So while NBA fans wonder who will space the floor around the Pelicans’ no. 1 pick, the more pressing question in New Orleans sports is whether the Saints will re-sign their no. 1 receiver.

Michael Thomas caught the most passes and gave the least fucks in the NFL last season, and this year he’s entering the final year of his contract. The Saints and Thomas are still far apart on an extension but are hoping to get it done by training camp, according to The Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan. If they reach an agreement before this season, the deal could be one of the larger contracts in the league. ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported that the Saints were willing to make Thomas the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, passing Cleveland’s Odell Beckham Jr., who has the largest contract for a non-quarterback offensive player in football with $41 million guaranteed at signing and a base of $90 million across five years. Putting aside whether Thomas is in the same class of receiver as Beckham, it’s fair to wonder whether the Saints need him. Since 2006, the Saints lead the league in ...

— Pass attempts
— Completions
— Completion percentage
— Passing yards
— Passing touchdowns
— Passer rating

Amazingly, New Orleans has never truly invested in a pass catcher in that span. In fact, it’s been among the cheapest spots on their roster for most of the last 13 years. Brees has become famous for spreading the ball around as much as any quarterback. Should New Orleans make Thomas—or anybody—the highest-paid receiver in the league when the Saints built the best passing offense in football for 13 years by putting their money everywhere else?

The Saints manage their money by robbing Peter to pay Paul. When they check Peter’s wallet, they realize they robbed Paul last year to pay Peter but Paul didn’t have any money because he spent $14 million of dead cap to get rid of Jimmy Graham and Curtis Lofton. The only place the Saints spend shrewdly is at wide receiver. New Orleans has ranked 25th, 29th, and 31st among cap dollars spent at wide receiver each of the last three seasons, and the team is currently on pace to be 29th for the 2019 season before any changes to Thomas’s deal. Previously, the team leaned on former seventh-round pick Marques Colston, undrafted free agent Lance Moore, second-round pick Devery Henderson, first-round pick Robert Meachem, running backs Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, and Mark Ingram, and tight end Jimmy Graham. That ragtag group accounted for almost all of New Orleans’s receiving from 2006 to 2013, and none of them earned more than $4.5 million in a season from New Orleans during that span. The team traded away first-round pick and budding star Brandin Cooks after his third season—the stage Thomas is at now—before Cooks was scheduled for a significant raise. The most cap space the Saints have used on a pass catcher under Sean Payton was the $9 million of dead money they ate just to get Graham off of the team.

Thomas’s production certainly warrants an elite salary. Thomas, drafted no. 47 overall out of Ohio State in 2016, has the most catches (321) and the fourth-most receiving yards (3,787) in NFL history for the first three years of a player’s career, behind Randy Moss, Odell Beckham Jr., and A.J. Green. (Green is also looking for a new deal this summer.) Last season, Thomas was 11th in targets (147) but led the league in receptions (125), and he finished eighth in receiving yards per game (87.8). His catches and receiving yards (1,405) were both single-season team records. He is agile enough to make defenders miss and strong enough to toss them aside if he can’t, and that combination led to 502 yards after the catch in 2018, the third-highest figure for receivers in the league. He’s also clutch as hell, with the second-most third-down conversions in the league (23) last year. In Pro Football Focus’s yards per route run statistic, Thomas tied for 11th his rookie season, tied for fourth with DeAndre Hopkins in 2017 (behind Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Keenan Allen), and rose to second place last year (once again behind Jones, who is also looking for a new contract this offseason).

“A walk-through is not a walk-through to [Michael Thomas],” Saints offensive tackle and team captain Terron Armstead told The Washington Post in January. “That really is the one thing that separates him from everybody else. He’s not the fastest. He’s not the tallest. He’s not the strongest. He’s not the quickest. He just outworks everybody on the daily.”

The number most frequently cited to highlight Thomas’s play is how frequently he catches the balls thrown his way. Thomas had an 85 percent catch rate in 2018, the highest in the league for a wide receiver by far and the best catch percentage for a wideout with at least 40 targets in a season since tracking began in 1992. It’s only appropriate that his Instagram handle is @cantguardmike.

That number is often cited as an example of his dominance, but it also could be interpreted as a naturally occurring symptom of New Orleans’s current approach on offense. For the first 10 years of Payton’s tenure, the Saints built around Drew Brees’s throwing, and they rewrote NFL records in the process. Here are the top 10 single-season passing yardage marks for a quarterback in NFL history:

All-Time Single-Season Passing Yards

Rank Player (age) Passing Yards Seasons Team
Rank Player (age) Passing Yards Seasons Team
1 Peyton Manning (37) 5,477 2013 DEN
2 Drew Brees (32) 5,476 2011 NOR
3 Tom Brady (34) 5,235 2011 NWE
4 Drew Brees (37) 5,208 2016 NOR
5 Drew Brees (33) 5,177 2012 NOR
6 Drew Brees (34) 5,162 2013 NOR
7 Ben Roethlisberger (36) 5,129 2018 PIT
8 Patrick Mahomes (22) 5,097 2018 KAN
9 Dan Marino+ (22) 5,084 1984 MIA
10 Drew Brees (29) 5,069 2008 NOR
(Courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference)

Brees has three of the top five, five of the top 10, and seven of the top 20 seasons by passing yardage ever. Part of that is Brees is an all-time great, and part is that Payton’s teams have thrown a lot. A quarterback has thrown 640 passes in a season (40 passes per game for 16 games) just 18 times in NFL history. Seven of those 18 seasons belong to Drew Brees. As an offense, the Saints were in the top two for pass attempts for seven of the nine years between 2007 and 2016. But in 2017 and 2018, the offense radically changed.

Saints Passing Statistics by Team Ranks, 2006-2018

Year Pass Attempts Passing Yards Passing Touchdowns Interceptions (Team Rank) Net Yards/Attempt (Team Rank)
Year Pass Attempts Passing Yards Passing Touchdowns Interceptions (Team Rank) Net Yards/Attempt (Team Rank)
2006 5 1 4 8 2
2007 1 3 9 20 11
2008 1 1 1 24 2
2009 15 4 1 6 2
2010 2 3 2 30 10
2011 2 1 2 12 3
2012 2 1 1 28 3
2013 4 2 2 10 4
2014 2 3 6 24 6
2015 2 1 10 11 4
2016 2 1 2 18 4
2017 19 5 16 2 1
2018 23 12 7 2 4
(Courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference)

Brees has fallen to ninth and 16th in the league in pass attempts in the past two seasons after regularly dominating the top five. Now that Brees is in his 40s, the Saints seem to be done with having him throw 40 passes per game. It’s a wise decision considering Brees’s personal quarterbacks coach guru Tom House believes an arm has only so many throws before it gives, no matter the sport. Brees is no longer the most prolific quarterback in the NFL, but he has become the most accurate quarterback in the league—and perhaps of all time. Here is every quarterback in NFL history who has completed more than 70 percent of their passes in an NFL season. Brees has had five of those seasons.

All-Time Single-Season Completion Percentage

Rank Player (Age) Cmp% Year Tm
Rank Player (Age) Cmp% Year Tm
1 Drew Brees (39) 74.4% 2018 NOR
2 Drew Brees (38) 72.0% 2017 NOR
3 Sam Bradford (28) 71.6% 2016 MIN
4 Drew Brees (32) 71.2% 2011 NOR
5 Drew Brees (30) 70.6% 2009 NOR
5 Ken Anderson (33) 70.6% 1982 CIN
7 Steve Young (32) 70.3% 1994 SFO
9 Joe Montana (33) 70.2% 1989 SFO
10 Kirk Cousins (30) 70.1% 2018 MIN
11 Drew Brees (37) 70.0% 2016 NOR
(Courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference)

Completion percentage can be conflated with accuracy, but not all passes are created equal. (A 40-yard touchdown pass and a 4-yard checkdown both count as a completion, but they are not the same difficulty.) But Brees also led the league in Completion Percentage Above Expectation from NFL Next Gen Stats, which accounts for where the receiver is on the field, how close the nearest defender is to the receiver, and how close the quarterback is to being hit at the time of the throw. Using a third metric—Pro Football Focus’s adjusted completion percentage which removes drops, throwaways, batted passes, pikes, and throws when the quarterback was hit—Brees’s numbers are almost literally off the chart.

Pro Football Focus 2019 QB Annual

Brees is throwing less, but he’s also getting the ball of his hands quicker. His time to throw (2.59 seconds) was 36th out of 39 qualified quarterbacks per NFL Next Gen Stats, and his average pass length (7.2 yards) was 29th out of 33 qualified quarterbacks by NFLGSIS. Those numbers have gone down as Brees has gotten older, but with less time for plays to develop, he needs players who can get open quickly. (That’s one reason why the team traded Cooks, who questioned Brees’s arm strength.) Running back Alvin Kamara is a huge help in that area, which is why he’s been the team’s second-leading receiver by targets, catches, and yards each of the last two years. But Thomas is among the best of the best in the biz at getting open immediately, and Brees targeted the receiver on 28.4 percent of his passes in 2018, the most Brees has looked to any receiver in his 18-year career. That figure topped the figure that Thomas set in 2017.

In the offense the Saints were running a decade ago, they may have been willing to let Thomas seek a major payday elsewhere. But the Saints rely on Brees, and Brees has relied on Thomas more than he’s ever relied on a receiver.

“[Michael is] a game-changer and he knows that I’m counting on him and he knows when I look at him and he’s the guy,” Brees told reporters in November. “He’s going to get open.”

Now they have to pay him. His production plus salary cap inflation warrants making him the highest-paid receiver in football by average annual value. That means topping Odell Beckham Jr.’s five-year deal that averages out to $18 million annually. The minute brushstrokes of the deal may change, but those details likely won’t alter the broader picture that the Saints will likely invest in a receiver for the first time in the Payton-Brees era. Paying Thomas in addition to defensive end Cam Jordan, who signed an extension earlier this offseason, may ultimately cost them someone else. Kamara, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins are under team control for the next two or three seasons, but one or two of them may not be in the team’s future beyond that. But the Saints have always been a team focused on winning now. After suffering two all-time devastating losses with the Minneapolis Miracle and the worst missed call in NFL history in back-to-back years, the last thing they are worried about is balancing their salary cap in 2022.

Signing Thomas won’t break the piggy bank. Even if it does, the salary cap makes Peter and Paul pretty easy to rob anyway. If the Saints do suffer a worst-case scenario—another devastating playoff loss, Brees retiring, or Payton leaving to coach the Cowboys—even that won’t stop the party. Maybe New Orleans can become a basketball city.