“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”
That’s how Leo DiCaprio’s character describes himself in The Wolf of Wall Street, and it probably sums up how Saints receiver Michael Thomas felt in 2019. Last year Thomas turned 26 and managed an NFL-record 149 catches, which probably pissed him off because he didn’t hit 150. But it was still a spectacular season for the NFL’s top receiver. Not only did Thomas set the NFL record for catches, but he also had the seventh-most receiving yards (1,725) and the fourth-most receiving first downs (91) in a single season. In February he became the first wide receiver to win the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award since 1993, when the honor went to Jerry Rice.
Naturally, Thomas was the best receiver in fantasy football. His 2019 season had the second-most PPR fantasy points a receiver has ever scored (not counting Week 17), and that might undersell how good he was. Last year’s no. 2 receiver, Chris Godwin, managed less than 75 percent of Thomas’s season-long output. As Rich Hribar noted in Warren Sharp’s 2020 Football Preview, that is the largest gap between the no. 1 and no. 2 receiver in PPR fantasy points since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. In terms of distancing himself from his peers, Thomas’s 2019 was the best fantasy season any receiver has ever had. But will he do it again this year?
Thomas racks up his numbers because he is special, but also because the Saints treat him like James Harden: The ball is going to Thomas, and everyone else on offense is there for decoration (just ask Chris Paul). In Thomas’s historic 2019 season, New Orleans threw to its no. 1 receiver more than any other team (33 percent of passes) and threw to its no. 2 receiver less than any other team (10 percent), according to The Football Outsiders Almanac. Thomas’s 149 catches came on a ridiculous 185 targets, which approached Rob Moore’s all-time record of 208 with the Cardinals in 1997. Volume is king in fantasy football, but that many targets in a PPR league can make you a fantasy god. Thomas had 378 catches over the past three years, while the rest of New Orleans’s wide receivers had just 266. It’s not just the wide receivers Thomas is freezing out. Last year he had more receiving yards than the team’s second, third, and fourth players by receiving yardage—tight end Jared Cook, running back Alvin Kamara, and receiver Ted Ginn Jr.—combined. As long as Thomas is the target for a third of Drew Brees’s passes, he is the clear choice to lead the NFL in notable receiving categories. But based on the Saints’ offseason, they may be changing their approach.
This offseason the Saints signed receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a two-year deal worth $16 million. Sanders will be the team’s first competent no. 2 receiver since New Orleans traded away Brandin Cooks before the 2017 draft. Sanders had 66 catches for two teams last year, more than every non-Thomas receiver on New Orleans combined (56). Sanders was one of the top 12 most efficient receivers on third and fourth downs last year, according to Football Outsiders, and the Saints could benefit from diversifying their offense in key situations: They have struggled in their recent playoff losses because opposing defenses have swarmed Thomas, especially on third down. New Orleans does not have a lot of cap room, and if it wanted to run its talented team back, it could have. Instead the Saints signed Sanders to more money over the next two years than they paid every non-Thomas receiver combined over the previous two years. If Thomas’s total falls closer to the 130-150 mark in 2020, he might cede that statistical category—and perhaps the no. 1 fantasy WR title—to someone whose team did not change their receiver room for 2020.
After the 2018 season, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was asked about throwing to receiver Davante Adams 169 times, one off from the league lead that year.
“I’d like to throw to Davante more,” Rodgers told reporters in June 2019. “He’s that open. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”
That was quite the comment after Adams turned those 169 targets into 111 catches for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns, making him the no. 3 receiver in fantasy—three spots ahead of Thomas.
Adams had 127 targets in 12 games last year, which, extrapolated to 16 games, would be 169 targets, the same number Adams had in 2018. But in the half season Adams played after returning from a turf toe injury in November, Rodgers targeted him 91 times in eight games, or a pace that would’ve equaled 182 targets for an entire season. That would nearly match Thomas’s targets total from last year and hold Rodgers true to his word of throwing to Adams more than he did in 2018. Thomas’s outstanding season wasn’t just about gaudy totals, but also week-to-week consistency. If you took Thomas’s worst month from 2019 and spread it across the entire season, he still would have been the no. 1 fantasy wide receiver last year. But Adams has been consistent too when healthy. Adams didn’t score fewer than 16 points in any week in 2018—in fact, if you took Adams’s worst week from 2018 and extrapolated it to the entire season, he still would have been a top-12 receiver in fantasy football.
Unlike the Saints, the Packers did nothing to change their receiving group this season. Since Rodgers made those comments in June 2019, the only player of note the Packers have added is middling Colts castoff Devin Funchess. That leaves them with an uninspiring group behind Adams of Funchess, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown (the LiAngelo Ball of football), and Jake Kumerow, who is 28 years old and has 20 career catches. Not only did the Packers not add a significant receiver, but the running back they drafted in the second round, A.J. Dillon, is considered a subpar receiver. The “tight end” they drafted in the third round might mostly play fullback, leaving Jace Sternberger and his zero career receptions to play tight end. Adams has less competition for targets than any other no. 1 receiver in the league, and he could gain 50 targets while Thomas loses 50.
Even if that swing happens, it doesn’t mean Thomas can’t outproduce Adams. Thomas caught more than 80 percent of his targets last year. Even if Thomas catches 80 percent of 130 targets and Adams catches 60 percent of 180 targets, they’d end up with roughly the same number of catches—104 vs. 108. That is assuming they play 16 games. Thomas has not missed a game in the past three seasons, while Adams has missed five. Reducing risk is just as important as chasing upside with a first-round fantasy pick, so health might be the biggest knock on Adams. He also isn’t a lock to lead the league in targets even if Thomas falls off. Atlanta’s Julio Jones is also a real candidate for the league lead, since the Falcons have lost a bigger chunk of their 2019 receiving offense than any other team. But banking on any 31-year-old—even one as reliable as Jones—being a no. 1 receiver is risky, and his no. 2, Calvin Ridley, may soak up that opportunity. In Green Bay, Adams benefits from the lack of a supporting cast, even if the Packers as a team will suffer.
Not only is it fair to think Adams could be the favorite for the lead in targets this season based on last year’s numbers, but Green Bay is likely to pass more in 2020 than it did last season. The Packers went 13-3 last year, but the team had the underlying numbers of a 9-7 team. They got lucky in places that don’t stay consistent from year to year, like turnovers, injuries, and catching backup quarterbacks instead of Patrick Mahomes or Matt Stafford, both of whom were injured when their teams faced Green Bay. Anyone who has eyes—Packers fans included—knows this was an iffy 13-3 team, evidenced by the fact that Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric places them as the second-worst 13-3 team on record. The Packers will likely be worse, which means closer games and more passing to Davante Adams. As ESPN’s Mike Clay noted, the Packers scored the team’s lowest rate of passing touchdowns (59 percent) of the past 10 years, suggesting Rodgers will throw more passing touchdowns in 2020—and that Adams will catch more of them too. Adams has the second-easiest slate of opposing cornerbacks for no. 1 wide receivers this year, according to Clay (though Thomas is also in the top quarter of the league in the same category). But while the Saints have never leaned on Thomas in the end zone, Rodgers has a long history of targeting players he trusts to score, and right now the only player on the Packers he trusts is Davante Adams.
It seems ludicrous to contemplate someone other than Thomas as the top receiver in 2020, but that’s partially due to recency bias. Just two years ago Thomas was the sixth-best PPR receiver in fantasy football behind Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, Adams, Antonio Brown, and Jones. Last year Thomas was a consensus top-four receiver, but nobody was projecting him as the no. 1 receiver or foresaw 185 targets heading his direction. This year that might be Adams. Thomas is the no. 1 fantasy option for now, but you won’t need a wrecking ball to get him out of there.