Fantasy Football: Can Michael Thomas Live Up to His Lofty Draft Cost?
It doesn't matter what time of year it is -- we're always looking to declare a winner and loser in any kind of transaction in professional sports, and the NFL is no different.
For example, most of the NFL world jumped to the conclusion that the New England Patriots won their offseason exchange with the New Orleans Saints when they grabbed wideout Brandin Cooks in exchange for a late first-rounder and better fourth-round selection. But it just so happens that both teams won that one.
You could say the same for Cooks and former teammate Michael Thomas -- both guys won. While Cooks gets the opportunity to work with Tom Brady, Thomas will become the clear top option in the Saints' high-powered passing game.
And, for the most part, this same win-win idea carries over to fantasy football owners. If you draft Cooks, you're getting a guy who is currently being selected with the second pick of the third round (3.02) in 12-team PPR leagues (according to Fantasy Football Calculator), although it may be tough for him to live up to that price. If you select Thomas, you land a 23-year-old coming off one of the best rookie receiver seasons we've ever seen, and you're getting him, on average, at 2.03 in PPR leagues.
That's a dramatic change from where Cooks (2.11) and Thomas (10.11) were drafted just a year ago. It's a huge jump for Thomas, but can the sophomore pass-catcher live up to his WR7 draft cost?
What We Know
In 15 games, Thomas finished with 92 receptions, 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns on 121 targets. He ranked 9th, 9th, 6th and 22nd, respectively, in those four receiving categories. Not bad for a rookie who was a second-round pick in the NFL draft, huh?
According to Pro Football Reference, Thomas led New Orleans with 19 red zone targets, with 11 of those coming from inside the 10-yard line. When things got tighter close to the goal line, Thomas was targeted more than anyone on his team, and his 11 targets inside the 10 put him up there with some of the very best wide receivers of the NFL.
All that sounds great, but in terms of market share -- which is the percentage of a team's red zone targets, taking into account that the Saints' fabulous offense ran a lot of red zone plays, therefore generating more red zone targets for Thomas and others -- he wasn't on the same level as the NFL's most targeted red zone receivers.
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In 2016, Thomas was right up there with notable fantasy names like Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham in terms of red zone volume. He even received more inside-the-20 looks than Demaryius Thomas and Mike Evans, but Drew Brees continued to spread the love among New Orleans pass-catchers -- which is something we've become accustomed to over the years.
From 2013 to 2015, the Saints didn't have a wideout (excluding tight ends) post a red zone market share higher than 18.6%. In 2015, Cooks received just 11.1% of the red zone looks while Marques Colston was targeted on 15.5% and 18.6% of red zone attempts, respectively, in 2014 and 2013. Jimmy Graham had some type of influence on Colston's usage, but Colston still managed 29 red zone targets with 6 total scores (on red zone plays; 10 touchdowns in all) across those two seasons.
Once again, there's decent volume, but Brees' willingness to distribute to various weapons prevents his top wideout's numbers from getting anywhere near the market shares of today's other top-end receivers.
All the same, Thomas' ability to be efficient shows us he's capable of doing a lot with his targets. We can check this out by using our in-house Net Expected Points metric, or NEP, which you can read more about in our glossary.
Per our metrics, Thomas' Reception Success Rate (the percentage of plays which resulted in a positive NEP gain) of 86.96% ranked 18th last year among the 45 wideouts with at least 100 targets. He also hauled in 92 of his 121 looks, good for a 76% catch rate, which is a testament to both Thomas and Brees.
As a byproduct of this efficient play, Thomas finished with 0.73 Reception NEP per target, which ranked 17th among wideouts with at least 100 targets. That makes it sound a little better than it is, however, because Cooks (0.84) and Willie Snead (0.79) both earned Reception NEP per target marks better than Thomas'. In other words, the Saints' offense was very efficient (read: Brees is stupid-good) and, as such, it positively influenced the efficiency numbers of their wideouts.
This isn't to say that Thomas didn't have a really good rookie year, because he did. It's just important to note that if history is any indication, the same system Thomas thrived in is the same one that could cap his fantasy growth going forward while simultaneously giving him a very attractive floor.
What We Don't Know
We know Thomas has had success. We know, playing under last year's circumstances, he can produce at a high level in the pros. However, the circumstances are different this time around.
Just as Cooks departed the Big Easy, Ted Ginn Jr. entered it via free agency by signing a three-year, $11 million deal with the Saints. So, some changes could be in store for the Saints' offense, particularly the receiving corps.
What will this do to Thomas' role?
Whereas Cooks received 117 total targets and 11 in the red zone last season, Ginn saw 95 looks with the Carolina Panthers in 2016 while collecting just a single red zone target. Now, you might say that this has a lot to do with Cam Newton's running ability and the presence of big-bodied Greg Olsen -- and it probably does, to a point -- but Ginn just had an oddly invisible year in the red zone. In 2015, he garnered nine red zone targets, with three of those coming inside the 10-yard line, as he scored six touchdowns in the red zone for Carolina.
That's definitely not nothing, and if Ginn is as productive as the Saints would like him to be, that could eat into Thomas' output a bit. We just don't know how Ginn will be deployed in this offense and what kind of role he'll have. The players who could wind up benefiting the most from Cooks departure could be Coby Fleener and Snead, the latter of whom is a pretty sweet value right now.
In regards to Thomas, what we need to be concerned with is whether he can live up to the hype of being the seventh wide receiver off the board.
According to our algorithms, Thomas is projected to produce 91 receptions, 1,082 yards and 7.6 touchdowns on 135 targets -- making him the 13th-best wide receiver in standard leagues. That's really good, but it's not enough to justify his draft cost. The high reception total will give him a slight boost in PPR formats, but not enough to get him to WR7.
Could Thomas end up out-producing our projections? Of course he could. Maybe the Saints' other weapons suffer injuries, causing Brees to abort his spread-the-wealth ways and force feed the ball to Thomas. But from what we know from the past and what we project going forward, Thomas isn't likely to live up to his expensive draft cost, although he should still have another very good season.