Fantasy Football: Michael Thomas Can Be Even Better in 2018
Currently the 15th overall player (WR5) off the board in PPR drafts, per Fantasy Football Calculator, clearly that low touchdown total hasn't affected his ADP.
But the question remains: Can Michael Thomas build on his five-touchdown performance in 2017?
Let's dive in.
Part of what makes Thomas such a valuable fantasy football commodity is his attachment to future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Before we even discuss Thomas' outlook, it's important to evaluate his quarterback situation. After all, in descending chronological order, Brees has supported the overall (PPR) WR6, WR7, WR10, WR13, TE3, TE1, TE1, WR14 and WR11 dating back to 2011. Essentially, his lead pass-catcher is an elite fantasy asset every year.
Many considered Brees a disappointment in 2017, at least from a fantasy perspective. He was drafted as the QB3 but finished as the overall QB9 and the per-game QB13, the first time he finished outside the top-six quarterbacks since 2005. But was 2017 the beginning of Brees' decline or just a statistical outlier?
Not only did Brees not take a step backward, he actually enjoyed one of the most efficient seasons of his illustrious career.
Brees actually led the league in yards per attempt (8.1), the third-best number of his career and his best since 2011, per Pro Football Reference. He set the all-time single-season record for completion percentage (72%). His 103.9 passer rating was the fifth-best of his career and his highest since 2013. And his 3.6% sack rate? Second-best league-wide and Brees' best number since 2011.
None of Brees' efficiency metrics paint a picture of decline; they actually tell a story to the contrary. But his fantasy season was a disappointment because he threw fewer passes, resulting in considerably fewer yards and touchdowns. Below is a table comparing Brees' 2017 numbers to his season-long averages from his 11 seasons in New Orleans. The final row shows his seasonal average as a Saint. It's a lot to digest, so for now, just focus on the bottom two rows.
As you can see, Brees' 2017 volume numbers are far below his seasonal averages in New Orleans. Compared to his averages, he attempted 94 fewer passes, 45 fewer completions, threw for 37.6 fewer yards per game, and recorded 11 fewer touchdowns. If he had reached his seasonal averages in yards and touchdowns, Brees would have scored roughly 65.84 more fantasy points (at .04 points per passing yard and 4.0 points per passing touchdown), which would've vaulted him from the QB9 all the way up to the QB2 on the season.
Crazy, but it turns out that volume matters in fantasy football.
One of the most important statistics in that column is touchdown rate, which is simply passing touchdowns divided by pass attempts. If you look closely, you'll see that Brees' 2017 touchdown rate was 1.21 percentage points below his Saints average. That might not sound like a lot, but an increase of 1.21 percentage points would've resulted in six more passing touchdowns (with volume remaining the same). Given Thomas' 6'3" frame and 29.0% target market share inside the 10-yard line, per Pro Football Reference, I'm willing to bet 1-2 of those scores would've gone Thomas' way.
Crucially, studies by our own JJ Zachariason and many others within the fantasy industry have taught us that significantly low or high touchdown percentages will often regress to the mean the following year. Even if Brees' volume doesn't increase, he's one of the strongest bets for touchdown regression, and the more touchdowns Brees throws, the more opportunities Michael Thomas has to score.
So we know that Brees is still efficient and his game hasn't declined. And even though we can look to touchdown regression as room for Thomas' ceiling to grow, the question regarding increased volume still remains. Clearly, the Saints found a winning formula last season by leaning on a stronger defense and the league's best running game. But how much of that is sustainable?
Let's start with the defense. The Saints ranked ninth in the league in takeaways after ranking 17th in 2016, 18th in 2015 and 28th in 2014. But it turns out, turnovers are fairly random and very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Should the Saints force fewer turnovers in 2018, it's unlikely they'll lead on 52.6% of their offensive snaps again. In fact, some work done by Rich Hribar of Rotoworld shows us that due to variance the Saints are already unlikely to lead on such a large percentage of their snaps again in 2018. This is significant because while seemingly run heavy, the Saints actually passed at the ninth-highest rate in the league when the score was within one possession, per Sharp Football Stats.
Another possible indicator that the Saints will pass more in 2018 is Mark Ingram's four-game suspension. Ingram carried the ball a career-high 230 times last year, and because Saints head coach Sean Payton has indicated the Saints won't simply give Alvin Kamara 15 more carries per game, Ingram will likely be replaced by some combination of Jonathan Williams, Terrance West, Trey Edmunds and sixth-round rookie Boston Scott. If none of those players prove worthy of those extra carries and Payton doesn't want to overload Kamara, it's possible the Saints overall rushing pie shrinks, at least for the first four games of the season. And like we saw with Willie Snead in New Orleans last season, just because you've returned from a suspension doesn't mean you're out of Payton's doghouse.
Last year New Orleans was tied for the second-lowest passing-to-rushing touchdown rate in football (50/50) and also had an abnormal pass-to-run attempt ratio compared to its play splits over the last five seasons. Per Hribar, "There have (been) 28 other teams over (the past decade) to have a 50/50 split or less in the passing touchdown department, and those teams saw an average increase of +5.6 passing scores the following season."
It seems like the Saints are unlikely to replicate last year's rushing totals as it pertains to overall volume and scoring volume.
Things are setting up beautifully for Michael Thomas in 2018.
Drew Brees' efficiency hasn't declined, and Brees' touchdown rate is bound for positive regression. On top of that, several factors indicate the Saints are likely to attempt more passes this year.
Thomas has already displayed a rock-solid floor with his gaudy target, reception and yardage totals coupled with his career 72.9% catch rate. But given his secure target share in a perennially prolific offense, one that's primed for increased passing volume and scoring, Thomas is a great bet to score more than five touchdowns in 2018.
As such, Thomas is one of the strongest picks on the board in the second round of fantasy drafts.