Michael Thomas Can Make a Name for Himself With the Saints
The NFL has seen in its time multiple Michael Bennetts, dual Mike Williamses, a pair of Steve Smiths, and so there is -- of course -- a set of Michael Thomases in the 2016 NFL Draft Class. Of course, they both play wide receiver.
And that's about where the similarities end.
This Michael Thomas, selected by the New Orleans Saints 47th Overall in the NFL Draft, comes from Ohio State's incredible offense, where he was the team's leading wide receiver in 2015 with 56 receptions for 781 yards and 9 touchdowns.
He led the team with a 26.28 percent Target Market Share in 2015 (percent of total team targets), which was 38th among the top 292 Division I FBS wide receivers. Standing 6'3" and weighing 212 pounds, he certainly looks the part of a top-tier NFL wide receiver. But can he play like one?
We can see his MockDraftable spider graph below, which compares his athletic measurables to other receivers, in the form of his percentiles. How athletic is "The" Michael Thomas?
Sure enough, Thomas is in the 78th and 75th percentiles among wide receivers in height and weight, which means he ranks in the top quarter of receivers to have gone to the NFL Combine in those areas.
His hand size is impressive, too, and we know that wide receivers with big hands are coveted in the NFL. While his full 40-yard dash was unimpressive (29th percentile), his 10-yard dash and vertical leap were about average (56th and 41st percentiles), showing decent explosiveness in a straight line.
His 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle both ranked near the top quarter of historical NFL wide receivers as well, and this speaks very well of his agility on the field.
His closest MockDraftable comparisons include Mohamed Sanu, Jordan Matthews, Keenan Allen, Josh Gordon, and Larry Fitzgerald. That's some pretty good company, and all of these players merge good-to-great size with impressive separation skills, despite lacking the top speed of a player like Corey Coleman of Baylor (4.32-second 40-yard dash).
Sure enough, the big strengths that we see from Thomas on tape are his smooth acceleration, crisp route-running ability, and separation skills off the line of scrimmage in the first 10 yards. He gets in and out of breaks with ease and has begun to use his hips better to sell fakes and double moves to defensive backs as he's gone through his college career.
The clip below shows this skill in full effect in 2015.
On to Michael Thomas, one of my favorites in his class. Incredible double move. Very well rounded wr at thi... https://t.co/OKqMy4NR76
— Josh Mensch (@JoshMenschNFL) October 14, 2015
His catching ability is by far one of his best traits, and -- as this scouting session by the Rookie Scouting Portfolio's Matt Waldman shows -- he is lethal with the ball in his hands after the catch.
Don't let his stats fool you: in a Buckeye offense dominated by running back Ezekiel Elliott, Thomas's job was to stretch the field and give his offense room to work. He did exactly that, not because he couldn't do anything else, but because he can do many more things than simply sit in short routes and catch 100-plus balls.
His versatility and ability to dominate the perimeter made him one of the better wide receiver options available in the 2016 NFL Draft.
He was certainly the best Michael Thomas available.
He Can Be the Guy
The New Orleans Saints selected Thomas just halfway into the second round of the NFL Draft (47th overall). This isn't so low where we can assume that teams had serious concerns about his true talent, and he was the sixth wide receiver off the board in the class. This is a fine landing spot for him value-wise.
It's an even better one for him in terms of production.
In my study on which teams' wideout corps needed the most help in the NFL Draft this year, the Saints came in at a solid 10th-best in the league, eluding the needy list. This, however, was in spite of the talent on their roster -- not because of it.
Brandin Cooks returns as the highest-targeted receiver on the team, with a very respectable 0.75 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target, which ranked 13th among the 32 wide receivers with at least 100 targets in 2015.
Willie Snead, too, racked up over 100 targets and sustained a solid 0.71 Reception NEP per target. After these two, though, Colston's 67 targets needed to be replaced due to his being cut, and Brandon Coleman's 61.22 percent catch rate could certainly have been improved upon.
Thomas steps into this lineup with at least 67 potential targets to be claimed from last year's production, and he could steal more from Snead and Coleman -- both lesser prospects as undrafted free agents. He blends the Colston-esque physicality of a possession receiver with above-average speed for his size that the team hasn't seen since the heyday of Robert Meachem.
In fact, Meachem might be the best comparison for Thomas's likely early career: expect the Saints to resume using Cooks as their version of Wes Welker and to run Thomas on some of the deeper routes and get to play jump-ball, just like he did at Ohio State.
The questions that will remain for a while: can he show the Saints that he has more skill than a typical one-dimensional deep threat? Will he live in Meachem's shadow, or make his name in the pros?