By: Jake Rajala (Twitter: @rajala_jake)
Michael Thomas has been in rhythm with a warped 2020 season amid his astonishing young career. The 2019 Offensive Player of The Year in Sean Payton’s orchestra has survived to field a mere seven games in the 2020 regular season.
Thomas endured a severe ankle injury that occurred in Week 1 against TB, then faced disciplinary actions (sparring with teammates, inexcusable language towards coaching staff) a few weeks in the future, then “MT” returned to action in Week 9. Cantguardmike was back in sync & more so a fine safety net for dual-threat QB Taysom Hill when Brees was injured up until Week 15.
As of last week, the single-season reception record holder (149 grabs in 2019) has been shut down and placed on IR. As NBC Sports reported, Sean Payton blatantly stated that MT needed a break for his ankle to fully recover. In retrospect, Drew Brees came off IR and entered the revolving door, while his No. one wide receiver tagged out & will await on IR (eligible to return for playoffs, *new rule for IR).
Thomas’s designation on IR has put a pin on a disappointing 2020 regular season campaign to exonerate the least. Yet, not only was the injury a wretched root in his ill productive year, but Thomas’s efficiency has been abysmal compared to his fruitful self. Here’s a more in-depth look at some of Thomas’s notable figures in 2020:
- Y/R: 11.0 (career-low)
- 0 TDs in seven games
- receptions per game: 5.7 (career-low)
- catch %: 72.7 (career-low)
- receving yards per game: 62.6 (career-low)
Clearly, the Thomas we were accustomed to, has dissolved into a shell of his former self. Yes, Thomas has battled nagging injuries & performed without the likes of Drew Brees for a few games.
Despite the barriers, there’s not an adequate excuse for such dire outcomes for a gifted “Hall of Fame” aimed player like himself. Thomas was historically productive with the back-up QB Teddy Bridgewater for five games last season & he was given an extra week of precaution leading up to his return scene this year in Week 9. And we also witnessed MT get the green light to face an atrocious Eagles team in Week 14, despite his efforts not rewarding a team victory.
With all of the negative buzz and unjustifiable clap-backs unveiled from the second-highest valued WR ($96 million) this season, what’s the future outlook for Thomas? There were in fact trade rumors heating up for injury-riddled, drama-fueled WR prior to the trade block this season.
Would the Saints head coach that shipped off a prime Brandin Cooks and Jimmy Graham reel in the house for his out of world paid, often hazardous WR amid a passing offense that will see Drew Brees depart from this off-season? It’s left to be decided & it would be a very bold move, but I believe Sean Payton should make this exchange happen in the near future. By stating this claim, let me unwind some deeper resonance into my eager utterance.
Compensation for Thomas
The New Orleans Saints will soon realize two things upon the dismissal of the 2021 season. It will be imminent that either option A. The Saints just won the Super Bowl, Brees has retired as expected, and they hold the 32nd draft pick or B. The Saints lost in the playoffs (again), hold a horrid draft pick, and Drew Brees has retired.
Saints will need a significant re-boot after the 2021 season, particularly at the quarterback position. And if the Saints trot Taysom Hill on to the field with a loaded roster, the result will undeniably carry a “passing” ceiling of potentially ten or fewer wins.
Well, where could the Saints go in search of a QB outside of Taysom Hill (or Jameis Winston)? The best option is Free Agency will inevitably be Dak Prescott, but it seems clear about his stay being put in Dallas. Assuming Free Agency isn’t the answer (especially long-term), the Saints will need to be keen on QBs in the draft. It will be very challenging, near impossible for Payton to realistically snatch one of the top four QBs in the draft (Lawrence, Fields, Wilson, Lance) from the back of the first round.
If the Saints garnered a first-round pick for Thomas, Sean Payton could then drool over trading up by exchanging two first-rounders for the likes of a Zach Wilson/Trey Lance (best No. three/four options in a decade).
We’ve already seen Minnesota say good-bye to Stefon Diggs & the replacing compensation that Minnesota received, which was a first-rounder & a fifth-rounder. And if Saints got that type of draft compensation and didn’t get creative for that dire QB need, they could select a well-accomplished, young, cheaper WR/TE prospect in the draft–such as Kyle Pitts or Devonta Smith (even with one of the two selections).
It’s well captured that the Saints broke the bank for Thomas prior to the 2019 regular season and now he’s one of the highest-paid NFL WRs in NFL history. Looking ahead, the Saints will owe Michael Thomas 9.6 million on the third day of the 2021 NFL new league year. His base salary will sit atop the team’s chart for 2021.
Thomas’s astronomical cap figure is on the outer rim of a slew of other notable cap situations that need to be resolved in the 2021 off-season, along with expired contracts in 2022 that should be extended this new year. In the group of contracts that need attendance, there are a few high-profile, productive reputations:
- Trey Hendrickson (leads NFL in sacks)
- Marcus Williams
- Sheldon Rankins
- Jared Cook
- Ryan Ramczyk (expires in 2022)
- Marshon Lattimore (expires in 2022)
- Terron Armstead (expires in 2022)
- Marcus Davenport (expires in 2022)
Outside of the notorious Saints having a contract that’s looming (listed above), the Saints will have to figure out what they want to do with Kwon Alexander (via trade with SF) and Janoris Jenkin’s (FA pick-up in 2019 season) contract. Mickey Loomis was able to get a bargain for their starting LB Alexander & they will only have to cough up $2.64 million in base salary for the rest of the year. If the Saints cut the former 49er, they wouldn’t owe him any of the $13.4 million dollars. And as for “JackRabbit” Janoris Jenkins, he carries a $14.2 million cap hit for the 2021 season.
It’s seen around as a popular move if the Saints cut one or two of the starting, high-caliber veterans & save an enormous amount of money. I would disagree with that notion with both players getting eliminated across the board. The Saints have already restructured Jackrabbit’s contract this past off-season to keep the lockdown corner at ease. As for Alexander, It may be more popular to let him walk. Yet, not only has Alexander shown great flashes in a short time (Four pass deflections, Two FF), but the backup LB Alex Anzalone will be a FA in 2021, too. It will be imminent that the Saints can keep a viable option intact on their elite run defense.
Looking at the contracts laid out above, It’s crystal clear how important Hendrickson has been for the Saints. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks (12.5). Outside the prominent edge rusher, Marcus Williams has been a reliable starter at safety (seven INTs in last two years), amidst a shaky secondary already portrayed. Outside of those two young, consistent studs, I admit to likely seeing Rankins being on the move & Cook garnering a low-price offer from the Saints (likely getting overpaid elsewhere).
The more notable contracts labeled above reveal a deadline in 2022. It will be a more desired thrill to lock up Ramczyk (All-Pro OT, the contract expires in 2022) and potentially the up-and-down, essential CB Marshon Lattimore (expires in 2022), prior to lighting up the sky in their contract season, especially with questions about the potential team success to stay–post Brees.
All in all, I believe the Saints are prestigiously well-balanced, as they’re well equipped with lots of depth, key players across the board, which allows them to go leaps and bounds of successful outings without Brees and Thomas. Yet, I find it foreseen that they could have to let a few key contributors find a new home: Marcus Williams or Kwon Alexander could walk, or they might fail to extend Lattimore. Or even perhaps, it could be a serious obstacle to obtain a higher profile like Hendrickson on a long-term track, or extend Terron Armstead/Ryan Ramzyk (expires in 2022) given their tight cap situation (20th ranked, per Over The Cap). It would be a significant jolt in their cap salary to depart a long, skyscraper contract like the notable Thomas.
Success without Michael Thomas
If the Saints were to pardon Michael Thomas, it would make sense that they would have to feel comfortable with their situation post the nifty route runner. With that being expressed, all signs point towards Sean Payton running the show well in absence of MT, but more importantly on a long stretch.
The Saints well-oiled machine on offense engineered 28.7 pts a game without the “2019 Offensive Player of The Year”. That’s a higher average than their 2019 PPG tally (28.1) & it’s even above their PPG on the overall 2020 season (28.4).
When Thomas has gone down, we witnessed how valuable Emmanuel Sanders was, the growth of Tre’quan Smith arise, Alvin Kamara blossom into an MVP candidate, and it was clear that Sean Payton continued to run a successful tempo afterward. And this isn’t a comparison of one or three games without MT, but rather Thomas missing seven games thus far (nine when the season wraps up).
The Saints offense is “still” more efficient and posing a higher ceiling with an in-sync Michael Thomas, let’s not be mistaken. Although, it’s very impressive how explosive the Saints offense has been without MT. Other teams in similar scenarios vastly struggle, as Carolina does without McCaffrey and the Falcons do without Julio. And not only was the Saints offense putting up fireworks without MT in the fold this year, but it would also deem more than probable that the Saints would add a weapon at WR/TE to continue building a stronger Rappaport if Thomas was no longer a Saint.