Michael Thomas reception king in 2021?
by Michael Obermuller
In 2020, Stefon Diggs led the NFL in receptions with 127 during his inaugural season in Buffalo. It was a legendary campaign for Bills’ new WR1, but he’s still more of a newcomer when it comes to this honor. The recent king of catches has been New Orleans Saints star Michael Thomas, and he’s the only player to actually top Diggs’ 2020 output.
It was a rough 2020 for MT, starting with a high ankle sprain in Week 1. Then, after an altercation on the practice field before his expected Week 5 return, Thomas was benched and fined for breaking team rules. Things got worse from there, as the wide-out did not end up returning until Week 9 (injury flare ups). After six games on the field, Thomas finished the year off it again, joining the injured reserve before Week 15.
“Can’t Guard Mike” was the receptions leader in both 2018 and ’19, and there’s no reason to believe that he cannot take back this title again in 2021. Here’s why.
1. Career Consistency
The New Orleans Saints WR1 caught 149 passes two seasons ago, totaling 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns through the air. The next closest pass-catcher was running back Christian McCaffrey, with 116 receptions. This was not just a career season by MT, it was a campaign that will go down in the NFL history books as one of the greatest of all-time. Thomas was never a one-hit wonder either. He also led the NFL in receptions in 2018 (125), and finished third in 2017 (104).
In fact, since his rookie season in 2016, MT has only caught less than 100 passes twice; 92 as a rookie (which is actually pretty ridiculous) and 40 during his injury-ruined 2020 campaign. This is one of the most consistent players in all of football. Not wide receivers, players. No wide-out has been as steady as Thomas in terms of receptions though, and that includes rivals like DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams. He is currently averaging 7.3 receptions per game throughout his career, with a 77.6 percent catch rate.
2. Stats Without Brees
One of the arguments against Thomas has always been that he plays with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, but this is an unfair critique of MT’s game. Whenever Brees has missed time in recent years, his top wide receiver has performed just as impressively without him, if not more so.
The stats above are from three games with Teddy Bridgewater in 2019. Thomas averaged 8.3 catches per game during that span, which is actually higher than that 7.3 career average. Brees also went down in 2020, and MT produced yet again (and with lingering injuries and Taysom Hill at QB this time). During four games with Hill throwing the ball, Thomas caught 30 passes for 343 yards, which averaged out to 7.5 receptions per game.
Clearly, MT doesn’t care who’s throwing him the football, so why would it matter if Jameis Winston (or Hill again) is his quarterback in 2021? If anything, Winston is known as a gunslinger who actually led the NFL in passing yardage in 2019. The Saints may also play from behind more with Jameis or Taysom at QB, which generally means more passing attempts and wide receiver targets. Thomas will be just fine without Brees, after all his nickname is Can’t Guard Mike for a reason.
3. Sean Payton
NOLA general manager Mickey Loomis extended Thomas in 2019. The five year deal was worth a record-breaking $96 million-plus. That is an expensive weapon, and don’t think for a second that head coach Sean Payton won’t milk that weapon for every penny so long as he’s wearing a Saints jersey. We are talking about one of the most creative offensive minds the game has ever seen, with one of the best pure route runners of the NFL today.
Whichever route New Orleans goes at quarterback, Thomas will be a major part of it. Outside of 2020, MT has averaged 150.5 targets per season in Payton’s offense, and the HC has already proven he can win without Brees just like the wide-out has proven he can put up numbers without his former QB. This is not meant to disparage Brees, but instead credit a couple of the key influencers on his career. The Saints have also lost WR2 Emmanuel Sanders and TE Jared Cook in free agency, meaning Payton may have to rely on his WR1 more than usual this season.
Two things are for certain; the Saints offense will score in 2021, and Michael Thomas will catch many passes so long as he’s on the field. He may even reclaim his crown.