Michael Thomas Will Return to the Reception King in 2021

After a frustrating 2020 campaign, MT is poised to take back the receptions throne this season.

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.

Pros and Cons For Panthers Drafting a QB in round one

After trading for Darnold, should Carolina double-down at QB?

by Michael Obermuller

Just one season into a three-year deal with Teddy Bridgewater, the Carolina Panthers have traded three draft picks (including a 2022 second rounder) for Sam Darnold. This time, Matt Rhule and Joe Brady finally got their quarterback of the future — or did they?

From multiple reports, the Panthers may not be totally “out” on drafting a QB just yet. General manager Scott Fitterer knows just how crucial it is to get this position right, and he’ll bring in as many players as it takes to do it. Darnold is the presumed starter based on potential as of now, but statistically, he was far less efficient than Bridgewater in 2020.

QB, Year (Team)Games StartedCompletion %Yards/GameTDsINTsRating
Sam Darnold, 2020 (Jets)1259.6%184.091172.7
Teddy Bridgewater, 2020 (Panthers)1569.1%248.9151192.1

Of course, Darnold was in Adam Gase’s system last season, a system that many blame for his failures, but maybe neither signal-caller deserves the job outright after a combined record of 6-21 a few months ago.

That’s Carolina’s mindset, but should they sacrifice even more draft capital and cap space on the position when they’ve already used so much? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the Panthers drafting another QB in 2021.

Cases FOR Drafting a QB

  • The Player they Want Most is Available at No. 8 Overall
    • The word around the NFL is that Carolina wants Justin Fields, and their scouting would certainly back that up. Based on Albert Breer’s tweet above, the Panthers have shown heavy attendance at both of Fields’ two Pro Day events.
    • This would also make sense in concurrence with the Darnold trade. Supposedly, the Panthers previously tried to move up to either second or third overall, but the New York Jets decided not to budge from two, and the San Francisco 49ers beat them to the punch at three.
    • Reports have the Panthers less high on Mac Jones and Trey Lance, so the Darnold deal may have been insurance in the event that Fields is gone at eight. If a QB you LOVE is still on the board, you draft him, that’s Football 101 (especially if there’s no QB prospect you like in 2022).
  • Potential Ceiling
    • Every team evaluates players differently. For example, the New York Jets new braintrust clearly evaluated Darnold differently than the Carolina Panthers, being that they believe a rookie has a higher ceiling than the former third overall pick in 2018.
    • Having said that, Carolina would not have traded for Darnold unless they thought he had more potential than Bridgewater. They should only consider drafting a QB if they truly believe he has a higher potential than both Sam and Teddy.
    • The stats above could support this theory alone, but it’ll also have to do with age, dual-threat ability, scheme fit, mentality and different raw skills like arm strength. A prospect like Fields would beat out the two veterans in almost every measurable category.
  • Can Never Have Enough QBs
    • This is the “multiple darts” argument, but it’s unlikely that Carolina would ever enter the 2021 season with three quarterbacks.
    • They could draft a QB at eight, then trade Bridgewater to a team like the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, or New England Patriots.

Case AGAINST Drafting a QB

  • Top QBs Are Gone Early
    • I know, duh, but I’m including this to point out that Carolina CANNOT and SHOULD NOT trade up for a quarterback. They already gave up three picks to get Darnold, and this rebuilding franchise still needs help elsewhere if they plan on succeeding long-term.
    • Most draft analysts have all five of the main QB prospects being drafted in the top 10, and some have them going one through five (or at least top seven). This may be out of the Panthers hands.
  • Darnold’s Upside
    • Although Bridgewater could theoretically outplay Darnold, I don’t think there’s an argument to keep Teddy over a rookie past 2022, so let’s focus on Sam here.
    • The latest NYJ disappointment is just 24 years old in June, and he’s had an odd start to his career. Whether due to injury or his baffling bout with mono, Darnold has yet to play a full season. This could be looked at as a con for the USC product, or it could mean that the best is yet to come.
  • Change of Scenery Could “Unlock” Darnold
    • The Jets also didn’t do Darnold any favors, hiring Gase to mentor him after one failed campaign with Todd Bowles and Jeremy Bates. Panthers OC Joe Brady is considered to be one of the brightest young minds in the game, which could act as a catalyst for Sam.
    • A skill-position core of Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and David Moore also trumps anything the Jets ever armed Darnold with.
    • Even offensive line play was better in Carolina last season. Darnold had a pressure percentage of 27.3 compared to Bridgewater’s 19.8. Sam was also hit the same amount of times (38) as Teddy in three less starts, and was actually hurried once more than him despite the difference in games.
  • Available Cap Space & Draft Capital vs. Roster Needs
    • As I just pointed out, the Jets never put a quality roster around Darnold, so would it be wise for Carolina to do the same, even if they start a rookie QB?
    • Bridgewater currently has a cap hit of $22.9 million-plus this year ($20 million dead cap hit), and Darnold has a hit of $4.77 million. They have ALREADY picked up Sam’s fifth year option for 2022, which is another $18.85 million, and assuming they cannot deal Teddy, they’ll incure a $5 million dead cap hit when they release him next offseason. An eighth overall pick would add about $3.75 million this year and $4.7 million in 2022.
    • After the Darnold trade, the Panthers have seven draft picks in 2021, and five picks in 2022.
    • Carolina’s defense ranked 18th in points allowed last season. Their offensive line also ranked 18th according to Pro Football Focus. They even lost playmakers like Curtis Samuel and Mike Davis this offseason. They cannot afford to spend $31 million-plus and four total draft picks (including a first and second) on three QBs in 2021 when this roster is far from perfect.

The Verdict

I think it’s pretty obvious that the Panthers should give Darnold the opportunity in 2021. For better or for worse, they made their bed when they pounced on the Jets trade proposal. The only way they draft a QB is if they find a second trade partner for Bridgewater, which is possible, but I doubt they get much back in this scenario (besides cap relief). With the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers set up to be the powerhouse of the division for at least one more season, it’s probably smarter to add another layer of foundation around the quarterback position this draft. Then, after seeing what you have in Darnold, you can re-evaluate the situation in 2022.

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