What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Michael Thomas

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Michael Thomas

After my first “What to Expect” article on Corey Davis was so well received, I thought I could turn this into a series and look at special cases of players. One of those special cases is Saints wide receiver, Michael Thomas. The rookie came out of nowhere last season, emerging onto the fantasy scene with 92 receptions for 1137 yards and 9 touchdowns. Drew Brees’ new favorite target had an amazing rookie year and with the departure of Brandin Cooks’ 117 targets this offseason – sky’s the limit, right? It certainly seems that way, and dynasty Twitter appears to agree.

Recent Twitter polls show the majority feel Thomas will finish with 95 receptions, 1200 yards, and 9 touchdowns in 2017; production totals that would only slightly improve upon his 2016 results. I must say, it surprised me that dynasty Twitter is not higher on Thomas, given his amazing situation in New Orleans. Here is a closer look at the numbers for the WR1 in a Drew Brees-led offense:

Year Player Targets Rec Yards TD Catch% FP Rank
2016 M. Thomas 121 92 1137 9 0.76 255.7 WR7
2015 B. Cooks 129 84 1138 9 0.651 253.8 WR13
2014 J. Graham 125 85 889 10 0.68 229.9 WR15
2013 J. Graham 142 86 1215 16 0.606 303.5 WR5
2012 J. Graham 135 85 982 9 0.63 237.2 WR16
2011 J. Graham 149 99 1310 11 0.664 294 WR3
2010 M. Colston 131 84 1023 7 0.641 228.3 WR14
2009 M. Colston 107 70 1074 9 0.654 228 WR16
2008 L. Moore 121 79 928 10 0.653 231.8 WR13
2007 M. Colston 143 98 1202 11 0.685 282.2 WR8
2006 M. Colston 115 70 1038 8 0.609 221.8 WR16
Average N/A 128.91 84.73 1085.09 9.91 0.6575 251.47 WR11

As you can see, the numbers for Drew Brees’ favorite target are consistently good, but not great. Brees has never had a receiver eclipse 150 targets or 100 receptions in a single season. Because of that, only one Saints receiver has ever broken 1300 receiving yards in a season: Jimmy Graham. This speaks more to Brees’ ability to spread the ball around to three or more receivers. So, what can we expect from Thomas in 2017?

Looking again at the chart above, we see the average stat line for Brees’ number one receiver is 85 receptions on 129 targets for 1085 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing with around 250 fantasy points as a low WR1. I think this offers a very safe floor for Thomas’ 2017 outlook, but given his performance in 2016 as a rookie, we should expect a little more. Below are the stat lines for sophomore receivers coming off amazing rookie seasons in recent history:

Year Player Team Targets Receptions Yards TDs FP PPG WR Rank
2012 A.J. Green CIN 164 97 1,350 11 299.8 18.7 3
2015 O. Beckham Jr NYG 158 96 1,450 13 319.3 21.3 5
2015 Mike Evans TB 145 74 1,208 3 210.8 15.1 23

What can we make of this? Well, for one, each of these receivers are elite dynasty assets who have been able to consistently produce for fantasy owners. We also see that each of these receivers were heavily targeted, which resulted (mostly) in high reception, yardage, and touchdown totals. However, we know that Brees loves to spread the ball around, so here are the stats for each of the above receivers’ WR2:

Year Player Team Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs FP WR Rank
2012 Andrew Hawkins CIN 14 80 51 533 4 131.3 57
2015 Rueben Randle NYG 16 90 57 797 8 184.7 33
2015 Vincent Jackson TB 10 62 33 543 3 105.3 65

We see that Rueben Randle performed the best of three and was also the most targeted. This is interesting because Odell Beckham Jr. had the best performance of the three receivers above on only six fewer targets than AJ Green. This is actually due to the fact that the Giants threw the ball significantly more than the Buccaneers or Bengals in their respective years, as shown below:

Year Team Pass% Run%
2012 CIN 58.73% 41.27%
2015 NYG 63.01% 36.99%
2015 TB 57.77% 42.23%
2016 NO 63.62% 36.38%

In fact, the pass/run ratio for the Giants is nearly identical to the pass/run ratio for the 2016 Saints. Because of this, the sophomore season for OBJ gives us the most identical historical match as to what we can expect from Michael Thomas in 2017. Though I do not expect Thomas to eclipse 1400 receiving yards and break into the top-5 fantasy receivers, I believe the 2015 season for OBJ serves as a realistic ceiling for Thomas’ 2017 season and beyond.

As mentioned in my Corey Davis article, I am working on a model to predict fantasy points in a season based on known factors from previous seasons. Running Michael Thomas through the model for 2017, it predicted Thomas to average 16.95 fantasy points per game. That is a weekly stat line of 6 receptions for 76 yards and 0.56 touchdowns. Extrapolating that out to a yearly stat line, Thomas would accumulate 96 receptions for 1216 yards and 9 touchdowns, which would have placed him as the WR6 on the year in 2016. Another thing to note: last year Thomas finished with a catch percentage of 76%, the best of any number one receiver under Drew Brees. In fact, no other number one receiver under Brees surpassed a 70% catch percentage. I would expect Thomas’ catch percentage to regress in 2017, so a catch percentage of 65% projects Thomas to be targeted 147 times to reach the projected 96 receptions. 147 targets are not an unreasonable number for Thomas, but I would expect him to be targeted slightly less in 2017, given Brees’ knack to spread the love. With a catch percentage of 70% for Thomas in 2017, he would need to be targeted 137 times to reach 96 receptions, much more along the lines of what I expect from Thomas in 2017. The yearly stat line of 96/1216/9 is a happy medium of the average stat line for Brees’ WR1 (85/1085/10) and OBJ’s sophomore season (96/1450/13). This would firmly entrench Thomas a surefire WR1 anywhere from WR6-WR10 in 2017, and his stock is surely rising for beyond next season.

The biggest concern with Thomas as a long-term asset is also why he is so valuable: Drew Brees. Brees turned 38 in January and is under contract through 2020. Whether he is able to play through the remainder of his contract is a major question mark itself. Even if he does play four more seasons, how many of those seasons will we see the elite Drew Brees we all know and love? It is all speculation at this point; Brees has said he wants to play well into his forties, but Father Time is undefeated. As long as Brees remains under center, Thomas will be an elite fantasy receiver, and until that day comes, we cannot question Thomas’ value.  

 

 

ahayes

Penn State college student and Steelers fan. Been playing fantasy football since 2009 and dynasty football since 2016. Numbers don't lie, people do. Co-Host of the Super Flexible Podcast. @Amazehayes_DFF on Twitter.

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