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Player Faceoff: Michael Thomas, New Orleans

Two staffers go head-to-head and discuss Michael Thomas

The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.

High Side: Devin Knotts

The Saints made a big bet in the offseason trading away one of their best wide receivers in Brandin Cooks in the offseason. The reason that they were able to do this was the breakout star that is emerging in Michael Thomas. Thomas should see an increased role heading into his second season, but you do have to pay a premium for the wide receiver as he is currently being drafted as the seventh wide receiver heading into this season.

The most impressive part of Thomas’ game was his catch rate. He caught 75.4% of the targets that he saw which was the highest in the NFL last season for a starting wide receiver. The best part about this is that with Cooks departing New Orleans, there are another 117 targets that need to be distributed throughout this offense. Even if Thomas were to only get 30 of those 117 additional targets, he would be looking at 152 targets which would put him in the elite category of receivers for targets and then if he can continue this catch rate he could lead the NFL in receptions.

The most exciting part about Michael Thomas’ game is that last year was an adaptation to a new offense as a rookie. In college, Thomas went to Ohio State which has a run first offense which explained why a lot of people were down on him heading into this season as he did not have the flashy numbers that you expect coming out of college. This shows that Thomas still has upside and will continue to build off of his 2016 rookie season and as he continues to learn the position and learn the Saints offense will provide tremendous upside to his fantasy outlook for 2017 and beyond.

You may say to yourself that you do not want to pay the premium for Thomas but if you look at the wide receivers after him, there are major concerns for all of them. T.Y. Hilton and Dez Bryant are two receivers going immediately after Thomas and the concern with them is much higher than a sophomore slump for Thomas as Hilton has an issue where he’s shown inconsistency throughout his career and Andrew Luck may not be ready for the first game of the season. Dez Bryant has played in just 24 games over the last two seasons and his volume under Dak Prescott fell off drastically compared to his prime years with Tony Romo. He is the last of the elite wide receiver tier and is well worth a high second round pick for this year.

Low Side: Ari Ingel

With Brandin Cooks out of town, Thomas is the lead dog in this receiving corps. He had a monster rookie season, finishing with 92 receptions for 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns, with his reception and yard totals being the 2nd and 7th best respectively ever for a rookie. Furthermore, he was Pro Football Focus' (PFF) 5th rated wide receiver last year and finished with Football Outsiders second best DVOA score, which represents value, per play, over an average wide receiver in the same game situations. Additionally, in Matt Harmon's Reception Perception metric he performed amazingly well, finishing with some of the best numbers on the season: Success rate vs: Man-74%, Zone-84%, Double-73%, Press-80%. So clearly Thomas is a great player and there is so much to love.

The problem with Thomas is his average draft position (ADP), which is currently 2.02 and is the 5th wide receiver off the board. What you need to keep in mind is that it's not as easy being the man, taking on teams top corners and/or seeing double coverage and being game planned for, then it is having a guy like Brandin Cooks on the other side of the field taking some of the pressure off. As Scott Barrett at PFF mentioned, Thomas had the 4th easiest corner back schedule last year, while Cooks had the 52nd hardest out of 95 receivers. This year, the Saints have the leagues 7th toughest schedule for outside receivers, so life is going to be significantly tougher for Thomas.

Drew Brees also likes to spread things around and Saints lead receivers usually see around a 20% target share, while 36 receivers in the league saw more than 20% last year. And while the Saints have a high volume pass attack and the quality of those targets are top notch coming from Brees, he is 38 years old and there have been reports that they want to run the ball more, which is one reason they signed Adrian Peterson. Taken as a whole, while I love the talent but he's being drafted probably 5 to 10 draft slots too early.