Thomas was truly outstanding as a 2016 rookie. Expected to enter the league with a bit of a learning curve – Thomas wasn’t a statistical marvel in college by any stretch – he quickly took the reins as Drew Brees’ primary possession receiver and ultimately led all Saints in targets (despite missing a game). When the dust had cleared, he’d finished his rookie year as the per-game PPR WR10.
Just how impressive was his debut? Thomas was one of just 13 rookie wideouts since 2000 to draw 120+ targets, and here’s how he fared in relation to the others:
Of that rookie grouping, Thomas posted:
- The seventh-most targets per game (tied, 8.1)
- The second-most receptions (92)
- The best catch rate (76.0%)
- The third-highest yards per target (9.40)
- The second-most red zone targets per game (1.3)
- The fourth-best touchdown rate (9.8%)
- The third-most PPR points per game (17.31)
That’s truly lovely, and it’s fair to wonder if those numbers could even increase with Brandin Cooks out of town. But it’s worth noting that wide receivers – even great ones, and great rookies – often struggle in their sophomore follow-ups. Here’s a look at those rookie phenoms’ performances in their second NFL seasons:
Here we see that only 4 of those 12 non-Thomas receivers upped their output in Year 2 – and one of those should be bumped from the group (Justin Blackmon played in just 4 games in his second season). For our purposes, that gives us a sub-25% success rate in terms of meeting or exceeding rookie production. But I’m not overly worried about Thomas; between his rookie efficiency and the Saints’ blistering offense, he seems to fit more with the higher-end guys on that list. A number of factors went into those disappointments, and I don’t think they necessarily apply to Thomas:
Volume fluctuation/regression to the norm. Of the eight receivers to dip in Year 2, five saw a drop-off in targets per game from their rookie seasons. But barring injury, Thomas certainly won’t see his targets dip in 2017, what with Cooks leaving town and Willie Snead likely maxed out as a No. 2. The Saints will likely add some degree of wideout help in the draft, but Thomas is locked in atop the pecking order. It’s still early in the offseason, but his 121 rookie targets are looking like a floor.
Varying efficiency. Historically speaking, receivers tend to break out more often in Year 3 than in Year 2. The NFL leap is difficult, of course, and 16 rookie games often aren’t enough to iron out everything. As a result, even studs like Odell Beckham, Jr. and Mike Evans fluctuate as NFL sophomores. But Thomas seems insulated from much of that – he excelled as a rookie in terms of volume, but he blew minds with his efficiency. Recall from above that he led this cohort in catch rate and placed ultra-high in producing yardage and touchdowns. That kind of efficiency speaks to both his ceiling – threatening 100 catches is very much in play – and his floor. It looks as though Thomas’ value could survive small setbacks easier than that of most youngsters.
Let’s be kind and say “suboptimal quarterbacking.” Those eight wideouts were thrown to by some shaky, and often downright poor, quarterbacks. Peter Warrick was no great shakes, but a big Year 2 would’ve been tough for anyone paired with 2001 Jon Kitna (53.9% completion rate, 12 touchdowns). Even Kelvin Benjamin had to deal with a subpar iteration of Cam Newton. All told, those eight respective passing games averaged a passer rating of 77.4, which would’ve ranked 27th leaguewide in 2016. Thomas, on the other hand, will again catch passes from Drew Brees, who hasn’t rated below 89 since he was a Charger. Josh Freeman couldn’t maximize Michael Clayton’s production, but I’m quite confident Brees will continue to be a massive boon for Thomas.
Opportunity & Usage
As a rookie, Thomas rode the wave of an impressive camp and glowing coachspeak to a Week 1 starting gig in three-wide sets. It took no time to start compiling numbers; by midseason, he was seeing a consistent 60+ snaps per game and leading the team in receptions. And why not? Behind Brandin Cooks, Thomas was easily the second-most efficient target for Drew Brees in 2016 – and he offered a lot more consistency than just about any of them. Brees posted 9.4 adjusted yards per attempt when throwing to Thomas, and 7.5 when throwing elsewhere. And the Thomas sample size wasn’t small (121 targets). Thanks to his heavy usage as an across-the-field weapon, he also managed to finish fourth leaguewide in forced missed tackles and fifth in yards after the catch.
It was also encouraging to see Thomas stake a claim to the red zone. Across his 15 games, Thomas drew a team-high 19 red zone looks (17.0% team share), producing 7 of his 9 touchdowns from up close. That kind of share is a fairly big deal anywhere, but it carries serious weight in New Orleans. Over the past 5 years, only one team (Green Bay) has posted more red zone dropbacks, and no quarterback has been more efficient from there than Drew Brees. A meaty stake in this kind of red zone offense all but guarantees strong TD production, so Thomas’ rookie TD mark doesn’t look fluky at all.
That said, we shouldn’t merely note Thomas’ impressive rookie numbers and extrapolate them to a post-Cooks offense. Not to take away from Thomas’ rookie showing, but it was largely volume-driven – there’s no question he benefited heavily from the Saints’ offense. His 121 targets were wonderful, but represented a solid-not-great 19.1% of team targets. For reference’s sake, that was a lower stake than either Tavon Austin or Jeremy Kerley drew from their offenses. Of course, Thomas’ offensive outlook makes up nicely for that downside. And with Cooks gone, Thomas’ floor for target share stays nice and static. But it’s worth taking note that he’s yet to be a volume dominator – in college or in the pros – and that no Saint receiver has garnered more than 23% of team targets in 6 years. Thomas owners needn’t worry about him falling off the globe, but ultra-gaudy volume numbers may not be in the cards. When I project the Saints next month, I figure he’ll probably earn about 135-145 targets – a fine, fine number, but a shade off of the NFL’s true market dominators. (Note: Marques Colston only topped 130 once across his 8 full seasons as a Saint.) That’s not to mention, a slip in performance could certainly drop Thomas behind Willie Snead for attention.
The bottom line is that his efficiency was masterful and his count volume league-winning, but that 2017 drafters will put a little consideration into their sustainability. Thomas’ value should be able to survive an unexpected dip in volume, but that’s merely an assumption based on unusually high rookie numbers. I’m not interested in projecting specific players to unexpectedly dip, but mean regression is indeed a thing. There’s a non-zero chance he slips noticeably in both usage and efficiency, in which case he’d be truly overdrafted all offseason.
As a Prospect
Thomas is only 24, so he’s still more prospect than veteran, and last year’s scouting profile is still somewhat relevant. If nothing else, it will provide a control as we sift through a uniquely dynamic rookie season.
On paper, Thomas looked like a relatively blah prospect for his early-round expectation. He didn’t show himself to be especially fast or explosive at his combine, and he failed to improve on that testing at his pro day. He only posted one season of team-high receiving production, and he never reached 800 yards in school. Still, his final-year leap was impressive, and while he was a bit old to break out, he rightfully turned plenty of heads as Ohio State’s leading receiver.
It was fair to enter 2016 less than enthused about his measurables and overall resume, but those who’d watched Thomas closely were greatly encouraged. The great Matt Harmon gushed over his route-running and ability to dominate a matchup, and also awarded him the class’ highest success rate on deep balls. (Harmon went on to write up Thomas again during his rookie season, noting that his route and separation skills were carrying over nicely.)
When we have competing sets of data like this – a questionable prospect who excels as soon as he’s a pro – the key is appropriately leveraging both of them. And personally, I give much more weight to Thomas’ 15 games with Brees and Sean Payton than to Thomas the prospect. The fact that he was woven so quickly and steadily into such a dynamic offense speaks serious volumes, and he’ll obviously never be a mid-volume Buckeye again.
- He looks like the real deal. Thomas didn’t merely flash and sizzle as a rookie, making highlight reels with a long catch here and there. He reached his heights as an all-around, week-after-week contributor, long on both volume and efficiency. It’s hard to find real bust factor here.
- His offense is as high-octane and high-scoring as just about any. Last year, Thomas’ Saints ran the most plays in football and scored the second-most points. That’s a fairly common occurrence. Thomas’ production opportunities are maximized as well by Drew Brees and Sean Payton as just about anyone’s leaguewide.
- He should enter the season as the barely-contested No. 1 option. With Brandin Cooks out of town, Thomas now boasts the Saints’ most consistent and voluminous NFL track record. Brees feeds a lot of mouths with his gobs of attempts, but barring the unforeseen, Thomas will lead the pack.
- He carries serious red zone upside. The Saints march the field like crazy, and few teams find themselves near the goal line more often. That makes it even sexier to note that Thomas drew the team’s highest red zone target rate in 2016. If that role remains static, Thomas will be a yearly threat to catch 10 touchdowns – and it buoys his overall floor, too.
- He wasn’t a dazzling prospect. Thomas didn’t exactly dominate his offense in college, and he looked like a mediocre athlete for the position at last year’s combine. Guys outperform their measurables plenty (as Thomas just did), but it’s worth noting as we examine a prospect entering Year 2.
- He should lead the team in targets, but won’t necessarily dominate them. Thomas should be the Saints’ most voluminous option, and if he plays 16 games, anything below 130 targets would be a major upset. But his ceiling may be capped as the team’s top threat. Thomas’ rookie volume was steady, but never dominating in a Saints offense that sent 81+ targets to 4 different receivers. His floor looks rock-solid, but he may not be quite the 100-catch threat many fantasy owners will pay for.
- His draft value will probably soar this offseason. Since the Saints didn't replace Cooks with a high-profile draftee, Thomas will sit squarely atop the depth chart through the summer. In this offense, after that rookie season, Thomas will not come cheaply anywhere. He’ll almost certainly require a second-round PPR pick, and while he looks fully worth it, don’t be shocked if his ADP creeps up even further.
Here’s a guy with legitimate pros and cons, but I’m firmly smitten with the pro side. Thomas’ rookie excellence indeed sets a daunting bar, and I can’t project him to again catch 76% of his targets. But he’s cemented high in a mile-a-minute, score-a-minute offense, and there’s room for that role to grow sans-Brandin Cooks. And Thomas carries peripherals, like his red zone productivity, that indicate he’s the real deal. Watch his ADP through the offseason, but assuming it stabilizes squarely in Round 2 (PPR), there’s plenty of reason to be confident on the return.
Our Ryan Hester is certainly on board, as he discussed with me this week:
“The arrival of Ted Ginn far from cancels out the departure of Brandin Cooks, meaning Thomas will be leaned upon heavily in 2017. Even with a main passing game weapon leaving, New Orleans isn't going to shift away from their pass-heavy ways. So while Thomas may not catch 76% of his targets again (which was second in the NFL among all players with at least 80 targets), he'll exceed the 121 he received last season, making last season's 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, and 9 touchdowns (all top-10 in the NFL) seem like very realistic benchmarks for 2017 performance as well.”
Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner is also pumped:
“Even though Thomas has only 16 games to his name in the NFL, it’s become abundantly clear that the Saints found themselves a No. 1 receiver. Not only is he talented, but Thomas also fits seamlessly into New Orleans timing passing offense.”
Charles Kleinheksel of RotoViz is excited, but sees Thomas along the same wavelength as Ryan and I do:
“Thomas may not fall off at all. But it’s difficult to expect one of the most efficient seasons of recent memory to be repeated… He remains a premium dynasty asset, although I think there’s a good chance he doesn’t improve on his rookie numbers.”