Saints receiver Michael Thomas sounds eager to accept the responsibility of being a “No. 1” receiver in New Orleans’ prolific offense, even if he doesn’t necessarily like such labels.
“Whatever I have to do to add value to this team and put points on the board, that’s what I’m going to do and do it at a high level,” Thomas said after practice at Saints training camp Saturday. “If I’m No. 1, No. 2, whatever I am … I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and, ultimately, every time I touch (the ball), I’m going to try to score.”
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas lines up at the “X” position that Saints career receiving leader Marques Colston held from 2006 to 2015. And in his second NFL season, he often will be quarterback Drew Brees’ first read. He will draw matchups against opponents’ best defensive backs – and routinely run routes in double coverage.
So far, signs point to Thomas thriving in that role.
As a rookie, he led New Orleans in catches with 92 and touchdowns with nine. His 1,137 yards receiving ranked second on the team, only 36 yards behind the total put up by Brandin Cooks, who was traded to New England this past offseason.
And as quarterback Drew Brees pointed out, Thomas had a lot to learn as a rookie, and looked considerably more comfortable during the latter half of last season.
“For any young receiver when they come in, yes there’s raw talent, but then there’s the fundamentals of playing the position at this level,” Brees said. “Your releases vs. bump-and-run, the way you set up routes and the nuances to our system and the concepts within our system – it just takes time to understand those and be confident with them.”
Now, Brees said, Thomas “can play fast,” because he knows what to do.
Thomas worked out with Brees in California during the offseason, further deepening a connection that has been evident during 11-on-11 drills since 2017 camp opened.
Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson envisions Thomas being “just phenomenal.”
“He’s faster than you think. He’s just so strong – and then what I like about him, he’s so coachable,” Johnson said.
Indeed, when Thomas was asked how he benefits from using his uncle, former star NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson, as a resource, the receiver said it was because his uncle is “completely honest” in the way he points out weaknesses.
Among those least surprised by Thomas’ quick rise is safety Vonn Bell, who also was Thomas’ teammate at Ohio State. He recalls Thomas making plays in practice against cornerback Bradley Roby, a 2014 first-round draft choice by Denver.
Bell said Thomas had a relatively “quiet” college career because “it was a whole different offense. So it was hard for him to just get the ball out there and be a true ‘X.’ Now it’s drop-back, play-action.”
Brees identified one of Thomas’ strengths as running routes “with violence,” which caused defensive backs who try to press Thomas near the line of scrimmage to be bumped off balance and lose leverage.
Also, Brees noted, Thomas “has big strong hands and he attacks the ball. So wherever you throw it, he is going to get the ball. He is not going to wait for it.”
Thomas said his past, which had its share of disappointment, will prevent him from becoming content. During his sophomore year at Ohio State in 2013, Thomas was redshirted, meaning he could practice, but not play that season. He responded by helping Ohio State win the 2014 national championship. He had another strong season in 2015, only to drop into the second round of the 2016 NFL draft.
“I’ve still got a lot to prove – and I'll prove it when it’s all said and done,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ drive manifests itself in the force with which he spikes the ball after crossing the goal line.
“It gets the juices flowing and the energy going,” Thomas said. “So when you get a chance to cross that end zone, you want to spike the ball as hard as possible.”
Thomas doesn’t envision himself adopting a dance or pose to celebrate scores. A raw, emphatic, no-nonsense display of intensity is more his style.
“I might just stick to spiking the ball,” he said. “I like that one a lot.”