Michael Thomas leads the league in receptions and receiving yards. Last season he led the league in receptions with an unreal 85% catch rate, the highest ever for a wide receiver with at least 100 targets — at least since 1992 when targets became an official thing. This year, he’s caught 82% of his 89 targets as the catalyst of a New Orleans Saints passing offense that remains seventh in DVOA despite a five-game stretch without Drew Brees.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Thomas also currently leads the league in receiving Expected Points Added and 71% of his targets have resulted in positive EPA, which is tied with Amari Cooper for the highest positive play rate in the league.

By just about any measure, Thomas is one of the league’s best receivers. His rise to star level might be surprising to some considering he was the sixth wide receiver taken in his own draft class, but even outside of that, the way Thomas has performed on the field has made him and one-of-a-kind star wide receiver.

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Winning Short

In this current era of the NFL, teams are winning by passing often and the best are finding ways to win deep. That is not that case for Thomas and the Saints, who excel in the short and intermediate areas of the field.

Take a look at a heatmap of Thomas’s targets from 2019:

source: HungryPigRight

The highly concentrated areas for Thomas stretch the middle of the field and well within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you were to plot out what a star receiver’s heatmap looks like. Take a look at what the target heatmaps look life for fellow NFC South receivers Mike Evans

source: HungryPigRight

…and Julio Jones:

source: HungryPigRight

Thomas’s share of targets is atypical, especially for a receiver who still plays so often on the outside. Thomas has only lined up in the slot on 28% of plays this season, though 43.8% of his targets have come lined up in the slot. His heatmap closely resembles someone like Cooper Kupp, who has seen 75% of his snaps and 85% of his targets from the slot.

Even Kupp, though, has been used more often down the field. Here are the top 15 players in receiving EPA through Week 9 with their rate of targets that come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

PlayerTargetsEPAPositive Play%Targets < 10 yards
Michael Thomas8951.87170.8%
Chris Godwin7246.86852.8%
Tyler Lockett7241.26956.9%
Amari Cooper5735.47149.1%
Courtland Sutton6835.15552.9%
Travis Kelce7533.56164.0%
Cooper Kupp8733.45467.8%
DeAndre Hopkins9333.16066.7%
Julio Jones7432.15944.6%
George Kittle57316378.9%
John Brown6030.36341.7%
DJ Chark Jr70285547.1%
Terry McLaurin5226.65750.0%
Mike Evans8126.25939.5%
Darren Waller6026.16675.0%

The distribution of targets for Thomas more closely resembles the league’s best tight ends than the top wide receivers.

What makes Thomas so much more unique is that he isn’t just the underneath option within a wide range of the passing offense for the Saints. Thomas is the focal point of the passing offense and it all runs through him.

The ability to win often and effectively in this short area of the field has been a perfect complement to a quarterback with pinpoint accuracy like Brees and a quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater, who is also more effective in the intermediate area of the field and needed a safety net as he was worked into the offense while Brees was out. That helps the Saints be incredibly effective when throwing short. They rank third in EPA on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and are just one of 11 teams with positive EPA on such throws. 

New Orleans’s passing game is so tied to Thomas, he’s still among the league leaders in team percentage of air yards despite rarely getting all that many air yards on his targets. Here are the receivers who have accounted for at least 35% of their team’s air yards this season, along with their average depth of target, per Next Gen Stats.

Player% Team Air YardsaDOT
Courtland Sutton42.6%11.9
Stefon Diggs41.6%14.7
Allen Robinson41.2%11.3
Terry McLaurin41.0%13.7
Mike Evans40.8%15.8
Robby Anderson39.8%15
Michael Thomas39.5%7.8
Curtis Samuel39.2%15.7
John Brown39.2%14.5
D.J. Chark37.1%13.2

Thomas has the lowest aDOT of that group by 3.5 yards. And even with that low aDOT, it’s not as if Thomas is taking off and consistently gaining chunks of yards after the catch. What makes him so special is how well he can control his body to use leverage and manipulate the defense to create separation and catch almost everything.

How it’s done

Earlier in the week, we discussed the effectiveness of the slant around the goal line and highlighted how the Saints use Thomas in that area. That isn’t restricted to just near the end zone. Thomas can win easily on a slant anywhere on the field. Per SIS, he’s been targeted on a slant 15 times this season, the third-most among receivers. He also has the third most EPA gained on the route and the fifth-highest positive play rate among 36 receivers with at lest five targets on the route.

Thomas’s size and his ability to block out defenders makes him almost impossible to stop on a slant. If a defender is playing press, Thomas can use his body to out-leverage the defender. If the defender is playing off, Thomas will cut his route perfectly to use the space to create enough separation for the catch before the defender can close in. Or, like on this third down against Tampa Bay in Week 5, Thomas can set up a corner with a stutter step off the line that gives the defender no clue where Thomas is going.

At the NFL Combine Thomas’s testing numbers weren’t extraordinary, one reason he was not viewed as a top-tier wide receiver in that class. His 4.57 40-yard dash is just in the 29th percentile among NFL wide receivers. But, Thomas does have exceptional quick-twitch muscles that are favorable to the role he currently plays. His 10-yard split on the 40 was in the 56th percentile, his 20-yard shuttle was in the 73rd percentile, his 3-cone was in the 76th percentile, and his broad jump was in the 83rd percentile. You can look at Thomas’s 40 and think he’s not athletic enough to excel as a top-flight NFL receiver or you can find where Thomas excels and build around that.

There might not have been a better coach to build around those strengths than Sean Payton. Besides getting Thomas on those slants where he can use his strength against defenders, the Saints routinely find ways to get Thomas in space and in mismatches off the line of scrimmage.

In Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, the Saints used Thomas from the slot on a simple mesh/wheel concept. Thomas and tight end Dan Arnold had opposing crossing routes and that conflict in the middle of the field forced cornerback Byron Jones to avoid contact, which allowed Thomas to break free and turn the corner.

Then against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6, the Saints had Thomas line up wide then motion in before the snap, which switched up the responsibilities of the defense. Thomas then ran a drag — he leads all receivers with nine targets on drags — and was matched up with linebacker Myles Jack who had little chance of catching him crossing the field.

With Thomas on the receiving end, these plays are almost automatic for an offense. With a catch rate so high, it’s almost like running a screen five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Continued Success

What could continue to make Thomas such a success, especially once Bress moves on, is this doesn’t have to be Thomas’s final form. There are receivers like Larry Fitzgerald who were forced into a similar role because age forced it. Thomas is at his best working like this, but he can win in other areas of the field.

There are people in baseball close to Ichiro who say he knew he had the ability to hit 40 home runs in a season if he chose to, but found his skill as a singles hitter with a high average more valuable during the prime of his career.

Thomas is similar with how the Saints are currently set up. His ability to win so consistently in the short area of the field works perfectly with the current version of Drew Bress and doesn’t force the quarterback to throw deep often, which can help save his arm for a potential deep playoff run.

But if needed, Thomas has more than enough ability to win down the field. He leads the Saints in targets 15 or more yards down the field with 15 — two more than Ted Ginn — and has an 80% positive play rate, which leads all receivers with at least 15 such targets.

All the things that make him the league’s best underneath receiver — the quick twitch, the ability the set up defenders, his leverage — also makes him a dangerous threat further down the field.

Thomas might not play like a prototypical star receiver, but he’s already on the best in the league with a unique skill set that could carry the Saints far into the postseason this year and sustained success in the future.