Editor’s note: This article is by Member Corner writer Nate Williams. Please welcome Nate and provide constructive feedback in the comments section.
With the Drew Brees era now over at the New Orleans Saints, the inclination among many moving forward is the weapons left behind from a once-prominent NFL offense are going to suffer a major hit in terms of fantasy success as we head into the 2021 season.
Brees, who is undoubtedly a future Hall-of-Famer, completed 70-plus percent of his passes from 2016 through 2019, and regularly approached (or broke) the 5,000-yards passing mark year in and year out. He made everyone around him better, and in turn, more valuable in fantasy football.
So what is next for Brees’ former teammates in New Orleans?
2021 will usher in a changing of the guard for the Saints. At this point, it is unclear who will be under center in The Big Easy between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, although all indications point to the latter of the two. The assumption is Winston will lead the organization once the regular season is underway, despite the team re-signing Hill to a new four-year, $140 million dollar deal in the off-season. It appears, at least for now, that head coach Sean Payton will look to keep Hill in the “gadget” type role that he has been used in and regularly excelled at in the past.
How long Winston keeps this role likely depends on his decision-making on dropbacks and his ability to protect the football when throwing. He’s struggled with this in the past while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so as far as real longevity, only time will tell.
Going on the assumption that Winston does start the season as the Saints QB1, is there any hope for wide receiver Michael Thomas?
That is what we’re going to find out.
Michael Thomas: Then
It wasn’t that long ago that Thomas was one of the brightest up and comers within the fantasy football vortex. As a matter of a fact, Thomas will now forever hold the 16-game NFL regular-season record for receptions with 149. He broke the previous record-holder Marvin Harrison’s benchmark in 2019, trumping the then pinnacle of 143 catches by six catches just two seasons ago.
Considering the NFL regular season will now be 17 games going forward, it’s very likely no one can ever take that away from MT.
Because of this, it appeared that if you owned Thomas in dynasty leagues in 2019, you were set moving forward. He was then just 26 years old, and the future looked bright for the young, former Ohio State Buckeye. That narrative began to change last season, however.
2020 saw a major regression in production for Thomas, largely due to injury. He played in a total of just seven games, and started just five following teammate Latavius Murray landing on his left ankle in week one.
The reigning offensive MVP was able to limp to the sideline, but there was an obvious cause for concern.
— Roto Street Journal (RSJ) (@RotoStJournal) September 13, 2020
Ultimately, Thomas decided to wait on surgery. Knowing that Brees was likely in his final season as the Saints starter, he wanted to keep the hopes alive of playing with him in another Super Bowl. In the end, New Orleans were eliminated from the post-season by the Bucs, Brees did indeed announce his retirement, and Thomas had multiple surgeries.
News broke last January that Thomas would go under the knife to repair his deltoid, as well as “several other ligaments” within his high ankle. All indicators at this point are that the surgery was successful and Thomas is now on track to be ready to suit up for New Orleans come week one of 2021.
Michael Thomas: Now
With several nagging injuries now behind him one has to wonder: What level of success will Thomas have in the remainder of his pro career? He is coming off surgery and his All-Pro signal-caller will no longer be orchestrating the Saints’ once-great offense.
If you take a look at Thomas’s early-season ADP, it seems as though fantasy owners do indeed have their doubts — and rightfully so.
According to many sites as of the first of June, 2021, MT’s average draft position is roughly 30th overall, ranking him as the WR9-10. Could Thomas finish the season around that position in terms of fantasy scoring?
Sure, and there are plenty of reasons to take a shot on him at that ADP — especially in PPR.
For starters, there is a plethora of upside available.
When entering draft season, the biggest question you should be asking yourself when considering a player is: What is the price? Often, a stellar team is built when the owner of the said team is able to get good value when handling roster construction.
With him currently priced at the tenth best wide receiver in fantasy, you’re hoping that Thomas can break the 90ish reception mark to hit value. The likelihood of this transpiring is actually quite high. Winston has relied on his outside receivers in the past and there are some interesting numbers suggesting Thomas will be more than okay with his former division rival as his new quarterback.
New Relationships, So similar to the Old
The next thing we’re going to do is look at Winston – specifically his tendencies prior to joining this team, and what that means for his new teammates.
It’s no secret that the former number one overall pick in the NFL Draft is considered somewhat of a gun-slinger when it comes to his style of play. In his time with the Buccaneers, Winston showed a heavy reliance on his outside guys at wideout and Chris Godwin was able to have a breakout year from the slot.
In 2019, Godwin caught 86 passes out of 121 targets for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. Mike Evans, who is an outside receiver similar to Thomas, caught 67 passes out of 118 targets for 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns. Winston threw a career-high 626 times in 2019, while also breaking the 5,000-yard mark through the air for the first time in his fourth NFL season.
Winston and Evans together in the years prior to 2019 showed even better rapport with each other. Over their five seasons together in Tampa Bay, Evans saw a total of 713 targets, good for 394 receptions, 6,209 yards and 36 touchdowns. All of this while Evans never played a full season.
The question then becomes: can Winston and Thomas have a similar trust in each other? Can Winston limit his mistakes while throwing to the outside? Can he work on his ability to throw the slant route more effectively? And can Thomas be counted on when Winston is in trouble or the team is facing third and long?
Truthfully, only time will tell.
Thomas will be coming off a key injury, but he still has some of the best hands in the league and hopefully he can still gain that always important separation from his defenders that benefited him so much in the past.
Numbers Never Lie
Going back to Thomas for a minute, he is quietly giving us every reason to still believe in his abilities. To prove it, we’re going to look at one of the most important metrics in relation to fantasy football: Targets Per Routes Run.
Targets Per Routes Run, or TPPR, is a very interesting analysis developed by Jacob Gibbs of Sportsline and CBS Fantasy. Basically, it tracks the number of times a player is targeted each year while running routes.
When we look at these numbers in Thomas’s case, the statistics are probably going to surprise you.
Thomas ran deeper routes and was still targeted at one of the highest rates in the NFL.
His 26.3% target per route run rate ranked sixth among qualified WR. None of the receivers ahead of him had an average route depth as high as Thomas.
— Jacob Gibbs (@jagibbs_23) May 25, 2021
The fact that Thomas was targeted so many times on his routes shows that despite the injury he battled all last season, he is still a great NFL player.
The most recent WRs with a +25% TPRR and +9.5 yard aDOT:
2020 – Stefon Diggs (WR3)
2019 – Julio Jones (WR3), Davante Adams (WR5 FPPG)
2018 – DeAndre Hopkins (WR1), Julio (WR4), Odell Beckham (WR7 FPPG)
2017 – Antonio Brown (WR1), Hopkins (WR2), Julio (WR7), AJ Green (WR10)
— Jacob Gibbs (@jagibbs_23) May 25, 2021
At the end of the day, Thomas is only going to be healthier at the start of the 2021 season than he was when he returned to action during last season. In 2020, he still only had one drop all year and was able to get separation.
When we look at the dynasty rankings available at Dynasty League Football, you don’t have to scroll down too far to find Thomas. Currently, his consensus ranking on the site is WR12 in dynasty formats. Guys around him in that ten-14 range include Calvin Ridley as the WR10, Terry McLaurin as the WR11, the previously mentioned Godwin at WR13 and DJ Moore as the WR14.
Of that group, Thomas is the oldest at 28 years old, although not by too much. One thing that jumps out to me is McLaurin being just ahead. In terms of actionable content, I can say that I would feel totally comfortable offering a trade of McLaurin for Thomas despite the three-year age difference.
My reasoning for this is quite simple — there are actually a lot of mouths to feed now when it comes to the Washington Football Team and there is a bit of uncertainty at quarterback there too. Sure, Ryan Fitzpatrick is known for throwing the ball around, but he’s also known for constant turnovers when airing it out. You also have to consider the fact that he is 39 years old and it’s hard to predict which direction the WFT goes post-Fitzpatrick.
In the end, both players have some risk.
The biggest thing for me is the great value you can get Thomas at in startup drafts. He’s being drafted far too late, as people worry about the injury from last season and factor in this Brees-less Saints offense.
It seems likely Winston gets a chance to lead this team at the start of the year. Hopefully, he makes the most of that opportunity and is able to be productive, at least for fantasy football’s sake.