One man arms himself with a calculator, the other with his intuition. They enter the cage for a no holds barred bloodbath to answer the age-old question, “Is this guy any good?”
Michael Thomas – New Orleans Saints
2016: 15 GP | 92 rec | 1,137 yds | 9 TDs
Alex Schillinger: As a Brandin Cooks owner last year in a PPR league, there wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t say, “who the fuck is this Michael Thomas guy?”1 By Week 8 it felt like he’d stolen all of Cooks’ points,2 so I started doing some research. Sure Thomas had the measurables. He’s 6’3” and 212 lbs with monster 10.5” hands and a family pedigree at wide receiver that includes former number one overall pick Keyshawn Johnson.3 But could a moderately fast, mid to deep threat, outside option really keep up this pace? Turns out…yes.
Mike Bergsman: Thomas had a quietly awesome year last year. I, like you, frequently found myself asking the exact same questions about him. I’m sure we weren’t alone, as he ended up being the number one rookie receiver in terms of yardage, touchdowns, and receptions. Not bad considering that guys like Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson, Will Fuller, and Corey Coleman got all the pre-season hype.
Statistically, Thomas dominated his rookie peers as one of the better players in the high powered New Orleans offense. He made up 19.5% of all New Orleans’ receptions, compared to Cooks at 16.6%, and Willie Snead at 15.3%.
I think he’ll be just fine in 2017. How about you?
Alex: Wrangler Jeans model – and perennial Pro Bowler – Drew Brees is coming back for his 17th season, but his supporting cast has been changed up a bit. The Saints traded away their multi-purpose speedster, Cooks, and replaced him with an older multi-purpose speedster, Ted Ginn Jr. They also nabbed the once ageless but now maybe-finally-aging Adrian Peterson during free agency; he’ll likely be splitting carries with Mark Ingram. Overall, despite the additions of some veteran leadership, the Saints don’t look too much different than they did last year. The question is, does that mean Thomas will have similar numbers? I say, not a chance.
Okay, yes, the Saints are still the kings of offense, finishing first in yards and second in total points last year. That hasn’t been a recipe for team success, though, as they’ve finished 7-9 in each of the last three seasons and have failed to make the playoffs each year. The league has figured them out, and if they thought adding a bunch of old fogies to their lineup was going to bring something new to the table, they were wrong. Plus, the league has had a full year to look at what Thomas can do and teams won’t be fooled by a lack of game tape any more. Bold prediction: he hits his sophomore slump hard this year. I’m sure of it. So do your worst, try and convince me otherwise using your beloved “statistics.”
Mike: Hmmm. Where to start? Firstly, team record has no bearing on fantasy output. In fact, the data shows that there’s a limited relationship between a team’s record and a player’s fantasy production. Bear with me, this is going to get nerdy. Running a regression model, which is a way to measure relationships between variables, we can see that there’s no correlation between a team’s total wins and any given fantasy player’s production.4
Being that the regression line above doesn’t really fit the data since there is so much fluctuation when comparing our variables, there is almost no relationship between getting more wins as a team and scoring more fantasy points.5
Secondly, Thomas could probably slot in at number four on the “Best Rookie Wide Receivers Seasons of All-Time” list. The guys on that list are/were pretty good I’d say. To be in that company is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Lastly, being that Brandin Cooks is gone, the 17.3% of Drew Brees pass attempts that he used to claim will have to go somewhere. Since Thomas caught a staggering 76% of his targets last year, even if he reverts to the league average of 63%, I’d imagine a more significant share of targets will offset any reversion.
What say you, scalawag?
Alex: Whoa, shots fired. Okay, let’s assume that all 17.3% of those pass attempts go to Cooks’ replacement, Ted Ginn. In his career, Ginn’s averaged a reception percentage of roughly 50%. That’s a huge departure from Cooks. Which makes sense since, despite their shared speed, Cooks and Ginn have very different games. Ginn’s low reception rate will represent a lot of missed opportunity and a shift in how Thomas can and will be used.
Even if they don’t all go to Ginn, Thomas shouldn’t expect to see all of those Cooks targets either. Assuming Ginn will probably see around 90 targets,6 that leaves about 30 targets to spread across Thomas, Snead, Fleener and the Saints’ running backs. We’re talking a negligible increase in total points, if any improvement at all. Not to mention that Thomas will be forced into a true number one receiver role for the first time in his career. He was effective playing behind Cooks and even Snead at times last year, but when he lines up across from some of the game’s top DBs, he’s going to find it a lot harder to catch the ball.
Got anything else in that grab bag of data you think will convince me otherwise?
Mike: I don’t think Ted Ginn is likely to vulture much of Thomas’ potential output, but I understand your point. Often times it’s a worthwhile exercise to review similar scenarios of “like” players to get an idea as to what we can expect in year two for Thomas. Let’s look at the last impactful rookie for the Saints: none other than Cooks. In year one, Cooks played ten games, hauled in 53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns. In year two, Cooks had 84 catches for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns. Snead is another recent rookie that has had success being on the receiving end of Drew Brees throws. His rookie year he had 69 catches for 984 yards and three touchdowns. His second year, 72 receptions for 895 yards and four touchdowns. If you go back even further, Marques Colston had great success his rookie year and followed it up with an even better second year with 98 receptions, 1202 yards and 11 touchdowns. The one common denominator for all of these players? Drew Brees. Michael Thomas will be just fine this year.
Alex: You make some great points, but I’m just not seeing it happen this year for Thomas. I’ve got him pegged as a plug-and-play WR3 in 2017. Where would you rank him?
Mike: I don’t see him in the very top echelon of NFL wide receivers,7 but I do think he will be a lower ranked WR1 or top tier WR2 when all is said and done.
- I feel like I missed a prime “Who dat?” opportunity.
- Which, admittedly, is a complete cop out
- His uncle.
- For players that scored greater than or equal to 100 points in a season
- As a point of reference, a r2 of 1.0 means there is definitely a relationship between the variables we are comparing, whereas an r2 of 0 means there is no relationship.
- Based on stats from the last two years.
- Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, AJ Green, etc.