Michael Thomas recorded an especially impressive rookie season which saw him finish as the eighth-ranked wide receiver in points per game in standard scoring leagues, and seventh in PPR leagues. That has his ADP at around 16th overall and seventh at wide receiver heading into the 2017 season. Investing that high of a pick in a second year player is a risk, but in this case, it is one worth paying.
To begin, Thomas’ value is insulated by the offense he is a part of. The Saints have not attempted fewer than 40 passes per game since 2010. In that span, the team has finished first in pass attempts per game three times and never finished lower than fourth in the league. Last season, that allowed three receivers in the offense to total over 100 targets.
Thomas was one of those receivers, as he collected 121 targets on the season, an impressive mark for a rookie. After trading away Brandin Cooks this offseason, 120 targets have been freed up, meaning that Thomas has the opportunity to garner even more targets in 2017.
Of course, not all of those will go to Thomas due to the additions of Alvin Kamara via the draft and Ted Ginn via free agency. However, Ginn has never been the caliber of receiver that Cooks has been, and that has shown up in his target share as he has never surpassed 100 targets in a single season. With the addition of Kamara, it shouldn’t be expected that Thomas will jump to 150 targets, but a modest jump to 135 is within reason.
While that isn’t a huge bump in target share, it gives Thomas some leeway to regress from his 76% catch rate last season. That mark was third highest among all wide receivers, so expecting that to repeat would be a mistake. However, even regressing his catch rate to 68%, a comparable mark to Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks over the past two seasons, 135 targets would give him approximately 92 receptions over a full season. Keeping his 12.4 yards per reception from last season, a rather modest mark, would leave him with a total of 1,138 yards. This is a modest projection considering that his yards per reception jumped from 11.5 in the first half of the season to 12.9 over the second half.
The departure of Cooks from the offense is even more important for the touchdown upside Thomas now possesses. In both 2015 and 2016, Cooks commanded double-digit red-zone targets. Meanwhile, Ted Ginn had just one red zone target in 2016 and nine in 2015. Given that Thomas already had 19 red zone targets in his rookie season, there is elite touchdown upside for him this season if he continues to emerge as Drew Brees’ favorite red-zone target.
Given the safe floor Thomas possesses thanks to the offense he is part of, he has a head start over other potential first-round picks at the position such as A.J. Green and even Mike Evans. On the other hand, he also has the upside that is desirable in first-round picks thanks to his potential to hog red-zone targets and efficiently turn them into touchdowns. Although it is difficult for him to be taken much higher, Thomas is an underrated asset heading into the 2017 season as he possesses a solid floor with plenty of upside as well.