There was a time when Michael Thomas’ name was mentioned among the very best of the NFL’s wide receivers. In 2019 he was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year after a stunning season in which he posted 1,795 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Thomas had come into the league in 2016 and immediately put up over 1,100 yards receiving and nine touchdowns as a rookie with the Saints, and he would continue to build on that over the next three years.
2017 saw him go from 1,137 yards to 1,461 and his first call-up to the Pro Bowl, and then in 2018 he took yet another leap up to 1,612 receiving yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns.
— ⚜ WHO DAT Cool Breesy ⚜ (@Steve2duhO) June 15, 2023
Things were flying for the Saints wideout who appeared to be the future of the franchise at just 26 years old with three straight Pro Bowl appearances and highly productive years playing alongside Drew Brees, but then injury struck and cut Michael Thomas down, and he’s not been the same since.
Injuries hitting hard and fast
In Week 1 of the 2020 season, Michael Thomas was hampered by a high ankle sprain that took him out of the game and sidelined him for several weeks. He then suffered a hamstring injury in practice that extended his absence, and he would eventually get back on the field in Week 9 against Tampa Bay.
He then missed the final three games of the season because of a lingering issue with the injured ankle which eventually cost him the entire 2021 campaign. He had surgery to repair the injured ankle ligaments, including a rare deltoid injury, and that meant a tedious and complex recovery process that required absolute certainty that the ankle was steady before he could get back on the field.
After an entire season away from the game Michael Thomas was back and ready to go for Week 1 of the 2022 season, but that would only last three games before he was gone again. A toe injury sidelined him once again, and by Week 9 he’d been placed on IR and his season was over.
So we’re now looking at a guy who has played three NFL games in two years, who is 30 years old, and being paid a lot of money to produce very little. He’s under contract through the 2024 season and cutting him this year isn’t really an option, but could be after the June 1st cut-off in 2024.
The Saints Receiving Core
After the 2021 season’s desperate attempt to patch together a capable group of wide receivers, the Saints went into the 2022 NFL draft determined to get their guy.
In 2021 the lead receiver was Marquez Callaway with 698 yards and six touchdowns. He was supported by the likes of Deonte Hardy, Tre’Quan Smith, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, but the Saints didn’t have a dangerous receiver who gave the defense something to think about. When you paired that with life after Drew Brees, things looked pretty bleak for the offense for a lot of that season.
Fast forward to 2022 and the Saints’ bullish decision to trade up for Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave seemed to pay off in a major way. The team was still not in an ideal situation in terms of the franchise quarterback, but Olave managed over 1,000 yards and four touchdowns regardless.
Bearing in mind he was playing with a combination of Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, plus the occasional throw from Taysom Hill, the outcome was pretty good and Saints fans have a lot of confidence that Olave is the successor to Michael Thomas’ throne.
Olave wasn’t the only positive influence in 2022 either. Wideout Rashid Shaheed who came in as an undrafted free agent with a view to earn reps as a kick returner actually ended up fighting his way into the starting rotation at wide receiver.
He barely played before Week 12, but had several high-impact performances in the last six weeks of the season and ended the year with 487 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Shaheed is now expected to be a key feature for the Saints heading into 2023 and could end up being a crucial piece of the offensive game plan both this season and in the future.
The young receiver offers the offense something a little different with exceptional speed and the ability to threaten corners on vertical routes. He can get behind the defense in a hurry and that stretches the defense and opens up space for the Saints’ highly effective possession receivers in Olave and Thomas (if he’s healthy).
Remaining depth and potential
The Saints still have Tre’Quan Smith who offers reliable depth and the occasional big game, and they brought in James Washington who spent last season in Dallas but missed practically the entire year due to a fractured foot in the pre-season.
Washington made some big plays during the four years he spent in Pittsburgh, with a career-high year in 2019 that boasted 735 receiving yards and three TDs. Of course, the NFL is very much a ‘what have you done for me lately’ kind of league, but Washington could surprise folks if he’s on the field more often than currently anticipated.
There’s potential in the younger guys on the roster too. Kirk Merritt was an undrafted free agent for the Miami Dolphins in 2020 who fans were actively begging the franchise to retain not all that long ago. He’s a talented young player who could make the most of an opportunity. Bryan Edwards looked like a great addition for the Raiders in 2021, posting 612 yards and three touchdowns but that fell away in a hurry and he was basically a scratch in Atlanta during the 2022 campaign.
Then there’s A.T. Perry, who the Saints drafted out of Wake Forest in the sixth round of the draft this year. He posted back-to-back 1,000+ yard receiving seasons for the Demon Deacons with 26 touchdowns across those two years, and comes into the league with a lot of potential.
He’s six foot four with a long stride and burned a lot of defenders in college, but will need to work on his release package and aggression at the catch point if he wants to see significant playing time at the pro level. The Saints are certainly in a stronger position this year than they have been in seasons past, with Olave making a big difference in the wide receiver room and adding depth with good potential to fill out the roster.
Derek Carr saves the day?
New Orleans has struggled to fill the Drew Brees-shaped void since the legendary quarterback’s retirement following the 2020 season. They’ve not had any consistency at the position and the adjustment has been tough on the organization with a carousel of starters including Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill, and Andy Dalton.
Derek Carr is at the very least a deserving starter, who has proven he can lead a franchise with the Raiders for the past nine seasons. He appeared excited about a new opportunity and chose the Saints over other vacant roles including a potential offer from the New York Jets.
The knock on Carr has been the lack of success in reaching and advancing in the postseason, leading some to believe he’s a great regular-season quarterback with little beyond that. He’ll be looking to prove those critics wrong with the Saints, but will at least bring the franchise a constant starter who can be depended upon to drive the offense as its leader on the field.
If the receivers are healthy and Olave and Thomas can be on the field together, the rest of the NFL might quickly start paying attention. Thomas has been working out and posting his progress on Instagram as well as putting in work on the practice field at the Saints facility, so all signs point towards a potential comeback.
If the former star can return to his 2019-2020 form he would be looking at the NFL comeback player of the year, and we’re yet to see how dangerous both he and Olave can be on the field together. Things are looking good for the Saints, and if Derek Carr turns out to be what the Saints have paid him to be then the division is absolutely up for grabs. New Orleans can establish itself as the favorite for the NFC South while Carolina, Atlanta, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers work with young quarterbacks themselves.
That said, staying healthy is going to be the Achilles heel for the Saints this year. The franchise needs Michael Thomas on the field despite the early success of Chris Olave. Without him, they’re still one receiver short of a full contingency of starters. Here’s to hoping the franchise has a healthy run this year and the Saints return to challenging for a spot in the postseason.
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