But just in case Saints coach Sean Payton needed some extra prodding, Johnson provided it when he caught up with his former offensive coordinator from the Dallas Cowboys earlier this year at ESPN’s studios.
“Sean asked me what I think. I said he’s a bigger, faster Colston, to me,” Johnson said, referring to the Saints’ all-time leading receiver, Marques Colston.
“If you’re striving to be someone in the National Football League, Marques Colston is [somebody you want to be],” Johnson said. “So if you ask me, ‘Well, what is he?’ There you go, that’s what he is. Bigger and faster, and he’s Marques Colston 2.0 or whatever you want to call him.”
Johnson is hardly an unbiased source. And he can already be busted for embellishing one detail: Colston was 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, while Thomas is 6-3, 212.
But as Johnson pointed out, he has been proven right so far after talking up his nephew for years before Thomas finally burst onto the national radar.
“In high school, you could tell -- at least to me. And I like to think that I know a little bit about football and a little bit about the position,” said Johnson, who had a pretty good NFL career himself with 10,571 yards and 64 touchdowns.
“Now, people would say, ‘Oh, you didn’t know, you’re just saying that because he’s your nephew. Blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Well, yeah, I probably would say that just because he’s my nephew,” Johnson admitted. “But guess what? He’s now on the New Orleans Saints with the 47th pick. So obviously something I said meant something.”
Johnson said he wouldn’t necessarily describe Thomas as a “late bloomer,” since most of the guys in their family waited to play football until their high school years, himself included.
But Thomas did take a little while to grow into his current frame, and he didn’t start playing football seriously until his junior year of high school. Before that, Thomas said he preferred basketball and was a big fan of Allen Iverson. Although Iverson was a smaller guy for his sport, Thomas admired his physical and relentless style.
Thomas said he eventually fell in love with football because of that one-on-one competition against defensive backs -- the inspiration for his Twitter and Instagram handles, @Cantguardmike.
“That’s how I approach the field. Like when a DB lines up on me, you can’t guard me,” Thomas said. “And when you have that mindset you’ve already won half the battle.”
Because Thomas started playing so late in high school, he only got a few major scholarship offers. So he decided to attend Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia to help prove his worth to a bigger school like Ohio State. There, he teamed with future Buckeyes teammate Cardale Jones.
Thomas got off to a slow start at Ohio State, too -- even going through the humbling experience of being redshirted as a sophomore.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was blunt in a recent interview with ESPN, saying Thomas was a good person but “immature” and “probably thought he was a little better than he was,” which led to too many mistakes on the field and too many excuses.
But Meyer credited Thomas for turning things around and credited family members such as Johnson and Thomas’ father, Mike Sr., for helping to get him on track.
“It wasn’t necessarily tough, it was just an event that I was placed in that I had to learn how to respond the right way," Thomas said of being redshirted. "And I think I did. And I felt me and my family and everyone responded on the same page, and it worked out. And I feel like now I’m here and I’m reaping the benefits.
“I still haven’t hit my max potential, and I’m still going hard every day. I learned a lot from that, then when I came back I started, I controlled what I could control, and we won the national championship.”
Johnson said Thomas never seriously considered transferring away from Ohio State. But he said if the subject even came close, he “hung up the phone.”
“There was no need to try and jump up and run to the National Football League," Johnson said. "A lot of kids assume they've got to jump out of college and get to the NFL. But the NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s been around for how many years? And he wanted for nothing.
“So, ‘Let’s mature, let’s get better at what we do so we can dominate, then get drafted and go ahead and dominate in the National Football League.’ That was my message to him.”
Sure enough, Thomas emerged as a go-to guy for the Buckeyes with 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns over his final two seasons -- and he still declared for the NFL a year early.
Thomas said his college experience should only help him transition to the NFL.
“You can’t redshirt twice,” Thomas said. “You can’t redshirt in the NFL. So you’ve got to come in here and be a pro. You’ve got to cut out everything on the outside and get in your playbook and add value and go hard. Because everything is filmed, everything is watched, you’re trying to get a job and you’re trying to start.”
As Thomas revealed this offseason, he learned another crucial tip from his uncle, Keyshawn, and other mentors like former NFL standout Cris Carter: Hand yoga.
But like Thomas, Johnson also refused to give away too many specific details about the family secret.
“Man, if I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Johnson said. “That's all I can tell you. But I didn’t drop too many balls in my career, that’s for sure.”