Veteran Thomas still Saints' secret weapon

Seven years into his career, New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas still feels like a “secret weapon.”

“One of the most complete backs I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Thomas, crediting him for his abilities as a runner, receiver and pass-protector. “He certainly does not get the credit he deserves around the league. Yet there’s not a guy that’s respected more in this locker room than Pierre.”

The statistical service Pro Football Focus has always recognized Thomas’ overall value. It has Thomas graded as the fourth-best running back in the NFL this year – and he finished ranked among the top four in 2009, 2011 and 2012 as well.

Among Thomas’ subtle specialties are gaining yards after contact and an uncanny knack for turning screen passes into big gains – including a classic 16-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV.

That versatility was on full display Thursday night when Thomas gained 130 yards from scrimmage in the Saints’ 17-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Thomas was as clutch as ever on a night when fellow back Darren Sproles was out with an injury, running the ball 10 times for 73 yards, catching five passes for 57 yards and breaking three long gains to convert third downs.

“He meant a lot. … He’s one of those players that does a lot of things well,” added Saints coach Sean Payton, who appreciates the value of a versatile offensive weapon more than most.

It seems like Payton has been appreciating that value even more than usual over the past couple of months.

Thomas became the Saints’ featured runner when fellow tailback Mark Ingram went down with a toe injury in Week 2. And he has remained the lead back since Ingram’s return.

Thomas already has a career-high 56 receptions this year for 406 yards and three touchdowns. And he’s run for 486 yards and a touchdown – putting him on pace for the second-most rushing yards of his career (793 in 2009).

On Thursday night, Thomas quietly moved into fourth place on the Saints’ all-time rushing yardage list, moving ahead of both Rueben Mayes and Chuck Muncie with 3,460 yards.

Thomas also has 2,123 receiving yards, making him one of only two players in Saints history with more than 3,000 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards (along with Dalton Hilliard). And his career rushing average of 4.7 yards per carry ranks first in Saints history among players with at least 400 carries.

Not bad for a guy who went undrafted in 2007 out of Illinois – where he was also underrated while splitting time with future first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall.

Thomas has always done a great job of handling his utility role with a positive attitude – knowing he’ll be involved in some games more than others. When asked what it meant for him to deliver in such a big way on Thursday night, Thomas said, “I mean, you’re put in that position where you get the ball or your name is called to go out there, you gotta make plays, you know?”

Thomas has certainly never been underappreciated by the New Orleans fan base. Ask any Saints fan, and they’ll quickly tell you that the Saints would have won another Super Bowl after the 2011 season if Thomas hadn’t been knocked out in the first quarter of their playoff loss at San Francisco (and they’re probably right).

When asked if he considers himself underrated, Thomas said, “That’s not for me to judge.”

“I mean, I go out there and do my best. If the fans say it, then that’s the fans’ choice,” Thomas said. “You know, I go out there and play the game like I know how. So I’m not really worried about my ratings or where I stand in this league. People see I work hard, and I appreciate that.”