Why Michael Thomas could break Saints' mold as a WR1

The New Orleans Saints have produced some serious fantasy football assets during the record-shattering Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

But expectations, both in fantasy and in real life, might be higher this year for 2016 rookie breakout Michael Thomas than they have been for any Saints wide receiver in that 12-year span.

Thomas was ranked seventh among receivers in ESPN’s 2017 fantasy rankings, which were determined by a panel of fantasy and NFL analysts during this week’s fantasy football summit. Thomas was drafted 11th overall in a mock draft at the end of the summit, which I attended along with five other representatives from ESPN's NFL Nation. Everything was based on point-per-reception scoring leagues.

Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks were top-10 caliber receivers in New Orleans, both in fantasy and real life. But as good as they were, they never made a Pro Bowl, and neither had more than 11 touchdowns in a season. That’s largely because the Saints have liked to spread the ball around so much. So the saying goes, “Brees’ favorite receiver is the open one.”

Thomas could challenge that history though.

Now that Cooks has been traded to the New England Patriots, Thomas is the clear No. 1 receiver in New Orleans, with Willie Snead and Ted Ginn Jr. as solid No. 2 and No. 3 options. And the big, sure-handed, 6-foot-3, 212-pounder is definitely the Saints’ best red-zone option, ahead of tight end Coby Fleener, Snead and Ginn.

Thomas had 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in just 15 games last season, even when he was teamed with Cooks, who had 78 catches for 1,173 yards and eight TDs.

Thomas had the second-most catches by a rookie receiver in NFL history, behind only Anquan Boldin’s 101 in 2003. And he had six touchdowns over his final eight games as his role continued to increase.

ESPN fantasy analyst Mike Clay has correctly pointed out that the target share for the Saints’ top wide receiver in the 11 years since Payton and Brees arrived -- 20 percent, 23, 19, 20, 20, 17, 20, 18, 16, 20 and 19 -- is a “nearly unheard of level of consistency.”

I’m not saying that expectations for Thomas should definitely be higher than they were for Colston in his prime. Colston is one of the most underrated receivers of his era, if not all time. Like Thomas, he had great size, hands and the range to get to balls thrown all around his area.

But remember that Colston shared half of his career with tight end/red-zone monster Jimmy Graham. And in Colston’s second season in 2007, he set career highs with 98 catches, 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Thomas certainly could have that type of season, if not better.

Among the other Saints’ notables in ESPN’s fantasy rankings (remember, these are for PPR scoring leagues):

  • Mark Ingram fell to 16th among running backs after the Saints signed Adrian Peterson (who ranks 38th) and drafted Alvin Kamara. I think that’s fair, since I ranked Ingram 17th. As I wrote this week, I still think Ingram can produce more than 1,100 yards of total offense and something like 7-9 touchdowns. But barring injuries, he doesn’t have much RB1 upside because of that timeshare.

  • Brees ranks third, which is where I had him. Even at age 38, it’s hard to imagine a steep drop-off after he had such a strong 2016 season.

  • Fleener ranks 20th among tight ends, which might make him a bargain after he was one of fantasy’s biggest disappointments last year. It’s hard to imagine Fleener doing worse than the 50 catches, 631 yards and four touchdowns (one rushing) he produced last year, since it took him a while to adjust to the offense and he battled drops. Tight ends historically have fared much better in New Orleans’ offense, and the Saints still believe Fleener has more potential than he has shown. I cautiously ranked him 17th, though, since I can’t advocate for him too much in fantasy until we see it play out on the field.

  • Snead ranked 34th among receivers, which seems about right.