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Rookie contract hero: Michael Thomas is well on his way to being the NFL’s next elite receiver

Thomas is a tremendous value for the Saints ... for now.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Great NFL teams are built on great draft picks. Not just because of the talent they bring to the field, but also thanks to the relief their rookie contracts bring to their franchise’s checkbook.

An overachieving young star is almost always an underpaid one, and the gap between his production and his salary is the space that allows teams to sign marquee free agents or retain budding talents. The Eagles relied on Carson Wentz’s below-market post-draft contract to create the space to sign players like Nigel Bradham, Alshon Jeffery, Fletcher Cox, and Jason Peters to lucrative long-term deals. Every one of those players was vital in the team’s first Super Bowl victory last winter.

The Rams went from also-ran to contender after using the cap space they retained due to Jared Goff’s rise to sign players like Brandin Cooks, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Donald to expensive extensions. The Bears have a trio of young, dirt-cheap playmakers in Mitchell Trubisky, Jordan Howard, and Tarik Cohen. This offseason, they used the savings they’ve generated to splurge on a roster overhaul, handing out $241 million in contracts to Khalil Mack, Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton.

But that team advantage flips once these contracts enter their final years. The league’s circle of life means cheap rookie deals clear the way for emerging stars to secure well-earned $10 million salaries. Non-quarterbacks secure their biggest pro paydays in that fleeting space between rookie phenom and veteran hanger-on.

There’s a whole class of NFL young’uns making their case for massive contracts while making their teams better on the field and in the financial ledger. In Week 1, we saw one of these rising stars absolutely lose his mind in New Orleans.

Michael Thomas is only getting better

The Saints’ high-flying aerial attack has always given off hints of a Texas Tech-esque system offense. Drew Brees’ has been a rising tide that lifts all his wide receivers, a strong-armed deep threat who makes good athletes look great downfield. Over the past decade-plus, he’s turned unheralded prospects like Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, and Kenny Stills into his team’s top targets.

Thomas is different; an elite talent who broke into the league as a hyped-up draft pick expected to contribute from Day 1 — and he has. The former second-round pick exploded onto the scene in 2016, hauling in 92 catches in 15 games as a rookie and using his 6’3, 212-pound frame to become a premier red zone option. His nine receiving touchdowns tied for sixth in the NFL.

The Saints changed up their offense in 2017 to shift towards a greater run-pass balance thanks to the presence of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram in the backfield. That didn’t matter for Thomas. He cemented his status as a true WR1 with 149 targets (sixth in the NFL), 104 receptions (third), and 1,245 yards (sixth).

This should have kept him from sneaking up on opponents in 2018, but he put on a performance for his scrapbook in Week 1. Thomas sprang for 16 catches (on 17 targets!) for 180 yards and a touchdown. Some of that performance is mitigated by the fact New Orleans trailed by double digits for more than 25 minutes of that game, forcing lots and lots of passes, but it’s still an amazing showing.

And Thomas’ history suggests it won’t be an outlier. His performance over the past two seasons gave the Saints the confidence to trade away Cooks and allow Willie Snead to depart in free agency. He’s the team’s unquestioned No. 1 target going forward, and New Orleans has given every indication it would like to keep it that way.

So what’s he gonna cost the Saints this offseason?

The franchise’s goal will be to keep Thomas around as both the guy who keeps Brees happy as he winds down his career and one of the foundational players who ushers in a post-Brees offense. With his contract set to expire after 2019, the Saints are going to feel plenty of pressure to extend him next offseason — and it won’t be cheap.

Another former Saints wideout with multiple 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, Cooks, signed with Los Angeles for five years and $81 million this spring — the same length and total as DeAndre Hopkins a year before, though the Texans receiver got $16 million more in guarantees. That’ll be the baseline Thomas is looking at in 2019.

The question after this season is whether he’s worth the kind of market-resetting deal both Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. received this year. Beckham’s five-year, $90 million deal is where Thomas’ agent will start negotiations, with $40 million guaranteed as his bellwether. Thomas could make a great case for that if he continues to improve on what’s already been an impressive career — but another 100-catch, 1,200-yard season will probably lock him in to something like five years and $85 million ($38.25m guaranteed) to stick with the Saints through 2024.

The Saints don’t have a ton of cap space to make that work. Even with a handful of contracts coming off the books after this season — including players the team will have interest in re-signing like Mark Ingram, Manti Te’o, and Teddy Bridgewater — New Orleans is only slated to have around $19.7 million in cap space next spring, and that doesn’t include their 2019 draftees. Restructuring Brees’ contract and his $33.5 million cap hit (nearly 18 percent of the team’s space!) will be a priority, and tough decisions will have to be made along an efficient but expensive offensive line. Releasing Max Unger and Andrus Peat, for example, would save more than $16 million in cap room but also remove two starters from a top-six blocking unit.

Thomas isn’t going to come cheap, and the Saints’ stretched cap could mean he plays 2019 with a very real chance of heading to free agency after the season. The best case for both sides is a market value extension next offseason — but as 2018’s summer of holdouts proves, the mutually beneficial ending is rarely the easiest.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 1:

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs (four passing TDs in win over the Chargers)

Sam Darnold, QB, Jets (rolled the Lions in possibly the worst coaching debut of the last decade)

Myles Jack, LB, Jaguars (10 tackles, interception return TD vs. Giants)

James Conner, RB, Steelers (192 total yards in tie vs. Browns)

Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs (two receiving TDs, one punt return TD vs. Chargers)

Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints (20 points scored vs. Buccaneers)