Michael Thomas is hurtling toward NFL history. He’s carrying the Saints along with him for the ride.
The fourth-year wide receiver had his sixth game of the season with 10+ receptions, dusting the Panthers for 10 catches, 101 yards, and a touchdown. His most important contribution came on his last catch of the day. With the score tied in a shootout with the Panthers and Carolina threatening to get the ball back with roughly 30 seconds left in regulation, Drew Brees only had one target on his mind for the biggest third down of the game.
if the Saints botch this 3rd down, the Panthers have 3 timeouts to march back down the field— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) November 24, 2019
so who does Brees go to? who else by Michael Thomas for 24 yards pic.twitter.com/2iBRCE8x6A
Thomas, somehow single covered, easily shook off James Bradberry for a 24-yard gain that not only snuck New Orleans into field-goal position, but also stopped the clock because he got out of bounds. Five plays later, Wil Lutz booted a 33-yard kick through the uprights to claim a 34-31 win over a division rival and keep the 9-2 Saints on pace for a first-round bye.
It was an exciting win, but not a surprising one. Thomas has been making plays like this throughout a stellar NFL career, but that production has jumped up from outstanding to historic this season.
Thomas could have the greatest year any NFL wide receiver’s ever had
Through 11 games, Thomas has 104 catches. That would have been good enough to lead the league in each full season from 2004-2006. It would be the second-most receptions in a single season in any year up until 1992. Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in modern NFL history, only had three years where he had more receptions than Thomas has had in 68 percent of his season to date. Granted, comparing Rice’s production in the 80s and 90s to anyone in a much more pass heavy NFL is working with skewed numbers, but that’s still impressive.
This has left the wideout with an amazing opportunity to make history. At 9.45 catches per game, Thomas is on pace for 151.3 receptions in 2019. Here’s where that would stand in the NFL’s single-season record books:
- Thomas’ 2019 pace: 151 catches
- Marvin Harrison, 2002: 143
- Julio Jones, 2015, and Antonio Brown, 2015: 134
Thomas could lop one catch per game off his weekly average and still set the NFL’s reception record by a comfortable margin. One pass-happy game by Brees could give him the opportunity to set the record by Week 16, then sit out Week 17 should the Saints be in position to rest their starters heading into the postseason.
Thomas’ yardage numbers aren’t quite as robust, though his 1,242 yards are best in the league so far. Spread that average over a 16-game season and his output would fall somewhere around 1,806 yards. Here’s how that would stack up historically:
- Calvin Johnson, 2012: 1,964 yards
- Julio Jones, 2015: 1,871
- Jerry Rice, 1995: 1,848
- Antonio Brown, 2015: 1,834
- Thomas’ 2019 pace: 1,806
Not quite as earth-shattering, but still pretty damn good! While he probably won’t catch Johnson at the top of the list, there’s reason to believe he could easily force his way into any spot from No. 2 down.
Thomas has been clutch when the Saints have needed him the most
Thomas’s big numbers aren’t just empty stats. That third-down catch in Week 12’s waning seconds was just the latest in a long string of big performances.
The All-Pro had a pair of big catches in the final minutes of Week 1’s drama-filled victory over the Texans, helping to set up Lutz’s 58-yard game winner. His fourth-quarter touchdown grab against the Buccaneers in Week 5 effectively shut the door on Tampa Bay’s comeback hopes. And while Jared Cook may have hauled in what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 13-6 win over the Jaguars, it was Thomas who supplied 51 of New Orleans’ 75 yards on that go-ahead drive.
Even the transition from Brees to backup Teddy Bridgewater couldn’t faze him. Brees missed more than five games after suffering a thumb injury in Week 2, turning the offense over to the league’s highest-paid backup. Thomas made sure Bridgewater had all the help he needed to complete his professional revival:
Michael Thomas and his 2 quarterbacks
|w/ Drew Brees||11.8||10.4||120.4||0.6|
|w/ Teddy Bridgewater||10.8||8.7||106.7||0.5|
While his numbers decreased slightly thanks to the change behind center, Thomas was still in line for a 140-catch season under Bridgewater. Brees has helped his production and willed him to some big days, sure — but he’d be great no matter who was throwing to him.
Thomas is on the precipice of a historic season, and while there are still five games left to play there’s reason to believe he won’t slow down. The former second-round pick has been one of the game’s most productive players since entering the league in 2016; his 425 receptions since joining the NFL are 55 more than any other player in the same stretch.
Thomas has emerged as a dark horse MVP candidate, even though it’ll take a minor miracle for a wide receiver to win the award. If anyone can keep up this absurd pace, it’s Thomas. And the Saints are thriving even in a season where they’ve lost Brees, Cook, and Alvin Kamara for stretches due to injury as a result.