Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio posts its pre-draft NFL scouting report of Saints receiver Michael Thomas.
Michael Thomas was two-tenths of a point from the No. 3 spot in my pre-draft rankings. That was the point differential between him, Corey Coleman, and Leonte Carroo and as I mention at the end of the report, the scheme fit would be the difference. When the Saints drafted Thomas, he rose two spots to No. 3 at the position and No. 7 overall among rookie skill players in my post-draft rankings.
If I had the luxury of conducting interviews with the same resources as an NFL team, I have to believe that an interview with Thomas, his coaches, and his teammates would have made a difference in his ranking — as high as it already was. One of the things we learned about Thomas on draft day was his communication skills and commitment to his craft. Within minutes of the Saints drafting him, Cardale Jones shared a story about Thomas when Jones became Ohio State’s starter.
According to Jones, Thomas practically glued himself to Jones’ hip until they were on the same page with the offense. Jones told the media that Drew Brees better expect the same thing. As Jones was telling this story, Thomas was already initiating a conversation with Drew Brees on Twitter about getting in touch so he could learn from the quarterback.
That pattern of initiative, leadership, and ownership about developing a rapport with his quarterbacks was a telling anecdote that ties together much of what was in his scouting report.
5. Michael Thomas, Ohio State (6-3, 212)
There’s a lot to Thomas’ game that reminds me of Michael Crabtree. He’s smooth, precise, surehanded, and—like Crabtree, when he was in his peak physical condition—productive after the catch. Crabtree has a lot of skills that make him a pro’s pro. Thomas has the potential to develop into that kind of player.
Thomas physically represents what most expect from the modern perimeter player. He’s large enough to present a matchup advantage against cornerbacks at the catch point, but he moves like a receiver built five inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter.
Thomas’ 4.57-second 40 is fast enough by starter standards because the design of a winning route is to win in the first 5-20 yards with the aid of excellent footwork, sudden acceleration, and precise change of direction. Thomas’ 4.13-second 20-yard shuttle and 6.8-second three-cone are above average performances among receivers in recent years. Most important is that Thomas applies these skills to the field better than most of his peers who have entered the NFL in recent years.
I’ve seen Thomas use every established release move with his hands at the line of scrimmage but a rip. He’s good at executing a three-step release technique to get off the line. Once he’s free of a defender, he makes the effort to stack. This footwork is just as sound with the initial stem and he’s good at varying the pace while maintaining a good stem length. He’s one of the best receivers in this class at employing multiple moves in succession during his stem to effectively set up a break and still maintain the correct route depth and timing with the quarterback. Thomas moves aren’t “tells”; they present effective stories that his opponents believe.
This is a skill Thomas has worked hard at because earlier in his career his quickness was evident but didn’t earn him separation against good college defenders. Now, he’s much more of a technician. His display of head fakes, stride variation, and jab steps are paying off. These developed talents make him a skilled receiver on the slant.
He’s still a work in progress with his hard breaks. He used to have a frequent bad habit of hopping into his transition from stem to break. It was a sudden movement, but not a controlled maneuver. Film from this year reveals Thomas doing more to drop his hips into hard breaks. It’s not yet an ingrained part of his game when the lights come on, but the fact it’s beginning to manifest in contests is an encouraging sign. The next step is to limit his transition from stem to break with one step and not multiple stops or a hop.
The short routes with lengthier breaks of 8-15 yards require more work. Thomas has to keep his pad level down for the length of these stems so he’s selling the possibility of a vertical route. He looks for the ball immediately after the break and he’s consistent at working back to the ball and waging the earliest possible attack on the target. He used to leave his feet unnecessarily for targets and expose himself to excessive punishment and lengthen the time of his transition from receiver to runner. This year, Thomas was more consistent at correctly gauging when he could catch a pass without going airborne.
Thomas’ hand-eye coordination is his greatest asset. He catches the ball with his hands and he can extend his arms and high-point the target. He’s consistent at looking the ball in and beats tight coverage and physical contact. Thomas’s’ sideline awareness is also strong. After the catch, he’s a patient runner behind his blockers. One-on-one, Thomas’ quickness, and agility often beat the first defender, and his stiff-arm is an effective weapon that he should use more often. He often beat good pursuit angles from college-level safeties or at least changed the angle enough to gain the advantage.
In addition to having the strength to run through the trash of a desperate reach, break a defender’s wrap, and push off a corner or safety’s hit and spin free, Thomas’s moves in the open field are versatile. He shows an array of spins, jukes, cuts, and fakes to avoid defenders. It all adds up to a receiver that rarely goes down after the first contact.
Although he’s still not the puncher he should be, Thomas has made a lot of strides as a run blocker. He does a good job in the open field of stalking his target, maintaining a square position, and remaining patient enough to close the gap before extending his arms into the opponent’s body.
Thomas’ quickness and size aid him in turning defenders away from the path of the ballcarrier. He’s also quick to diagnose a potential block when a teammate earns a target and he transitions from route runner to blocker. Thomas’ punch in the ground game, much like the rest of his blocking, is a work in progress. Too many of his efforts lack power because his feet aren’t in the ground. He also appears concerned about an oncoming ballcarrier or backside pursuit rolling up his legs.
If Thomas masters a punch and gets more consistent with his hand placement and timing, he has the physical skills to be an asset in this area. The bigger question is will he? Thomas would be an excellent complement to Sammy Watkins in Buffalo because he’s as reliable as Robert Woods, but he has better burst and greater physicality. Whether its in the middle of the field, the vertical game, or the red zone, Thomas’ presence would help Watkins and Tyrod Taylor elevate the Bills’ offense. Atlanta is another good option for similar reasons.
Pre-Draft Fantasy Advice: Thomas, Carroo, and Coleman are separated by 0.2 points on my depth of talent scale. Although I don’t have enough history with this scale to tell you exactly how significant that value is, common sense says that scheme and surrounding talent will tell the tale. If your league is drafting before the NFL and you need receivers, it’s possible you can get two of Coleman, Thomas, and Carroo from a middle or late spot of the draft order.