If you ask a bunch of random people on the street who the best receiver in the National Football League is right now, you’d probably get a wide array of different answers. Green Bay’s Davante Adams would probably get a couple votes. Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins would as well. Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, Mike Evans — I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any of those receivers top a fan’s list. The parity of opinions on the matter is much larger than it was just one year ago. Prior to the 2020 season, there was only one real answer to that question: the New Orleans Saints’ Michael Thomas.
Thomas had just broken the all-time receptions record when he caught 149 passes for 1725 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019. #Cantguardmike was trending on Twitter anytime Michael Thomas did anything on a football field, and after the season concluded, he was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year. Keep in mind, this was the same year that San Francisco’s George Kittle became the people’s tight end, and broke the tight end receiving yards record. This was the same year that Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey became just the third running back in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. And let’s not forget about Lamar Jackson breaking the quarterback season rushing record all while leading the NFL in touchdown passes. Yet despite those other historic performances, it was pretty much a given that Thomas was going to walk away with the hardware. He was so far above and beyond his competition that anyone else receiving the award was almost unfathomable.
Even still, there were haters lurking about in the Twitter-sphere.
The narrative surrounding Michael Thomas was no longer about whether or not he was the best receiver in the game. It was now whether or not Michael Thomas could run any route effectively other than slants.
I’m not here to promote Michael Thomas slander. I know he’s a fantastic receiver. There have been numerous studies into his route-running tendencies that show he’s much more than a “slants-only” guy. That being said, there are still thousands of NFL fans who believe Michael Thomas is nothing more than a one-trick pony — a “slant boy” if you will.
We know Thomas doesn’t take too kindly to that nickname. The star receiver got benched after getting into an altercation with his teammate, safety Malcolm Jenkins, after Jenkins called Thomas a “slant boy” in practice. He was endlessly ridiculed with that nickname after recording zero catches against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs last season. But can you really blame people for this assessment? After all, someone who truly believed Thomas was a fraud in 2019 would be looking for any signs of regression the following season, and they got plenty of it. Thomas recorded the lowest marks of his career in both receptions per game and catch rate in 2020. Not to mention, Thomas also missed several games due to injury and the aforementioned physical altercation with Malcolm Jenkins. Thomas had an opportunity to shut everyone up if he could string together another incredible season in 2020. Instead, he put up the worst season of his career.
Now, just 99 days until the start of the next NFL season, Michael Thomas is without the Hall of Fame quarterback he’s had his entire career, he’s still being called “slant boy” all over social media, and he’s going to prove that it was 2020, not 2019, that was the fluke.
When Thomas broke the receptions record in 2019, over one-third of the passes he caught that season were out of the hands of Teddy Bridgewater. In the five games Thomas played without Brees in 2019, Thomas averaged almost 8.5 receptions and 110 yards per game. Both of those marks are greater than what Thomas averaged over the course of that entire season. While Jameis Winston definitely leaves a lot to be desired in the accuracy department, he was consistently near the top of the league in intended air yards per pass attempt while in Tampa (he actually finished second in the league in both 2018 and 2019). That style of play would not suit someone who exclusively runs slants very well. Now, it is likely that Winston’s time under Drew Brees learning Sean Payton’s system has altered Winston’s play style to be more conservative, but it’s still very unlikely that Winston throws the ball downfield less often than Brees did. Theoretically, Winston’s presence under center should give Thomas more opportunity to show what he is capable of running deeper routes.
Like I said before, I believe Michael Thomas is one of the most dominant receivers in the league when healthy. He’s not a one-route guy. In fact, after the 2019 season, when Next Gen Stats looked at their advanced receiving metrics for each of the eight common route trees (cross, go, post, out, corner, out, slant, and hitch), they determined that Michael Thomas was the top route-runner in FOUR of the eight categories: cross, out, hitch, and...yes, slant. And even if Michael Thomas was just a ‘slants-only’ receiver, what would be wrong with that? You wouldn’t call a knuckleballer a fraud if he threw his knuckleball 90 percent of the time. No one ever called Mariano Rivera a fraud for throwing cutters on every pitch. If a batter can’t hit that pitch, they need to adjust. Likewise, if a defensive back or defensive coordinator can’t stop Michael Thomas from racking up 100 yards per game on slant routes, they need to get good.
Without Jared Cook, Drew Brees, and Emmanuel Sanders in 2021, the New Orleans Saints offense is going to have to rely heavily on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara to carry the load. I expect Winston and Taysom Hill to look Thomas’s way consistently. Many people may be overlooking Thomas — thinking it’s impossible for him to repeat what he did in 2019. I agree with them. It is almost impossible for Thomas to repeat what he did that year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be one of the best receivers in the game. If Thomas really wants to get rid of that “slant boy” label, he’s going to have to do a lot more in 2021 than he did in 2020, and judging by how much he hates that name, I’m willing to bet he’ll show out.