I have been raving about Can’t Guard Mike lately. That is of course the New Orleans Saints All-Pro wide receiver, Michael Thomas. Before diving heavily in here regarding the numbers and the case I am making for him, I want to address a few things about receivers.
The wide receiver position is one of THE most worthless positions in the NFL in terms of win share.
As a whole, there aren’t many positions I would put below it, if any. That includes kickers by the way. The reason I say that is because receivers are a dime a dozen. If you have a good to great quarterback, that guy can make or break receivers. The definitive positions I would put above receiver in terms of win share are Quarterback, Cornerback, Offensive Line, Edge Rushers and Punters.
Quarterback for obvious reasons. No one moves the needle more than them.
Cornerbacks because if you can stop passing lanes from opening in today’s NFL, you’re ahead of the curve.
Offensive line, you have to be able to move your opponents up front. Come December and January, it is tough to win when you have a bad offensive line, especially on the road.
Edge Rushers because if you can get to the opposing QB, you can mask many deficiencies on defense (2018 Chiefs and Cowboys for the last few years).
Punter is the most undervalued position in the NFL, period. The Packers, Saints and Seahawks kicking games are all fantastic and it is helping them win. When you have a guy who can keep your defense playing downhill, it is huge.
Linebacker and Safety are debatable in terms of win value compared to receivers. I would put running back in the same boat as receivers. You can find quality players at those positions all around the league. The running back by committee is a successful approach for many teams. Although, I do like seeing a resurgence of the feature back to some degree.
The reason I say receiver doesn’t add a ton of win value. Look at the Super Bowl teams of the last 20 years. Not many of the top dog receivers even competed in them. In fact, here is the best receiver of each Super Bowl team in a given year since 2000.
*Top 5 Receiver in the league at the time
**Debatable Top 5 at the time
- 2018 – Julian Edelman/Brandin Cooks
- 2017 – Alshon Jeffrey/Brandin Cooks
- 2016 – Julian Edelam/Julio Jones*
- 2015 – Demaryius Thomas/Ted Ginn
- 2014 – Julian Edelman/Doug Baldwin
- 2013 – Doug Baldwin/Demaryius Thomas
- 2012 – Anquan Boldin/Michael Crabtree
- 2011 – Hakeem Nicks/Wes Welker*
- 2010 – Greg Jennings/Hines Ward
- 2009 – Marques Colston/Reggie Wayne**
- 2008 – Hines Ward/Larry Fitzgerlald*
- 2007 – Plaxico Burress/Randy Moss*
- 2006 – Marvin Harrison*/Mushin Muhammed
- 2005 – Hines Ward/Darrell Jackson or Bobby Engram
- 2004 – Deion Branch/Terrell Owens*
- 2003 – Deion Branch/Mushin Muhammed
- 2002 – Keyshawn Johnson/Jerry Rice (older at this point)
- 2001 – Troy Brown/Torry Holt*
- 2000 – Qadry Ismail/Amani Toomer
Out of a potential 38 Super Bowl Teams since 2000, only seven receivers were undeniable top 5 in the league while we had one debatable with Reggie Wayne at that point. Let’s call it 8 out of the 38 number one receivers meaning 21% had top 5 receivers. That is a pretty bad mark, especially if you’re willing to pay a large contract inevitably eating up salary cap.
When you talk about paying guys the kind of money like $100 million, it is hard to get behind it in terms of wins. The position just doesn’t move the needle. Sure, it is flashy. They are easy to spot because of that flash. They make highlight plays and we are wowed by them. The reality is top receivers seem to matter less and less. It is even more ironic that only one top receiver, at the time of winning (Marvin Harrison), has hoisted a Super Bowl trophy. Of the 8 mentioned, one wound up being part of the winning team. 1/38 overall, yikes.
It is of course a complex decision for teams to make.
Ideally it is best to trade and let someone else take on the burden of the large contract. You don’t have to worry about the salary cap and you probably got some nice assets back in the process. The Saints struck gold by not having to pay Brandin Cooks $80 million and turned that 1st into all-pro tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
If trades are not available, your hand is forced to pay. At the end of the day, you’d rather have a top guy at the position instead of letting someone like that walk for nothing.
All of this being said, there is of course exceptions to the rule. Michael Thomas is absolutely that exception. I wrote in one of my Monday Not So Morning Thoughts that he reminds me so much of Terrell Owens for a number of reasons…
- Body Control
- Field Awareness
- Route Running
- Positioning To Ensure The Catch
- Quick in and out of cuts
- Reliable on Third Down
The only thing I am unsure of is his ability to run downfield and catch the deep ball. That is no fault of his own. He hasn’t played with a QB in the NFL that is known for their arm strength. He is working with what he can.
He catches the ball at such a high rate. In 2018, he shattered the record for catch rate among players who received at least 145 targets in a single season. He caught 85% of his passes. The next best was Wes Welker at 77.2%. Because of that, the Saints more often than not play in front of the chains. I believe that leads to more wins.
I use Owens as my case study for this. Owens ranks third all time for me behind Rice and Moss respectively. While Moss was the better receiver, I don’t think his game translated to wins like Owens. Owens was rarely on bad teams. Moss had a handful of years on bad to below average teams.
As Moss put it himself, “my role is to take the ball deep and take the top off the defense.” Owens role was more complex, much like Thomas. His role was to eat the middle of the field, shrink the defense, catch in tighter windows and open it up for other burners. That is not taking away from Moss. He was unbelievable. They are just two different styles and one lead to wins more than the other.
In fact, Owens teams became significantly worse after leaving them.
- San Francisco 8 years with TO – 73-48 (Also had Rice for a chunk of that)
- San Francisco 8 years after TO – 52-76
- Philadelphia 1.5 Years with TO – 17-4
- Philadelphia 1.5 Years after TO – 12-13
- Dallas 3 Years with TO – 31-16
- Dallas 3 Years After TO – 25-23
Although it remains to be seen whether or not Michael Thomas means as much in terms of win share. I would be willing to bet the look of the Saints offense isn’t the same without him.
Over his career since entering the league in 2016, he has posted 383 receptions, 4,550 yards and 26 Touchdowns. On top of that, his career catch rate is 77.4% which is higher than the former single season record. He is doing that for his career.
Of course some people felt like QB Drew Brees has made Michael Thomas…wrong. I’d argue the opposite and that Michael Thomas has helped extend the career of Drew Brees. Aside from his rookie year playing alongside Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, Thomas has been a one man wrecking crew in terms of receivers for the Saints.
In 2017, he had 51 more catches and 458 more yards than the next highest receiver on the stat sheet. The gap has only widened as Thomas’ game continues to improve.
In 2018, he posted 97 more catches and 978 more yards than the second receiver on the roster. His yards accounted for more than 34% of the teams passing attack. That is a pretty monumental part.
Thus far in 2019, Thomas has posted 62 catches for 763 yards and 3 TDs. He currently has 44 more catches than the next receiver up and 509 more yards. All the while, he is doing it without Brees for most of the year. The guy some people thought helped inflate his numbers.
With Bridgewater, Thomas has reeled in 49 catches, 617 yards, 3 TDs. Those numbers come from 62 passes his way, which means he is still catching 79% of the balls from Teddy Two Gloves. On top of that, he leads the league in contested catches with 12.
Against the Bears stingy defense this past week, the Saints offense lit it up without Brees, starting RB Alvin Kamara (another cornerstone of the offense) and TE Jared Cook. Michael Thomas went off with 9 catches on 11 targets for 131 yards.
To answer the question on whether or not he is the best receiver in football, worth the contract and a contributor to win shares, you bet your ass he is.
He will never get the love of an MVP candidate because he is a receiver and it is a position that is not looked at in that way. But he absolutely should have a case. Why?
Can’t Guard Mike!
He is doing it without his starting QB. He is doing without a second receiver to take away attention. If you look around the league at some of the other top guys, they have someone on the other side. Thomas doesn’t. Every single the time a new bar needs to be set, he answers the call.
Move over DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones, you two have become the 2A and 2B as far as receivers go.
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