Back in the long-ago days of 2019, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas had one of the best seasons any wide receiver in NFL history ever has. That year, the 29-year-old led the league in both catches (149) and receiving yards (1,725). His 149 receptions were the most ever in a single season. Thomas won Offensive Player of the Year honors and was the No. 1 wideout in fantasy by over 100 PPR points. The only non-quarterback who had more points that year was Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
Since that massive season, however, Thomas' career has followed the same disappointing trajectory as McCaffrey's. In 2020, Thomas caught just 40 passes for 438 yards over seven games in an injury-shortened season. After surgery in the summer of 2021 to repair the same ankle that hampered him the year before, Thomas missed all of last season.
Now, like McCaffrey, Thomas is trying to get his career back on track. But while fantasy managers appear willing to give McCaffrey the benefit of the doubt, Thomas' return is being met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Per the Average Draft Position Data at Fantasy Pros, Thomas is being drafted on average as a lower-end fantasy WR3 at the back end of Round 6.
Is that all Thomas is now? A marginal fantasy starter and mid-round pick whose best days are behind him? Or can Thomas turn back the clock in 2022, recapture past glories and serve as this year's Cooper Kupp—a massive value that leads fantasy managers to championships?
For the first time in a long time, there was tangible good news on the Thomas front—after opening training camp on the PUP list, Thomas was on the practice field Wednesday.
Thomas also spoke to reporters for the first time since the 2020 season, stating that it felt great to finally be back on the field.
"Man, I'm kind of lost for words," said Thomas. "I didn't want to come up here and get emotional or anything. But it was a blessing to be back out there with the guys."
Saints head coach Dennis Allen was also quite pleased to see Thomas out there, although his optimism was tempered.
"I thought he looked good," Allen said. "I think we've still gotta be smart with him as we go throughout training camp. But I thought it was a good start, having him out there on the first day. I was excited about seeing No. 13 walk out on the field. Listen, Mike Thomas wants to be out here. He wants to help this team win games. And that's his whole mindset and his whole purpose. And he's extremely driven to do that. And I think this was a good step in the right direction."
Thomas also attempted to put to rest any remaining drama over the curious timing of his ankle surgery last year.
"We can put (the 2021 surgery timetable) to rest right now. It's pretty much like when you go to a doctor, you get an opinion. You go to two doctors, one person has an opinion, another person has an opinion. You have the right to pick an opinion. So if one of the opinions is you can rehab your ankle and it should be good by camp, and I've never had surgery, then I'm gonna stick with that one. If that one doesn't work, then I'm gonna go with the second one. And that's pretty much how it worked. I don't write the opinion, I just have to pick one."
Thomas said that he's "very confident" that he will be as good as ever in 2022. And that statement may well be the most important of all for fantasy managers.
It's not like Thomas' record-setting 2019 season was the only time he's posted huge numbers. In 2018, Thomas was first in the league in receptions (125), sixth in receiving yards (1,405), 10th in touchdowns (nine) and sixth in PPR fantasy points. That year, Thomas' catch percentage was a ridiculous 85 percent.
The year before that, Thomas tallied 105 catches for 1,245 yards and five scores—numbers that once again ranked him sixth in PPR points among receivers. As a rookie in 2016, Thomas posted a 92/1,137/9 line that ranked seventh in PPR points at the position.
That's four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Four straight 90-catch seasons. And four straight years as a top-10 fantasy option. Four straight seasons from 2017-2020, Thomas had an ADP inside the top 20 overall at Fantasy Football Calculator. In 2020, he was the fifth overall pick on average.
For several years, Thomas was equal parts prolific and consistent. The gold standard among fantasy wideouts. And if he really is 100 percent (or close to it), then his absolute fantasy ceiling is back among the elite options at the position.
However, there are factors working against Thomas hitting that ceiling that go beyond his ankle. For starters, all that damage that Thomas did was with Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Jameis Winston will be leading the offense in 2022, and he's working his way back from an ACL tear of his own.
The good news in that regard is that Winston is also back on the practice field, and he told reporters that his recovery is progressing well.
"I would say I got more explosive (since minicamp)," he said. "I was good, I was ready to go right then. But it's a progression. The healing process really never stops. I feel stronger right now, but with practice increasing, I know I've got to harp on a couple of things and continue to build."
Winston has shown that he can post big numbers—back in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards. But while Winston did a much better job taking care of the football and avoiding turnovers in his seven starts for the Saints in 2021, his 167.1 passing yards per game was easily a career-low.
Part of that is attributable to a lack in receiving talent in New Orleans, and the Saints will all but certainly improve offensively through the air after ranking dead last in that regard last season. But this probably won't be an especially high-volume passing offense unless the season starts to get away from them and they are forced to play catch-up with regularity.
There's also something in New Orleans this year that wasn't for a big chunk of Thomas' statistical rampage—a viable secondary receiver. From 2016 to 2109, there was only one other wideout on the Saints' roster who topped 70 targets in a season—Brandin Cooks, with 117 in 2016. The Saints didn't spend a first-round pick on Ohio State's Chris Olave so he could watch games unfold, and given the youngster's talent level he's going to be a significant part of the Saints 'passing-game plans.
Add those factors to the fact that Thomas hasn't scored a regular-season touchdown since Dec. 22, 2019, and while a top-12 fantasy season might be possible, it isn't probable. Expecting one certainly isn't reasonable after his long layoff.