Michael Thomas Can Produce in Fantasy Football No Matter the Saints' Quarterback Situation

Thomas' limited history without Drew Brees should leave us optimistic about his output in 2021.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas has been a model of consistency in the NFL virtually every year since his first -- back in 2016.

Thomas has been a perennial threat to be a top-10 fantasy football wide receiver, something he has done in four of his first five NFL seasons.

The outlier year of the five? That'd be 2020 when Thomas played just seven regular-season games. In terms of per-game scoring, Thomas generated only 9.1 half-PPR fantasy points, a rate that was only borderline top-50 among wide receivers.

But there are reasons to forgive the down season that was marred by an ankle injury, a one-week suspension for punching teammate Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and some off-field conflict with longtime quarterback Drew Brees, who has since retired.

So a lot will be different in 2021 for Thomas.

What does it all mean for him in fantasy football?

Recounting Michael Thomas' 2020 Season

I already laid out the context to Thomas' season, so it's not a huge surprise that he lagged in a lot of important categories.

His overall regular season stat line wound up being just 55 targets, 40 catches, 438 yards, and a zero in the touchdown column. He added 11 more targets, 5 catches, 73 yards, and a touchdown across two postseason games. Yikes.

But one thing I always love to look at is expected touchdowns.

A lot of how we perceive a prior fantasy season can come down to touchdown conversion, which will really tack on to (or subtract from) the rest of a player's stat line.

According to numberFire's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) model, Thomas really should have wound up scoring 3.1 times across the full season including the playoffs, and that may not have been a saving grace for his season or anything, but it's a lot better than a single score.

Had he actually scored those 3 total touchdowns across 66 targets, he would have had a touchdown rate of 4.5%, at least in the ballpark of his historical rate of 5.3%.

This is very reassuring for someone playing through such a tumultuous season. The underlying data still liked what Thomas put out in his unfortunate 2020 campaign.

Yeah, But Can He Do It Without Drew Brees?

This is a great question. Possibly the biggest question surrounding Thomas entering the 2021 season.

The short answer is that -- yes, he can do it without Brees.

The long answer takes a bit longer to convey.

Thomas played in only four games that Brees finished in 2020, and in those games, Brees targeted Thomas on just 15.7% of his pass attempts. For what it's worth, Thomas did carve out 1.5 red zone targets per game in that split, at least.

To be fair to the target share, Thomas did play a mere 68.1% of the snaps in those games with a route rate of 82.0%.

To the contrary, though, Thomas held a 32.1% target share and a whopping 48.4% air yards share in his other games in 2020 on better -- but not significantly -- snap (76.5%) and route (86.8%) rates.

His average target depth in games without Brees was 9.8, and with Brees, it was only 8.1.

So the volume and leverage may actually hold steadily improved with new passers Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston this season compared to what it was with the aging Brees.

And in terms of the efficiency, Thomas can still get it done without Brees, as well.

According to NFL's NextGenStats, the tandem of Brees and Thomas maintained an Expected Points Added (EPA) per drop back of 0.43 on 605 targets since 2016.

On passes from all other quarterbacks (115 attempts), he's been able to maintain an EPA per attempt of 0.50, a 0.07 boost from where he was with Brees.

Am I saying that Thomas will be a more efficient player without Brees?


Am I implying that Thomas isn't toast without Brees?

You betcha.

Michael Thomas' 2021 Fantasy Football Projection

numberFire's projections for Thomas this season amount to 107 catches on 156 targets for 1,300 yards and 7.7 touchdowns across the 17-game season. That leads to a WR12 projection from a fantasy football standpoint.

That is not quite as high as his NFC average draft position since the NFL Draft, which ranks him as the WR9.

My projections are actually a tinge higher than numberFire's. My current projection for Thomas is the WR7 with an expected line of 155 targets, 120 catches, 1,377 yards, and just 6.5 touchdowns.

Of note, I have him at 8.9 expected scores based on his own volume and efficiency, but we have to contextualize that within the offense. So, the 6.5 mark could be smashed if the Saints' quarterback play is better than expected.

Either way, the volume and leverage should be strong for Thomas once more in 2021, and the past data suggests that, no, he doesn't need Drew Brees to be efficient.

Michael Thomas can still be a fantasy football superstar, and we shouldn't be surprised to see a bounce-back season -- and another top-10 fantasy finish -- from him this year.