Fantasy Football: What to expect from Michael Thomas in 2021

After setting a single-season NFL record with 149 catches in 2019, as he lapped the field in finishing as the WR1 in fantasy, 2020 was a dud for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. A Week 1 ankle injury hampered him all season. A one-game suspension and a hamstring issue led to him playing just seven games. He did not score a touchdown until the Saints’ playoff game against the Bears.

In those seven regular season games, Thomas had 40 receptions for 438 yards. After missing Week 2-Week 8 (with a bye in Week 6), he had a solid showing in Week 9 (five catches for 51 yards). Then Drew Brees was injured in Week 10, setting the stage for Taysom Hill to start. In Hill’s four starts under center (Week 11-14), here’s what Thomas did.

Week 11: nine receptions for 104 yards (12 targets)
Week 12: four receptions for 50 yards (six targets)
Week 13: nine receptions for 105 yards (11 targets)
Week 14: eight receptions for 84 yards (eight targets)

During those four games with Hill, Thomas had a 32.5 percent target share. He was WR15 in full-PPR scoring over that span. Extrapolated that run over 16 games, he would have had 120 catches for 1,372 yards. In a close comp for projecting out that stretch with Hill, Thomas had 125 receptions for 1,405 yards (and nine touchdowns) in 2018. That record-setting 2019 campaign skews things.

With Brees retired, the Saints will have Hill and Jameis Winston competing for the starting job. Thomas proved he can be productive with Hill as the quarterback. Winston has history peppering a No. 1 wide receiver with targets. In terms of fantasy upside for Thomas, root for Winston to win the job and keep it.

Michael Thomas 2021 Fantasy Outlook

The Saints lost Emmanuel Sanders in free agency, and made no effort to replace him. That means Tre’Quan Smith and Marquez Calloway are the leading candidates to be the No. 2 wide receiver. It also means the passing game, regardless of who the quarterback is, will revolve around Thomas and Alvin Kamara again.

If Hill wins the starting job, the Saints’ offense will surely lean toward the run more this year. But Thomas’ target share isn’t going away, and he can be booked for 150-plus targets. He had nine touchdowns in three of his first four NFL seasons, so there’s hope for significant correction there. Using his touchdown rate from 2016-2019 (5.3 percent of targets), 150 targets would yield 7.97 touchdowns.

Thomas’ ADP sits in the third round right now, and the back end of the top-10 wide receivers (Fantasy Football Calculator). That’ll be worth watching as draft season ramps up, and it’s ripe for value near the WR1/WR2 border if it holds.

With Brees gone, Thomas now has significant downside. Larry Holder of The Athletic did a deep dive to show how Winston’s accuracy on slant routes was below 53 percent in 2019 (his last significant sample of play). Slant routes are overblown as all Thomas can do. But they are also where he made significant hay with Brees.

A rebound to a top-10 finish as a fantasy wide receiver is within reach for Thomas this year. He could finish as the WR1 again. Or, even fully healthy, he could finish well below that if the Saints struggle with QB continuity/performance. In terms of efficiency and proficiency, the offense as a whole won’t be the same as it was with Brees. If you can embrace the range of possible outcomes, Thomas’ assured heavy target volume mitigates the downside.

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