Draft season is in full swing, and while quarterbacks are the hottest ticket in town, they must have someone to throw to. Rookie wide receivers don’t always make big impacts, but they’re important building blocks for any passing attack. Joseph Ferraiola breaks down former Ohio State Buckeye Michael Thomas.
Coming off of a redshirt season in his sophomore year, wide receiver Michael Thomas put up solid numbers for Ohio State in 2015. Thomas totaled 56 receptions, 781 yards, and 9 TD in 13 games this season, with 113 receptions, 1,602 yards, and 18 TD on his career in 39 games played across 3 seasons. Although Thomas struggled his freshman season to earn a redshirting his sophomore year, he came back the following season and was a key weapon for the Buckeyes in their 2014 National Championship run.
It is important to note that he played with two different primary quarterbacks, Cardale Jones and JT Barrett, over the last two years. As such, there lies the possibility that he and his QB never got on the same page, lacking the requisite time for chemistry to develop.
Thomas has a family legacy to pursue as well, as his uncle is former number one overall pick Keyshawn Johnson. Like his uncle, Thomas hopes to be drafted in the first round and have a long, successful NFL career.
Tale of the Tape
At 6’3” 210 pounds, Thomas has very good size for the position. He has a compact build with wide shoulders and displays good athletic ability with a combination of agility, balance, and change of direction. It will be interesting to see what kind of day he has when it comes to the drills at the combine. Specifically, I think he’ll rank in the mid 2nd tier of times when it comes to the 40 yard dash. That could determine whether his stock rises or falls come draft day as some are concerned about his speed
What he does well
Separation quickness is a receiver’s ability to create instant space between himself and the defender at the top of his routes. There are different ways a receiver can create separation: He can do so using mental processing, athletic ability, and / or play strength.
It’s 3rd down and the Buckeyes need 16 yards for a first down. Thomas is all alone on the bottom of the screen. He is facing off coverage and is given a large cushion. He runs a vertical route down field and has the defender backpedaling. At about the 15-yard line, Thomas makes his move, stepping towards the defender’s outside shoulder while giving him an upper body fake. The defender reacts, committing his hips to the outside. Thomas, however, breaks inside and has completely spun the defender around. Barrett recognizes the opportunity and throws towards Thomas. At this point, the defender attempts to recover, but it’s too late: Thomas works back towards the football while making sure he has enough separation to safely secure the catch for the 1st down.
Michael Thomas’s most effective route is the slant route, which he runs with a great understanding of how to get inside positioning on his defender.
On this play, Thomas is at the top of the screen facing press alignment. As the play begins, the defender waits for Thomas to make his first step. Thomas initially works the defensive back’s outside shoulder before working back to the inside using his hands to gain separation on his route. As he works the defender off of him, he breaks to the inside and is now open by a fair distance. While he reels in the catch using his body, he still has sufficient separation to turn upfield. Even though the defender makes up ground and makes contact with Thomas, the receiver is in position to fight through the contact and run downfield.
As he approaches the 50-yard line, the safety (#27) has the angle in pursuit of Thomas. Thomas, however, shows off his distance speed to beat the pursuing tackler fairly easily, moving nearly untouched into the end zone.
On this next example, Thomas is again aligned at the top of the screen. This time he’s facing off coverage, but the cornerback has turned his body completely to the inside. Once the ball is snapped, Thomas keeps himself vertical and the corner turns to face him. Thomas uses his quick feet in a shake move in an attempt to throw off the defender and then break to the inside with separation on his slant route. The QB throws the ball in Thomas’s direction and the WR has enough separation to secure the catch safely. Due to his ability to get inside positioning on the defender, Thomas is able to pick up the first down after the catch.
Stop And Go
Perhaps Michael Thomas’s most deceptive move when trying to go vertical is the Stop and Go. As alluded to above, Thomas has a knack for getting behind defenders, but it’s not because of his pure speed.
Thomas is all alone at the top of the screen here facing off coverage from Kendall Fuller, a talented cornerback for Virginia Tech. Fuller is positioned in anticipation of a move to the outside, as his hips are turned away from the inside part of the field. Thomas runs vertically off the snap as Fuller backpedals, but then throttles down mid-route with roughly 4-5 yards of separation from Fuller. This makes the defender commit to a shorter route, whereupon Thomas goes vertical as Fuller’s momentum takes him in the opposite direction. This creates great separation for Thomas, resulting in an easy touchdown against a quality defender.
Thomas was a nightmare for Fuller this entire game, besting him for positioning all night long.
Here, later in the season against Rutgers, Thomas again uses a Stop and Go move to draw a flag. If he were not held on the play, Thomas might well have had another TD for his resume.
The most important job of any receiver is to catch the football; without that, the rest really doesn’t matter. Almost as important is the ability to adjust to the football on the fly. A QB isn’t always going to throw a perfect ball: Sometimes you’re going to have to go up there and get it or pick it up off your shoelaces.
Thomas displays a good catch radius and adjust to the high throw. He also possesses solid concentration to catch the ball in crowded areas.
Ohio State is lined up in 00 personnel with Thomas in the middle of the trips formation to the left side of the offense. He begins his route by running vertical at his defender and then breaks into his route underneath his defender, not that crisply – he rounds it a bit – but creates enough separation for a pass. As he’s running across the field, the QB targets him and throws him the football. The throw is well behind him, but Thomas adjusts to his back and extends his arms to reel in the errant throw.
After completing the catch, Thomas turns upfield, breaks a tackle, and fights for additional yardage.
Thomas displays good concentration on the catch here against Rutgers; you can see the WR adjust to the high throw very well despite having a defender draped all over him.
Yards After Catch is key to being a productive receiver. Once you catch the ball, you have to be able to turn upfield quickly and elude or break tackles to gain additional yards.
Thomas’s YAC ability is very good, as he possesses the quickness to turn upfield immediately after he’s secured the catch and make defenders miss using both elusive moves and the play strength to break tackles.
Here is an example of Thomas showing his elusiveness for YAC.
Thomas is the receiver furthest to the outside at the top of the screen on this play. He is releasing against off coverage and needs only seven yards for the first down. With a sizable cushion between himself and the defender, Thomas settles at the first down marker, makes the catch, and turns upfield, all in one motion. As the defender approaches, Thomas makes a quick step towards the inside part of the field to make his man miss, and then plants his foot in the ground and takes off towards the sidelines for a huge gain.
In this play against Rutgers, we see Thomas uses his play strength and general physical nature to gain important YAC.
Thomas is at the bottom part of the screen, facing off coverage. His initial step is inside, but then he works more vertically up the field. When the throw comes, he has plenty of separation to make a play after the catch. Once he catches the ball, you’ll notice that he’s already turning upfield. This allows him to greet his defender with a subtle shake before he ultimately decides just to attack upfield physically. The defender goes for the tackle, but Thomas uses his play strength to stop his defender with a stiff arm, and then uses his speed to split the safeties. The result is a touchdown for the Buckeyes.
Areas to Improve Upon
When evaluating release, you want to look at how the defender is aligned across from the receiver. If he’s playing off, the receiver will have a free release and all that matters is how quickly he can eat up cushion. Then there is press alignment where a defender shows press, but won’t initiate contact with the receiver. However, sometimes the defender actually presses and now you have to evaluate how well that receiver gets into his route after contact.
Thus far, Thomas shows at most an adequate ability to beat press coverage. I believe he has the physical strength to refine this trait, but for now it’s an area he needs to improve.
In this play, at the top of the screen Thomas faces a press alignment. At the snap, he uses a shake move in an attempt to get off the line. The defender uses his hands to get into the upper body of Thomas, stopping him from moving forward. Thomas has to use his hands to push the defender away. By this point, Thomas is already thrown off his route and precious time has elapsed. It is 3rd and 7 and Thomas was the go-to receiver on this play, but, before he could get open, the rush hit Jones and the pass went incomplete.
To succeed at the next level, Thomas will have to beat press coverage on the outside; he’ll need to learn to spend less time dancing at the line and move more quickly into his route.
Like most wide receivers, Thomas needs to refine his blocking technique. He exhibits a willingness to block when the ball is coming to his side of the field. An issue, though, is that he just doesn’t hold his block long enough.
The Buckeyes run a pop pass to Braxton Miller. Miller cuts across the backfield and is running to Thomas’s side of the field, where the Buckeyes blockers are outnumbered. Thomas blocks his man, but doesn’t hold the block long enough, instead moving on to the the next level. One problem: Thomas’s original man is one of the defenders who made the tackle on Miller. If Thomas had maintained his block a little longer, it would have given the rusher a chance to make a man miss in the open field.
This wide receiver class isn’t as talented as some in the past; there are two receivers that are a class above the rest, but after that it’s a tough call. For that reason, I think you can see Thomas being taken anywhere from the late first to somewhere in the second round. Personally I think he’ll be taken in the middle of round two.
What you’re getting here is a #2 wide receiver who’s going to have to adjust to the NFL game. It took him a while to adjust to the college game, though, after being redshirted following his freshman season, he really took off. I wouldn’t expect a lot of production in his first season, but, once he adjusts, expect the team that drafts him to have a nice complementary WR.
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All video and images courtesy Draft Breakdown.