Michael Thomas’ Unexpected Rookie Success (so Far)

Sometimes rookies exceed expectations in their first year, other times they struggle to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is definitely the former. Mark Schofield breaks down how the second round pick has fared in the NFL.

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Coming out of Ohio State, Michael Thomas was considered among the top wide receiver prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft. Thomas was selected in the second round of the draft by Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints, and it has not taken long for the rookie to fit into the offense and establish a relationship with quarterback Drew Brees. Through seven games, Thomas leads the Saints with 42 receptions, gaining 500 yards on those catches with three touchdowns. While the former Buckeye standout was highly regarded coming out of college, there were some question marks, including whether he could consistently and efficiently beat press coverage. But at this point, it seems the rookie is on his way to silencing such criticism. Two areas of his game, his ability after the catch and his work at the line of scrimmage against the press, have stood out during his rookie campaign.

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Versus the Press

In college and in the Big Ten, Thomas did not see the consistent level of press coverage that you would expect to see in the NFL. This led some evaluators to wonder whether he would be able to get separation on his routes after becoming a professional. In addition, Thomas ran a limited route tree while at Ohio State, leading to more questions about his transition to the NFL. However, through seven games, the rookie has shown the fluid footwork necessary to break the press in the pros, even against elite talent on the other side of the football.

On this first example, Thomas (#13) is split to the right side of the formation, matched against San Diego Chargers defensive back Craig Mager (#29) who is aligned in press coverage. Mager uses outside leverage before the play, shaded to Thomas’ right shoulder:

thomasstill1Thomas runs a slant route, and gets an incredible amount of separation on his route given the pre-snap alignment. He uses a very quick stutter-step at the snap, and then flares his right leg to the outside to show Mager a vertical route along the sideline. This gets the Mager to shuffle his feet ever so slightly toward the outside, and catches DB flat-footed as well:

thomasgif1finalThomas then accelerates on the slant, and gains separation from the defensive back as he cuts inside, leading to a good throwing window for quarterback Drew Brees (#9) and an easy completion:

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Thomas makes a solid catch of a high throw, and in what will become a big theme, he displays play strength after the reception. Additionally, he manages to stay upright as Mager attempts a high tackle, and falls forward for additional yardage after the catch.

Here is another slant route, this time against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Saints face a 2nd and 10 early in the game, and Thomas splits wide to the left against cornerback Steven Nelson (#20), who aligns in press coverage before the snap:

thomasstill2This time, the defender uses inside leverage, looking to take away any route breaking inside. So Thomas needs to get inside of the defender somehow. Again, he uses the outside leg (this time the left leg) to sell the receiver on a vertical route along the sideline. This gets Nelson to slide to the outside as he attempts the jam, which he misses on:

thomasgif2finalOnce the defender slides out of position, Thomas has the cornerback beat. He cuts underneath on the slant and makes the easy catch:

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This replay angle shows how Thomas wastes no steps on the route. He pushes vertically and then flares out that left leg to show Nelson the vertical route, before cutting underneath on the slant:

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This route lacks any of the “wasted steps” that some evaluators were concerned about during the pre-draft process.

Now, let’s see how Thomas has fared against elite level competition in the NFL. This play finds the rookie matched up against Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, one of the premier cover corners in the NFL. Thomas is split wide to the right, and Sherman (#25) is in press alignment, head-up on the receiver and not shading one shoulder or the other:

thomasstill4Thomas runs a hitch route. Often times teams might convert a hitch route to a vertical route when facing press coverage, given that it might be tough to get distance from the defender on such a route in such a short, contested space of turf. But when a receiver can beat the press and change direction quickly like Thomas, he can still get separation in this situation. The rookie uses a quick stutter-step at the line before pushing to the outside to sell Sherman on the vertical route. That gets the veteran DB to turn his hips toward the sideline and start to run:

thomasgif3finalNow that Sherman believes the vertical route is coming, it’s time for Thomas to cut back on the hitch. As he hits the breaks, Sherman flies right by and the rookie gets the needed separation on the route:

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Thomas works back to the football, and even evades the tackle attempt from Sherman, recovering on the route. Here’s another angle, and pay attention to the strength in the receiver’s left leg, as he drives it into the turf to stop on a dime before cutting back on the hitch route. This quick, explosive move is all he needs to get the separation on this route:

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Again, this play is indicative of Thomas’ ability both at the line of scrimmage against the press, and after the catch with the football in his hands. Thomas is able to make Sherman miss on the tackle attempt, picking up additional yardage after the reception. Thomas was considered to be explosive after the catch while at Ohio State, and this ability has translated well to the NFL through seven games of his rookie season.

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Strength and Speed After the Catch

On this play, the Saints face a 2nd and 10 on their own 20-yard line, with 4:56 remaining in the game and trailing by 10 points. Thomas is split wide to the left and runs a shallow crossing route against zone coverage:

thomasstill5Thomas is open on the underneath and catches a pass from Brees at the 25-yard line:

thomasstill6You can see that the cornerback on the other side is in position to track the receiver down, and in addition the underneath linebacker has an angle on Thomas to prevent the receiver from making a big gain. But watch as the rookie WR accelerates away from both players, picking up a huge chunk of yardage after the catch before – perhaps more impressively – ducking out of bounds to preserve precious time and timeouts:

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Later on the same drive, the Saints face a 2nd and 5 on the Kansas City 25-yard line. This play puts both the concepts and traits highlighted in this piece on full display. Thomas splits wide to the left against rookie cornerback D.J. White (#24), who is slightly shaded to the outside and is in press alignment:

thomasstill7Thomas again runs a hitch route. He uses the stutter step at the line of scrimmage to evade the jam before cutting to the outside to sell White on the vertical route. Once the DB turns his hips toward the sideline to run, Thomas stops on a dime and uses a subtle swim move with his left arm over the helmet of the defender to cut back toward Brees, gaining separation on the movement:

thomasgif4finalFrom there, Thomas pulls in the throw while the rookie CB scrambles to recover and make the tackle. Now we see the play-strength from the receiver. Thomas uses a stiff-arm to shed the tackle attempt, before racing downfield inside the five-yard line:

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Thomas is knocked out bounds by Eric Berry, but not before getting the Saints in position to cut the Chiefs’ lead to one score.

Two big plays on one drive, and two plays that exemplify the rookie season Thomas is enjoying. His footwork at the line of scrimmage against press coverage is efficient and continues to set the rookie up for separation on his routes. From there, the ability to use his strength and speed after the catch allows Thomas to tack on additional yardage on most receptions. In the New Orleans offense, with Brandin Cooks on the other side and Willie Snead in the slot, there are only so many targets to go around. But with the ability that Thomas has shown so far, he will see more than a fair share of them going forward.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, Seth Russell’s processing speed, or how LSU runs play action.

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All film courtesy of ESPN.

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