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Fresh Legs


The New Orleans Saints welcome a new star in wide receiver Michael Thomas.


Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Michael Thomas (3) during the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016 in Glendale, Ariz. (Ric Tapia via AP)
Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Michael Thomas (3) during the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016 in Glendale, Ariz. (Ric Tapia via AP)

The New Orleans Saints’ all-time leading receiver, Marques Colston, has left the building. After 10 seasons and nearly 10,000 yards, a career spanning the entirety of the Sean Payton era, the long-striding, high-skying, sure-handed seemingly permanent clutch complement to Drew Brees will no longer be at the other end of those perfectly arcing passes in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Given the reality of entering a season with primarily Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman as the lynchpin wide receivers, the New Orleans Saints realized they needed a new weapon for their future hall of fame quarterback. They then acted by stepping forward and looking to the future, and selected wide receiver Michael Thomas as the forty-seventh pick in the 2016 draft (the tenth highest pick the Saints have ever spent on a wide receiver). Thomas will form a perfect complement to Cooks, whom the Saints took in the first round in 2014.

At 6-feet-3-inches, 216 pounds, Thomas repeatedly delivered as the go-to receiving threat for the 2014 national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Thomas led the Buckeyes in receptions his last two seasons, while compiling 110 catches for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns. A technically outstanding player, Thomas typically bested defensive backs with proficient route running, timing, technique and some of the surest hands in the college game.
A true weapon at the goal line, perhaps the best way to understand how Thomas will translate to the NFL is to consider the careers of great wide receivers such as Jerry Rice and Antonio Brown — both of whom often seemed to have been thinking and moving one to three steps ahead of their opponents. On the fast Superdome track, that kind of sneaky, angle-taking philosophy can destroy corners and safeties when done in combination with the right anticipation. Rice and Brown are famous for that, and Rice showed off that unique skill many times in obliterating the Saints in their home stadium.
Incredibly, even though he was selected in the second round of the NFL draft, Thomas may have been undervalued by other teams, while some scouts had him rated as high as the second best receiver in the draft. Thomas may not have gotten as much attention as he deserved, because the college offensive system he came from — directed by legendary head coach Urban Meyer —spread out attention to multiple receivers, while also emphasizing the run game and the zone-read option for the quarterback.
Still, Thomas showed more than pure athleticism at Ohio State, demonstrating a fearlessness in the middle of the field and no hesitation in his breaks or at the goal line. In the end zone, he has been compared to DeAndre Hopkins for his body control and ability to time his jump to snag balls ahead of defenders. As head coach Sean Payton stated after selecting Thomas, “He’s big, competitive; I love his hands in traffic, and I think he has a very unique skill set. He has real strong hands and has some good runs after the catch. You watch him work out, and you watch him compete, and you see game film after game film, and, at times, it’s hard based on what [Ohio State does] offensively, but I love his size and his competitive nature, and his makeup is outstanding.” Thomas also follows in what has become a recent Saints tendency to draft players related to former NFL stars, as Thomas is the nephew of former first overall pick and star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who also played for Payton in Dallas and (at officially 6-feet-4-inches, 212 pounds) shared a similar physical stature as Thomas.

Thomas comes to New Orleans with a connection already intact: He was a star in his Buckeyes’ 2014 national championship victory at the Superdome, and he remembered that time in his life as he discussed his selection by the Saints after the draft, stating, “They were showing a lot of interest, and I just had my fingers crossed I would end up there. They have a great quarterback, the team, everything about New Orleans. My last game I played in New Orleans, I just fell in love with that place. … The offense is tremendous and the coaching staff is tremendous also. I wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else.” And the opportunity for Thomas when he finally hits the ground is great, as Thomas himself has recognized, stating, “Yes, there is definitely a lot of opportunity there when I looked at it … I see what they do with guys like Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills when he was there, Marques Colston when he was there and he had a great career. I feel like they need to fill that role, and I feel that I can be that guy to come in and fill that role right away.” Perhaps Thomas’ best statement was a tweet to Drew Brees right after he was drafted: “Let’s Get to Work!”
The Saints offense may look very different with Thomas in place opposite Cooks and Snead, and he will be joined by Coby Fleener as well. But with Thomas’ championship attitude, size and skills, and his fit with the city and the team’s needs, it should not take long for him to emerge as an almost immediate star in his new hometown.