Saints’ Thomas primed to thrive in Col­ston’s role

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NFL -

METAIRIE, La. — Saints re­ceiver Michael Thomas sounds ea­ger to ac­cept the re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing a “No. 1” re­ceiver in New Or­leans’ pro­lific of­fense, even if he doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily like such la­bels.

“What­ever I have to do to add value to this team and put points on the board, that’s what I’m go­ing to do and do it at a high level,” Thomas said af­ter prac­tice at Saints train­ing camp Sat­ur­day. “If I’m No. 1, No. 2, what­ever I am … I’m go­ing to do it to the best of my abil­ity and, ul­ti­mately, ev­ery time I touch (the ball), I’m go­ing to try to score.”

The 6-3, 212-pound Thomas lines up at the “X” po­si­tion that Saints ca­reer re­ceiv­ing leader Mar­ques Col­ston held from 2006 to 2015. And in his sec­ond NFL sea­son, he of­ten will be quar­ter­back Drew Brees’ first read. He will draw matchups against op­po­nents’ best de­fen­sive backs — and rou­tinely run routes in dou­ble cov­er­age.

So far, signs point to Thomas thriv­ing in that role.

As a rookie, he led New Or­leans in catches with 92 and touch­downs with nine. His 1,137 yards re­ceiv­ing ranked sec­ond on the team, only 36 yards be­hind the to­tal put up by Brandin Cooks, who was traded to New Eng­land this past off­sea­son.

And as Brees pointed out, Thomas had a lot to learn as a rookie, and looked con­sid­er­ably more com­fort­able dur­ing the lat­ter half of last sea­son.

“For any young re­ceiver when they come in, yes there’s raw tal­ent, but then there’s the fun­da­men­tals of play­ing the po­si­tion at this level,” Brees said. “Your re­leases vs. bump-and-run, the way you set up routes and the nu­ances to our sys­tem and the con­cepts within our sys­tem — it just takes time to un­der­stand those and be con­fi­dent with them.”

Now, Brees said, Thomas “can play fast,” be­cause he knows what to do.

Thomas worked out with Brees in Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the off­sea­son, fur­ther deep­en­ing a con­nec­tion that has been ev­i­dent dur­ing 11-on-11 drills since 2017 camp opened.

Saints re­ceivers coach Curtis John­son en­vi­sions Thomas be­ing “just phe­nom­e­nal.”

“He’s faster than you think. He’s just so strong — and then what I like about him, he’s so coach­able,” John­son said.

In­deed, when Thomas was asked how he ben­e­fits from us­ing his un­cle, for­mer star NFL re­ceiver Keyshawn John­son, as a re­source, the re­ceiver said it was be­cause his un­cle is “com­pletely hon­est” in the way he points out weak­nesses.

Among those least sur­prised by Thomas’ quick rise is safety Vonn Bell, who also was Thomas’ team­mate at Ohio State. He re­calls Thomas mak­ing plays in prac­tice against cor­ner­back Bradley Roby, a 2014 first-round draft choice by Den­ver.

Bell said Thomas had a rel­a­tively “quiet” col­lege ca­reer be­cause “it was a whole dif­fer­ent of­fense. So it was hard for him to just get the ball out there and be a true ‘X.’ Now it’s drop-back, play-ac­tion.”

Brees iden­ti­fied one of Thomas’ strengths as run­ning routes “with vi­o­lence,” which caused de­fen­sive backs who try to press Thomas near the line of scrim­mage to be bumped off bal­ance and lose lever­age.

Also, Brees noted, Thomas “has big, strong hands and he at­tacks the ball. So wher­ever you throw it, he is go­ing to get the ball. He is not go­ing to wait for it.”

Thomas said his past, which had its share of dis­ap­point­ment, will pre­vent him from be­com­ing con­tent. Dur­ing his sopho­more year at Ohio State in 2013, Thomas was red­shirted, mean­ing he could prac­tice but not play that sea­son. He re­sponded by help­ing Ohio State win the 2014 na­tional cham­pi­onship. He had an­other strong sea­son in 2015, only to drop into the sec­ond round of the 2016 NFL draft.

“I’ve still got a lot to prove — and I’ll prove it when it’s all said and done,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ drive man­i­fests it­self in the force with which he spikes the ball af­ter cross­ing the goal line.

“It gets the juices flow­ing and the en­ergy go­ing,” Thomas said. “So when you get a chance to cross that end zone, you want to spike the ball as hard as pos­si­ble.”

Thomas doesn’t en­vi­sion him­self adopt­ing a dance or pose to cel­e­brate scores. A raw, em­phatic, no-non­sense dis­play of in­ten­sity is more his style.

“I might just stick to spik­ing the ball,” he said. “I like that one a lot.”

AP/JONATHAN BACHMAN

Wide re­ceiver Michael Thomas caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and 9 touch­downs in his rookie sea­son last year for the New Or­leans Saints. Thomas was drafted in the sec­ond round by the Saints in 2016 from Ohio State. “I’ve still got a lot to prove — and I’ll prove it when it’s all said and done,” Thomas said.

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