Michael Thomas’ fantasy outlook and projection for 2021

    A year removed from a record-setting 2019 campaign and the patron saint Drew Brees’ retirement, many are down on New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas for fantasy football in 2021. But should they? How should managers view Thomas for fantasy football at his current ADP, and what is his outlook for 2021?

    Update 8/30: Thomas will be placed on the PUP list, meaning he will miss at least the first five games of the 2021 NFL season.

    Michael Thomas’ fantasy outlook for 2021

    If we want to analyze what is to come, we need to learn from the past. Thomas entered 2020 fresh off the heels of an incredible season. He set an NFL single-season reception record with 149 (80.5%) on a ridiculous 185 targets for 1,725 yards and 9 touchdowns. It was his third season in a row with at least 147 targets and 104 receptions. It was his fourth season with over 1,137 yards and 5 touchdowns. 

    As 2020 drafts kicked off, he was widely regarded as WR1 for fantasy, but with hindsight being 20/20, I think those drafters want a do-over.

    The All-Pro WR suffered from an injury-riddled season which forced him to miss a total of nine games. After initially missing six games from Weeks 2-8, Brees was hurt in Thomas’ first game back. Thus, he had to spend the next four games with Taysom Hill under center.

    By this point, the damage was done. Thomas then missed the Saints’ final three regular-season games and ended as the WR95 with 40 receptions on 55 targets for 438 yards and zero touchdowns.

    What can we take from this and use for 2021?

    I get it — if you still have a sour taste in your mouth with a slight taste of creole. However, do not let one bad season beat you twice. There is more to learn from this than we might think.

    First, even when Thomas came back, he was not healthy. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that Thomas would undergo surgeries on both the torn deltoid and other injured ligaments in his ankle this offseason. The Saints were aware of this, as he only played 55% of the snaps in his first game back. He should be 100% for the start of this season.

    Now, there is the fear of Hill under center. The passing game took a massive hit as they averaged only 28.5 passing attempts in his four starts. But let’s look at Thomas’ stats in these games. 

    • Week 11: 9 receptions (12 targets), 104 yards (WR13 with 19.4 PPR)
    • Week 12: 2 receptions (7 targets), 50 yards (WR46 with 9.1 PPR)
    • Week 13: 9 receptions (12 targets), 105 yards (WR16 with 19.5 PPR)
    • Week 14: 8 receptions (8 targets), 84 yards (WR22 with 16.4 PPR)

    That makes him the WR15 (16.1 PPR) over these four weeks. The odds are Jameis Winston will be the primary starter, and we have seen what he can do. Sure, he is the polar opposite of Brees, but we have seen what he can do for fantasy. In 2019, Winston threw for over 5,100 yards and sustained both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin with WR1 production.

    Regardless of who is under center, Thomas will be the focal point of the passing game. Emmanual Sanders and Jared Cook are on other teams, and he has no competition for touches outside of Alvin Kamara. Despite the uncertainty, Thomas is still a WR1 for fantasy in 2021, even if he does run nothing but slants.

    Thomas’ fantasy projection

    It’s unreasonable to sit here and believe that Thomas will be a 185-target and 1,700-yard guy again. There was a reason no one had ever done it before. Thomas’ 23.4 ppg in 2019 is the fifth-highest for a WR in PPR formats. We need to send these expectations off on an airboat into the bayou, never to be seen again. 

    Nevertheless, if you could guarantee that Winston started every game, Thomas has top-five upside in fantasy. But we all know coach Sean Payton loves Hill. I expect to see Winston take 80% of the snaps, but for Hill, that 20% will likely be run-heavy packages, eliminating Thomas.

    When I look at Thomas’ fantasy outlook for 2021, I look back to his production from 2016 to 2018 as a reasonable projection. Thomas averaged 107 receptions on 139 targets for 1,262 yards and 7 touchdowns over those three seasons. That’s 275.2 PPR points — which would have been WR6 in 2020. Would you be happy with that out of a player going in the third round of fantasy drafts? I sure would. 

    I think he comes in just under this in receptions and touchdowns due to the snaps Hill will eat up. Still, Thomas is likely to sit around the range of 100 receptions, 1,200 yards, and 6 touchdowns for 2021.

    Thomas’ ADP in fantasy drafts

    It’s still early to get ADP data from all the sites, but we can pull from enough to get a good idea of where Thomas is going in drafts. When it’s early in the season and you are looking for ADP, follow the money. Try to find high-stakes sites. After all, money talks and ADPs are not skewed by people trying odd strategies or auto picks in mocks.

    On NFC, Thomas has an ADP of 31.56 as the WR9 overall. This feels right. While I believe there is upside baked into this ADP, there is enough uncertainty that I doubt it raises much by the time we hit the bulk of the redraft season.

    Should you draft Thomas at this ADP in 2021?

    For those who stuck around and didn’t just scroll due to TL;DR, you already likely know my answer. For the rest of you, the answer is yes, especially in PPR formats.

    With receptions creating a higher value for a highly targeted player like Thomas, even in half-point PPR formats, Thomas should be on your radar. However, if he comes short of the 90-reception mark, he could end up outside the top 12 in the end-of-season standings.

    Given the variables and his disappointment of 2020, I fully understand the trepidation when it comes to Thomas. But for my money, he might be my top bounce-back candidate for fantasy in 2021.

    Thomas is an ultra-talented receiver with a history of production and coming off an injury-plagued season. If I can start a draft with one of the top three running backs and still land Thomas as my WR1/2 by Round 3, I am over the moon.

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    Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football. You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

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