The 2021 season was set up to be a comeback campaign for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. But after an ankle injury limited him to just seven games in 2020, he still hasn’t returned to the field this year. While he’s expected to return to action in the next several weeks, Thomas’ long-term future in New Orleans is in question. As NFL trade rumors abound in advance of next week’s deadline, should the Saints explore trading Thomas?
Michael Thomas is an expensive injury risk
Life moves so quickly in the NFL that it’s easy to forget Thomas was one of the league’s best receivers as recently as 2019. That year, he led the NFL in both receptions (149) and yards (1,725). Through 2019, he’d managed at least 90 receptions and 1,100 yards in every season since being selected in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
But that all changed when Thomas went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 1 of the 2020 campaign. He was supposed to come back a few weeks later, but a hamstring issue and an altercation with teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson delayed his return until Week 9. Thomas played in six more games — topping 100 yards in two of them — before his lingering ankle issue knocked him out for the rest of the season.
His ankle injury has continued to cause problems in 2021. Thomas was supposed to have surgery in January but delayed the operation until June. During that time, he reportedly ignored repeated calls and check-ins by the Saints organization.
Thomas’ relationship with the club and head coach Sean Payton has never seemed to be in a great place. He was mentioned in trade rumors following his incident with Johnson. But following an August meeting with Payton, any underlying tension has apparently been buried.
Thomas is currently on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. He’s already missed the required six games, so he’s eligible to return to New Orleans’ roster at any time. However, he’s not expected to be activated until some point in November.
Michael Thomas’ contract presents a quandary
Thomas agreed to a five-year, $96.25 million extension with the Saints in July 2019. His average annual salary of $19.25 million is currently the fifth-highest among wide receivers. He trails only DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Keenan Allen, and Amari Cooper. Additionally, New Orleans restructured Thomas’ contract earlier this year. The team converted a portion of his 2021 base salary into a signing bonus and pushed money into future seasons.
Because the Saints were in dire salary cap straits over the offseason, they were essentially forced to rework Thomas’ deal. Yet, that maneuver will make it a little more difficult to trade the former Ohio State product. If New Orleans moves Thomas before the NFL’s November 2 trade deadline, the club would incur $22.7 million in dead money in 2022. While that’s a hefty amount (especially for a cap-strapped club like the Saints), it would still represent a $2 million savings over Thomas’ 2022 cap figure of $24.7 million.
Trading Thomas would leave a sizeable dead-cap charge on New Orleans’ ledger — but any team that acquires Thomas would be landing an absolute bargain. Because teams that trade for players only take on their remaining base salaries (and not their prorated signing bonuses), an acquiring club would get Thomas for the rest of this year and then move forward on a three-year, approximately $51 million deal.
But wait, there’s more! Not only would Thomas be relatively cheap, but the team that trades for him would essentially be doing so with zero risk. Next year, Thomas’ salary is guaranteed for injury only before becoming fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2022 league year. A team could acquire Thomas for the rest of this season (on a remaining salary of about $500K) and next year at a total cost of about $16 million. If things don’t work out, Thomas can be cut before the 2023 campaign with zero dead money.
The Saints are in playoff contention
The Saints haven’t generated a ton of buzz this season, but they’re still in line to earn a postseason berth. The NFC’s top five seeds appear largely set, with the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Packers, and Rams looking like playoff locks. That leaves two more slots up for grabs, and New Orleans has as good a chance as anyone. Per Five Thirty Eight’s projection model, the Saints have a 63% chance to make the playoffs. Aside from the five aforementioned teams, New Orleans is the only NFC club with a better-than-even shot at the postseason.
Both the Saints’ offensive and defensive units rank inside the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). But even a cursory glance at New Orleans’ depth chart reveals the team could use help at wide receiver. Running back Alvin Kamara actually leads them in receptions (15), while Marquez Callaway is second with 13. Deonte Harris has the most receiving yards for New Orleans at a paltry 236.
The Saints’ offense is already efficient. And Thomas is never going to be an explosive downfield threat. But his return would certainly give New Orleans more options, especially in short to intermediate parts of the field.
Should the Saints trade Thomas?
Whether the Saints should entertain trading Thomas depends on the possible return. Given how much dead money would result from a trade and how affordable Thomas would be for an acquiring team, the Saints should hold out for a first-round pick. But given Thomas’ injury, there’s almost no chance another NFL team would sacrifice that type of asset. As such, the Saints’ best hope is that Thomas returns in November, jumpstarts their offense, and helps the club solidify a playoff spot.