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Only three NFL players have caught more than 70 passes this season. New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas has caught 104.
Only three players have amassed 1,000 receiving yards. Thomas has 1,242.
Among qualified receivers, only Thomas and Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks have caught more than 80 percent of the passes thrown their way. But the former has 41 more receptions than the latter.
Thomas has undoubtedly emerged as the most productive pass-catcher in the game, but the 26-year-old is putting together a season that could go down in history.
Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, he became the first player in league history to catch more than 100 passes 11 games into a season. And he’s just 60 yards back of Julio Jones’ modern record for most receiving yards at the 11-game mark.
And he’s done so despite a lack of stability and consistency at the quarterback position.
You couldn’t be faulted for chalking up some of Thomas’ success in 2016, 2017 and 2018 to the fact that Drew Brees was throwing him passes. Brees was the league’s most accurate and highest-rated passer during that span, and he didn’t miss a game due to injury (he rested for the team’s final regular-season game last year).
But the 40-year-old quarterback has started just six games this season, and he hasn’t been as efficient or as consistent as usual in that action. His passer rating has dropped nearly 10 points while his interception rate has nearly doubled, and backup Teddy Bridgewater was serviceable but not spectacular when he started five games in Brees’ stead earlier this season.
How much stronger would Thomas’ numbers be if Brees hadn’t suffered a significant thumb injury in September? In six games primarily quarterbacked by Bridgewater this year, Thomas has averaged 8.7 catches and 107.0 yards. But with Brees, he’s averaged 10.4 catches and 120.4 yards.
Extrapolate his numbers with Brees over the final five weeks of the regular season, and he’ll catch 156 passes for 1,844 yards. Three of his touchdowns have also come in the four games since Brees returned, which bodes well for his chances of reaching the double digits in that category.
That might be the one area in which Thomas will have to take off for this to be considered the best season ever for a wide receiver. Even with 150-160 catches and 1,800-2,000 yards, if he scores just eight or nine touchdowns, it’ll be hard to compare him to Randy Moss (who scored a ridiculous 23 in 2007 with the New England Patriots), Jerry Rice (who scored 22 times with the 1987 San Francisco 49ers) or any of the players who put up slightly inferior reception and yardage numbers while scoring 15-18 touchdowns (nobody has ever caught 19, 20 or 21 touchdown passes in a season).
If you want to combine those key stats, you could look at fantasy points. Thomas is on pace for 387.3 in a points-per-reception format and 231.7 in a standard format. The first would rank third all-time behind only Rice in 1995 and Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015 (by a minuscule margin). But the second would only be the 30th-highest fantasy total of all time. That’s because touchdowns are weighted so heavily, which is fair.
Here’s how Thomas’ current pace compares to the most productive season-single performances at his position in the modern era (post-1970 merger, because the game has changed far too much to go back further):
1. Michael Thomas (151)
2. Marvin Harrison (143)
T3. Antonio Brown (136)
T3. Julio Jones (136)
5. Brown (129)
6. Thomas (125)
1. Calvin Johnson (1,964)
2. Jones (1,871)
3. Jerry Rice (1,848)
4. Brown (1,834)
5. Thomas (1,807)
6. Isaac Bruce (1,781)
1. Randy Moss (23)
2. Rice (22)
T3. Mark Clayton (18)
T3. Sterling Sharpe (18)
T350. Thomas (9)
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If you view receiving touchdowns as the ultimate stat for a receiver, Thomas will have a hard time earning as much credit as other greats. But on balance, he’s right there with these standouts:
1987 Jerry Rice: He scored 22 touchdowns but barely reached 1,000 yards on only 65 catches. The two seasons are very hard to compare.
1995 Jerry Rice: “Just” 122 catches, but 1,848 yards and 15 touchdowns. Thomas would have to maintain his current catch and yardage paces and score about six touchdowns in the final five weeks to put up a comparable overall season. Rice averaged 3.2 yards per catch more than Thomas has this season, but Thomas’ number could climb with Brees in the saddle the rest of the way.
2002 Marvin Harrison: He caught a record 143 passes for 1,722 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thomas is on pace to shatter that catch record, pick up about 100 extra receiving yards and fall just a couple touchdowns short of Harrison’s total. They’d be very similar seasons, but Thomas looks to be on track to finish with an edge.
2007 Randy Moss: He failed to catch 100 passes and had “only” 1,493 receiving yards but scored 23 touchdowns. If Thomas can catch 50 percent more passes than Moss did and compile 300-plus more yards than him, he could be in this range even with about 10 fewer touchdowns, depending on who you ask.
2012 Calvin Johnson: This is an interesting comparison because Johnson caught a lot of passes (122) for a record number of yards (1,964) but scored only five touchdowns. It’s a good sign that this campaign is remembered so fondly even though he found the end zone so rarely. If Thomas finishes with 30 more receptions as Johnson and twice as many touchdowns, his 2019 season should be viewed as superior even if he falls a couple hundred yards short of Megatron’s record in that field. For what it’s worth, Johnson’s the only player on this list whose team had a losing record. That arguably made his campaign even more remarkable, but it’s also easy to pad stats when you’re losing often and your quarterback is Matthew Stafford. I don’t think it’s a game-changing factor.
2015 Julio Jones: He caught 136 passes and had a few more yards than Thomas is on pace to accumulate, but Jones scored just eight touchdowns. Thomas is on pace to put together a better all-around season, even if he falls short of Jones in yardage.
2015 Antonio Brown: He caught seven fewer passes but compiled 112 more yards than 2002 Harrison while scoring 10 touchdowns. Again, Thomas should have enough of an edge in the first category (and maybe even the second category) to make up for a deficit in the third category.
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What is the primary goal of any wide receiver? The primary goal for any skill-position offensive player is to score, but a receiver’s job is to catch passes, and Thomas is doing that at a better pace than anyone else in league history. There’s also the yardage argument, and he’s faring pretty well there as well.
The key might be to produce in all three realms. Three receivers have caught 130 passes, four have gone over 1,800 yards and hundreds have scored 10-plus touchdowns. But if Thomas can maintain those other paces and manage to score five times between Thanksgiving night and the end of December, he can become the first player in league history to catch more than 130 passes for more than 1,800 yards and more than 10 touchdowns in a single season.
That’d have to get him into every conversation about legendary seasons at the wide receiver position.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.