Two and a half years ago, Michael Thomas had to wait a long time to hear his name called on draft day.
Forty-six picks, to be exact, roughly six and a half hours on the NFL draft clock and a little more than 25 hours in actual time, an eternity for any player who believes he’s at the top of his class.
Five receivers came off the board before the New Orleans Saints sent Thomas’s name up to the podium.
Baylor speedster Corey Coleman went first, off the board to the Cleveland Browns at No. 15. Then three in quick succession: Notre Dame’s Will Fuller at No. 22 to Houston, TCU’s Josh Doctson to Washington at No. 23, Minnesota using No. 24 to pick Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell, the receiver coveted by the majority of a Saints fan base who saw shades of Marques Colston in the big-bodied SEC receiver.
New York seemingly set on the outside with former LSU stars Odell Beckham Jr. and Reuben Randle, tabbed Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard at No. 40, eight picks into the second round.
None of this came as a surprise to most draft analysts at the time, although Thomas had his followers. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had ranked Thomas as the No. 1 receiver prospect in the draft since January, but the rest of the so-called experts saw flaws.
What the 30 teams that passed on Thomas — New England never got a chance to pick him — failed to see remains a mystery to the Saints’ star.
“I have no idea,” Thomas said.
But the choice those teams made is part of the force that drives Thomas, the burning fire that fuels the nasty physicality of his game and never allows him to take off a play in practice.
“Definitely, it does,” Thomas said. “It has to. It always has. Just being able to keep going and keep a level head and keep setting goals and attacking them, and improving.”
Nearly all NFL players feel a connection to the other players in their draft class, particularly the ones who played the same position.
Although they spend months trying to beat each other out for position, NFL draft prospects also spend a lot of those months together, thrown into the same training facilities, through the same gauntlet in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine, on visits to teams and in the endless draft coverage that dominates the airwaves from February to the end of April.
For that reason, a lot of NFL players keep an eye on the other rookies at their position.
Thomas hasn’t kept tabs on the other receivers from his class.
“If it makes the TV and I see it on TV, maybe,” Thomas said. “I kind of just try to stay focused on what I need to do here.”
Highlights have been few and far between, particularly for the four receivers taken in the first round.
Coleman, the burner from Baylor, is already on his third team. Traded from Cleveland to Buffalo in August, Coleman was cut by the Bills at the end of camp, and now he’s with the New England Patriots, hoping Bill Belichick’s penchant for getting the best out of his players can turn around his career.
Fuller, injured to start the season, has been a sporadic deep threat in Houston. Doctson is fighting for time in Washington; Treadwell might be down to his last chance this season in Minnesota, passed up by an undrafted free agent who first made his name on special teams (Adam Thielen) and a fifth-round pick in 2015 (Stefon Diggs).
Thomas, meanwhile, has been more productive than all of them combined.
In two full seasons and one game, the four first-round receivers from the 2016 draft have combined to catch 192 passes for 2,588 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Thomas has 212 catches, 2,562 yards and 15 touchdowns all by himself.
While the other four scuffled through the first week of the season — Treadwell caught two passes, Doctson grabbed one, Fuller is battling an injury and Coleman was still two days away from being picked up by New England — Thomas was setting a franchise record with 16 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay.
“I do not know if it was his technique,” Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “Whatever he used, it was pretty doggone good. … He is very consistent, he is very accountable. He is there for the quarterback, he makes huge plays. … Again, he’s got tremendous talent.’
Perhaps it’s fitting that Jackson and the Browns are coming to New Orleans the week after the biggest statistical day of Thomas’s career.
Cleveland, the team that picked Coleman, had two chances to take Thomas before the Saints picked him and a desperate need at the position; the Browns selected four wide receivers in 2016.
At the time, Jackson had just been hired as head coach under former vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, who gave way to experienced John Dorsey last season. While he wasn’t asked specifically why the Browns didn’t target Thomas two and a half years ago, Jackson remembers at least one of the knocks on him coming out of nearby Ohio State.
“I think people talked about speed,” Jackson said. “I know when he came out, people say maybe he was not that fast.”
Speed was a factor. Thomas ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds; Coleman was clocked at 4.37 seconds at his pro day, and Fuller blistered the Indianapolis track at the combine in 4.32 seconds.
All of those concerns seem silly to Jackson now.
“I think he’s proven that not to be the case,” Jackson said. “He’s good enough to play on anybody’s offense, (make) any play across the receiver position. I think sometimes people put too much emphasis on certain things and not enough emphasis on the kind of guy playing, and he really can play.”
Thomas also took some hits because of an Ohio State offense with a simplified passing game. While Thomas was productive for the Buckeyes, he didn’t occupy the featured role that Doctson and Treadwell, two players who were far from burners, were given at TCU and Ole Miss.
A few of the other knocks on Thomas seem downright laughable now. According to his NFL.com draft profile, Thomas was “still figuring out this whole route-running thing,” “won’t win over quarterbacks with inability to rescue off-target throws” and “plays with a passive demeanor against aggressive cornerbacks.”
New Orleans saw something different. According to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Thomas was a favorite of Saints head coach Sean Payton early in the process.
“We saw strong hands in traffic,” Payton said. “We saw really good run after the catch. We saw a physical, competitive player. Those were the traits that we saw, and those were what we valued and drafted on.”
Whether or not New Orleans knew it at the time, the Saints had picked a player with the same mentality as their legendary quarterback.
Drew Brees, passed up on draft day years ago and still motivated by the knocks against him, famously hates taking anything off in practice.
Thomas is just like his quarterback.
“Every rep is a Super Bowl rep,” Brees said. “So think about it, If you approach every day like that and every rep like that, you get to the game and the game is just another rep. It’s not like you have to get yourself ready to kick it up another notch.”
Thomas, like Brees, plays with a burning desire to prove everyone who ever doubted him wrong.
An exchange on Twitter in February made it clear how much his draft position mattered to him. A follower reminded him that NFL expert Mike Mayock had ranked him fifth among receiver prospects before the draft.
Thomas responded by calling Mayock a square and pointing out the difference between his career and the ones of those drafted in front of him.
“I am who I always said I am, and they (were) ALL lapped after year 1, no hesitation,’ Thomas wrote. “None are WR 1’s. Tables turned fast, Don’t even put my name in the same category no more, please and thank you.”
The teams that passed on him agree. Even the Giants, who have gotten two good seasons out of Shepard (129 catches, 1,462 yards, 10 touchdowns), would probably like to have been able to pair Thomas with Beckham instead of Randle, who flamed out in New York, and veteran Brandon Marshall, another failed running mate. Only one other receiver from that class, Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, has come close to making the kind of impact Thomas has made in New Orleans, and he had major off-the-field concerns.
‘If you knew what you know now back then, he would’ve been drafted earlier,’ Payton said. “That’s one of the challenges of the draft.”
New Orleans is lucky the rest of the NFL spent its time focused on other players.
#SAINTSNEWS #SAINTS #NOLA #ADVOCATE
Read our partner site Saints News at www.SaintsNewsNetwork.com