How Saints' Michael Thomas lives up to 'Can't Guard Mike' reputation

METAIRIE, La. -- The catch rate itself is eye-popping enough.

New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas caught 85 percent of the passes thrown his way last season -- 125 of 147, to be exact, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats. That was the highest rate of any receiver since at least 1986, according to the Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz.

But those numbers are even more startling when you consider where Thomas performs his work: in constant traffic.

Thomas just became the NFL's highest-paid receiver in large part because of the way he so consistently lives up to his "Can't Guard Mike" nickname. The physical, 6-foot-3, 212-pounder thrives despite doing most of his work on short-to-intermediate routes within tight spaces.

Since Saints quarterback Drew Brees feasts on shorter and intermediate throws, 121 of Thomas' catches last year came within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, according to Next Gen's route tree.

And since the Saints were short on proven targets in the passing game, defenses knew Thomas was the guy they had to stop. Thomas had 90 more catches than any other receiver or tight end on New Orleans' roster.

"There were some game plans [from opponents against Thomas] that just were pretty unbelievable as far as the amount of attention or the amount of respect, really," Brees said.

Thomas sidestepped the question when asked if he thinks he sees as much double coverage as any receiver in the NFL, saying, "I know Drew Brees doesn't make bad decisions. So if he makes a decision, I have to make him right."

Thomas has done that a lot.

His 321 career catches are by far the most in NFL history in a player's first three seasons -- 33 more than Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who are tied for second place at 288.

Thomas also has the highest catch rate of any NFL receiver with at least 200 targets over that three-year span (77.2 percent). However, Thomas' "expected catch rate" on those plays is only 66.5 percent, according to Next Gen's formula, which considers factors like whether the receiver has a cushion or the quarterback is under pressure.

Thomas' "plus-minus" of plus-10.6 percent under that formula is also the highest in the NFL since 2016.

Some other impressive stats from Next Gen and ESPN Stats and Information that show how well Thomas maneuvers in traffic:

    • He has caught 76 percent of his targets when facing press coverage (defender lined up less than three yards from the line of scrimmage pre-snaps, like on the 2-yard TD catch below against the Browns last season) -- the second-highest mark among that group.

  • He has caught 51 percent of his targets in passes thrown into a tight window (less than one yard of separation) -- also the second-highest mark among that group.

Sure, Thomas has the advantage of working with the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. But Brees has never relied on a single go-to guy in New Orleans as much as he has leaned on Thomas since the Saints stole him in the second round out of Ohio State in 2016.

Last year, 28.6 percent of Brees' attempts went toward Thomas. In 2017, it was 26.9 percent. Former Saints greats like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham never had a target share above 22.3 percent.

"He's a strong target in traffic. He's one of those guys that has a good radius for the quarterback," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who also credited Thomas for being a "tremendous" practice player. "He's a guy that really works at his craft relative to the whole week leading up to the game. But his strength, his run after the catch, those are all things that I think he does very well."

Brees, meanwhile, praised Thomas' versatility. Although he doesn't run many deep routes, that doesn't mean he is predictable. Even if you just look at the 10 touchdowns Thomas scored last year, you see him coming from all different angles, including slants, fades, comeback routes and, yes, one unforgettable deep ball behind the defense -- the 72-yarder that clinched New Orleans' regular-season victory over the Los Angeles Rams and led to Thomas' infamous cell-phone homage to Joe Horn in the end zone.

"It's not like he just lines up in one place and everybody can target him. We move him around a lot and allow him to do a lot of different things," Brees said. "It wasn't always like that. In his first year here, when he began to show that he could be that dominant-type feature guy, he was really kind of in one spot at the time and we had really limited what we did with him at that time. But as he's gotten into this offense, and I think as his understanding and confidence and comfort level with it has grown, it allows us to put him in a lot of places."