Saints getting money's worth from Michael Thomas, no matter who's at QB

NEW ORLEANS -- Michael Thomas' record-breaking contract extension was already worth it this summer when Drew Brees was still healthy.

If possible, Thomas might be even more valuable now that Teddy Bridgewater is filling in as the New Orleans Saints' quarterback.

Bridgewater said after his first start in Week 3 that he quickly realized, “Man, I have one of the best wide receivers in the NFL out here and I get to throw the ball to him whenever I feel like it.”

Then he took that theory to another level Sunday, feeding Thomas early and often in the Saints’ 31-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thomas finished with 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns Sunday -- with one of the catches actually coming from third-string quarterback Taysom Hill.

In other words, the go-to guy never changes in this offense no matter who is playing QB.

“It’s nothing new,” Hill said. “We’re always trying to get him the ball. He’s just a rare guy with size, talent, hands, speed, everything. And you put it together and he’s just a rare guy. And we love having him on our team.”

Thomas, who briefly this summer became the highest-paid receiver in the NFL when he signed a five-year extension worth up to $100 million (between $19.25 million and $20 million per year), said he wants to be that “safety blanket” for Bridgewater -- just as he is for Brees.

“It was time,” Thomas said when asked specifically about the way he fought through a tackle to score his first touchdown on Sunday. “We’re getting later in the season. I have to be that guy I say I am. I have to make people miss, I have to catch the ball, I have to score points. That’s what they have me here for.

“And ultimately even watching a guy like Alvin Kamara after [the way he has been breaking tackles] the last four weeks, it’s contagious. You don’t want to go down because you know it’s gonna help the people around you.”

Thomas was leading the NFL with 45 catches and 543 yards by the end of Sunday’s early games. And for the second straight year, his catch rate is above 80% after he became the first receiver in decades to catch 85% of his targets last season.

He provided a couple of “wow” moments in particular on Sunday -- his 14-yard TD catch in the second quarter and his diving 20-yard catch on third-and-10 late in the third quarter.

“C’mon, man,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore said of his reaction when he saw that catch from the sideline. "He knows how to get open, no matter what."

And Lattimore of all people can appreciate how impressive Thomas’ exploits are, given that he is the No. 1 receiver defenses know they have to stop on a weekly basis. Lattimore has silenced wide receivers Amari Cooper and Mike Evans over the past two weeks. But somehow “Can’t Guard Mike” keeps avoiding that fate week after week.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Thomas faced press coverage on 22 of his 35 routes against the Buccaneers -- and he caught all nine of his targets in those situations for 164 yards and two TDs. His 4.6 yards per route against press coverage this season are the most in the NFL among qualifying pass-catchers.

Thomas said he was even more determined to catch that third-and-10 pass because he had just dropped a low ball he felt he should have caught two plays earlier.

“So I was kind of disappointed in myself on that,” Thomas said. “But just being a mature player, being in my fourth year, I know the next-play mentality, it’s three downs. And third down was a crucial down. I knew how important that was at that time of the game.

“So wherever he threw it, I was gonna lay out for it. And I was excited to make that play for the offense.”

It would be impossible to say that Thomas has picked up his intensity while Brees recovers from thumb surgery, because Thomas’ relentless drive has already become the stuff of legend in New Orleans.

Brees has compared "Can't Guard Mike" to running back Darren Sproles as one of those rare players who treats every practice rep like it's the Super Bowl. And coach Sean Payton told NFL.com last season that he felt like he got hit by a car when he made the mistake of standing in as the defensive back across from Thomas during a walk-through session.

“Mike is the ultimate competitor. He wants to be great, and he wants to continue to be respected. And he plays this game with a chip on his shoulder,” said Bridgewater, who said he was just talking to Thomas about that intensity in the locker room.

“I told him, ‘Man, when the games come around, I can just see it in your eyes. You don’t have to say a word to me,’” Bridgewater said. “So when you’re in the huddle and you’re calling the plays and you’re looking the guys in the eyes, and Mike’s eyes just light up, you know he’s locked in. And you’re confident as a quarterback.”

Every Saints quarterback can agree on that.