Michael Thomas is your must-have fantasy receiver for 2017

Michael Thomas gives first-round value in the second round. (Getty)
Michael Thomas gives first-round value in the second round. (Getty)

In the history of the NFL, two rookies have caught at least 90 passes for at least 1,100 yards and at least nine touchdowns. Those two players are Odell Beckham Jr. (2014) and Michael Thomas (2016). Beckham Jr. did it in just 12 games. Thomas did it playing second fiddle to Brandin Cooks. Both receivers produced top-10 fantasy seasons. Only one is regarded as a top-five pick this year in fantasy.

Despite the numbers, I honestly didn’t pay too much attention to Thomas’ rookie year, much like — seemingly — everyone else. I figured he was a product of the Saints throwing the ball almost every play. And because the Saints were a middling team, I wasn’t making them appointment television. But then a friend tweeted out Thomas’ highlight tape and I was transfixed. A guy this big and this strong with the ability to give you yards after the catch and outrun safeties? And that was his rookie year?! I had remembered Thomas from his Ohio State days: physically dominant but lacking polish and playing in a run-first system. I hadn’t remembered this Michael Thomas.

Thomas is currently 15th overall in Yahoo Sports’ rankings, with Brad Evans being the highest on him, slotting the receiver seventh. Most likely though, he’ll be available midway through the second round in your league. He’ll give you first-round production.

Without going into too much detail yet, the surface reasons for selecting Thomas are clear. As stated above, his rookie year put him in elite company, and he should be even better with a year under his belt. The Saints are a pass-happy offense — even after the addition of Adrian Peterson — with a capable, consistent quarterback in Drew Brees. The team’s top receiver last year, Cooks, is no longer on the team. His replacement, Ted Ginn Jr., isn’t going to take nearly the target share Cooks did. Consider this: Since 2014, Cooks has averaged a target share of 18.6 percent. Ginn’s mark is 14.6 percent, and it’s only that high because Carolina’s No. 1 wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, forcing Ginn into a much bigger role.

But there’s more to this than just looking at the basic stats and the roster. Thomas was the most efficient top fantasy wideout last year, too. Among all wide receivers with at least 70 receptions, Thomas was first in fantasy points per target (2.13) per Player Profiler. For what it’s worth, Cooks was second with 2.11, reaffirming the Saints’ ability to get their wideouts points. And considering that Cooks and his 117 targets are gone, Thomas is in line for a massive jump.

A big reason for Thomas’s fantasy efficiency is his real-life efficiency. Per Player Profiler, he caught 76 percent of his targets last year, third-best in the league (among players who qualified), behind only slot receivers Eddie Royal and Cole Beasley. Considering that Thomas plays outside instead of in the slot and was asked to make more plays down the field, that’s truly a remarkable stat. He showed the ability to win individual matchups no matter who lined up across from him. In a Week 6 win against Seattle, for example, Thomas reeled in all six of his targets (per Pro Football Reference) while lining up against Richard Sherman for the majority of his snaps.

At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, one would expect Thomas to be a red-zone weapon, and he was just that last year. He commanded a team-high 18.4 percent of red-zone targets, and he scored on seven of his 13 red-zone catches (per Pro Football Reference). And there’s reason to expect he’ll be better in 2017: He’ll be leaned on even more heavily inside the 20. Cooks accounted for 10.8 percent of the team’s red-zone targets, a significant amount for an undersized speedster. Ginn, on the other hand, accounted for just 1.5 percent of Carolina’s red-zone targets last year. With Cooks gone, Brees will be looking a lot more to Thomas near the goal line.

Last year, Thomas finished seventh among receivers in terms of fantasy points per week, per Player Profiler. The team then got rid of his biggest competition for targets. As the undisputed top receiver on the most pass-happy team in the league, he projects as a 100-catch, 1,300-yard, 12-touchdown receiver. Think Brandon Marshall in his prime. Or, if you prefer another big-bodied wideout who wore the black and gold, go with Marques Colston, but with more speed. He will give you first-round value in the second round. If he’s available once the first round is over — and he will be in all likelihood — he is a must-have.