Thomas, 31, tore his Achilles at the end of what was a "down" season for him with the Broncos and Texans. He finished with 59 catches for 677 yards, both of which were his lowest totals since 2011. He signed a contract this offseason reflective of someone at his age and coming off that type of injury: One year, $2.9 million, with just $150,000 guaranteed.
To put that in perspective, Thomas is pulling in less guaranteed money this year than second-year linebacker Christian Sam ($181, 495), recently-acquired tight end Eric Saubert ($227,388) and rookie punter Jake Bailey ($288,980). His guarantees pay him slightly more than undrafted fullback Andrew Beck ($115,000).
What's the rush, then, to get Thomas back to practice?
The Patriots could've easily kept him on PUP, allowing him to get a little deeper into his recovery, allowing him to get closer to his usual level of explosiveness, and then activated him mid-season. By then, perhaps the Patriots receiver position would've changed personnel-wise due to injury or other scenarios. By then, they might need a body.
But now that Thomas is back in the mix, he'll have to make the team out of camp or he'll be released and have an opportunity to sign elsewhere. And if he does make the team, it might be at the expense of players like Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris or Braxton Berrios - all of whom who have flashed at different points during camp and probably deserve to be on NFL rosters come September.
One explanation for Thomas' quick activation? It may be an indication that Bill Belichick and his staff feel as though this receiver group is so in need that they couldn't wait to add another piece. Even a piece on the wrong side of 30 and getting his legs back under him after a devastating injury.
If that's the case, then do the Patriots view this as an all-hands-on-deck type of emergency?
Though the depth chart is littered with big names, promising young pieces and seemingly-dependable veterans, the appearance of the Patriots receiver room might be deceiving.
Julian Edelman is 33 years old and expected once again to help carry the Patriots passing offense. But he plays one of the most physically grinding roles that exists in an NFL passing game. That he hasn't practiced much at all this summer due to a thumb injury - keeping his wear and tear quotient low this time of year - is probably a good thing for his long-term health.
Josh Gordon's reinstatement, the league made very clear, is conditional. N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers have had encouraging summers as rookies, but . . . they're rookies in perhaps the league's most complicated offense.
Berrios took a redshirt in his first year and has had somewhat of an up-and-down camp in his second. Dorsett and Harris are probably best suited as No. 3 or 4 wideouts and both were bitten by the injury bug in Tennessee.
The number of sure things at that position on the roster are few and far between.
Thomas' contract would tell you that even they aren't expecting much from him. The contract would tell you that he's not a lock to make the roster. The contract would tell you the Patriots understand that Thomas is a long way from the guy who racked up five-consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons between 2012 and 2016.
So what would qualify as realistic expectations for Thomas in 2019?
If you wanted to focus on his small sample of work with the Texans, a closer look at his numbers might tell you there actually should be more optimism about his ability to contribute.
According to Pro Football Focus, who graded him their No. 52 receiver last year, he averaged 6.3 yards after the catch per reception with Houston. That was the ninth-best number among NFL receivers with at least 25 percent of their team's offensive snaps, and just a shade behind what Josh Gordon posted for the Patriots in 2018 (6.7) and ahead of players like Tyreek Hill (6.0), JuJu Smith-Schuster (5.9) and Edelman (4.7). Thomas' numbers with Denver last year placed him 44th in PFF's yards per route run category among receivers.
He did, however, have seven drops, which would've tied him for seventh-most among receivers in football. And then there's the issue of the torn Achilles.
Thomas has been here before. He suffered an Achilles tear in February of 2011 and returned to practice in September of that year. He said it was seven months before he felt 100 percent. It was 10 months before he broke 40 yards receiving in a regular-season game. He finished that season with 32 catches for 551 yards. That was eight years ago, when he was 23 years old.
Last year, at 30, with a good quarterback in Deshaun Watson, and as Houston's clear No. 2 target in the passing game, Thomas averaged 3.3 catches and 39.3 yards per game in his seven weeks with the team.
In New England, Thomas will be paired with a better quarterback and in an offense that threw more (574 attempts) than the Texans did last year (506 attempts). But there's no guarantee Thomas is on the roster, and there's certainly no guarantee he'll get No. 2 receiver opportunities if he does. He'll be competing for looks with at least Harry, this year's first-round pick. Meyers and Gordon should push Thomas for reps as well. Then there are backs like James White, Rex Burkhead and potentially Damien Harris, who will also factor into the passing game.
When you take everything into account - the contract, the competition for looks, the injury history, the 2018 production - I think two catches for about 20 yards per game is reasonable for Thomas this season. Over 16 games, that'd come out to 32 catches for 320 yards, which would put him in Dorsett territory. As the team's No. 4 receiver and sixth-most targeted player in 2018, Dorsett pulled down 32 catches for 290 yards.
With a player of Thomas' caliber, with his history in the league, it shouldn't be ruled out that he provides the Patriots more. But at the moment, that seems like a realistic expectation for someone in his position.
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