Saints free agent preview: WR Michael Thomas, stay or go?

All signs point to this being the end of the road for the New Orleans Saints and Michael Thomas. His contract was structured in such a way to make it easier on the team’s salary cap to release him in March, and his comments on social media about the team’s coaching staff and quarterback don’t paint a picture of someone eager to run it back.

If so, it’s a shame. Thomas was on a trajectory that would have sent him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame before a series of unfortunate injuries derailed his career. He did the work to be a good teammate, buying into what Dennis Allen was selling and doing his part to recruit Derek Carr to New Orleans while mentoring younger players on the roster. Now it’s looking like things are coming to an end.

Still, it’s worth looking back on his last season in a Saints uniform and objectively arguing whether or not he should return again in 2024. Let’s keep this series going:

2023 stats

Thomas caught 39 passes for 448 yards and a touchdown with 21 first down conversions during 10 games, his best line since the 2020 season — which goes to show how impactful the injuries have been for him in recent years. He was still reliable on contested catches (going 8-for-17, per Pro Football Focus tracking) but he wasn’t as effective after the catch as we saw earlier in his career.

He was still getting open against younger, healthier, and more athletic opponents. It’s a shame that Derek Carr was such a poor fit with him. Carr’s reluctance to target Thomas on the routes he runs best hurt his numbers. The slants, crossers, and other in-breaking routes that were signature moves for Thomas vanished with Carr under center.

Snap counts

Again, this was the most time Thomas spent on the field in years — he totaled 490 snaps across 10 games. He was limited to 481 snaps during 10 games combined from 2020 to 2022 because of injuries. The season-opening ankle injury in 2020 obviously slowed him down, and he missed the entire 2021 season after having surgery. He looked a little like his old self in 2022 but dislocated a toe and needed more surgeries to recover. This time, in 2023, he got hurt making an awkward adjustment to an off-target pass while colliding with a defender. It’s been one tough break after another.

2023 season review

There were some nice plays here and there from Thomas in 2023, but Carr’s hesitance to throw to him on the routes he runs better than anyone else often took him out of the game plan. He didn’t see double-digit targets or gain 100-plus yards in a single game all season.

On the one hand, it makes sense to send the ball to young playmakers like Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed when they’re playing so well. At the same time, the Saints didn’t get the most out of Thomas, and a lot of it has to do with their quarterback. Carr needs to step up and challenge the defense across the middle of the field more often whether he’s working with Thomas or another big-bodied receiver. He can’t just check down to Alvin Kamara or try to go over the top with Olave and Shaheed 30 times a game.

Future value to Saints

Thomas does have a skill set that no other receiver in New Orleans can match — A.T. Perry might be able to do some of the things Thomas does well in short-yardage situations, but his best moments so far have come further downfield, and it’s not fair to ask a second-year pro to replace a former Offensive Player of the Year. He’s easily the most-experienced player in the receiving corps and he’s still someone younger guys look up to.

At the same time, the time Thomas has missed with injuries matters. So does his public criticism of his coach and quarterback. The Saints are siding with Allen and Carr. Thomas probably isn’t figuring into their plans. They should be looking to get younger and more dynamic at receiver anyway, so trying to mend fences and run it back once again may not be what’s best for everyone in this situation.

Stay or go?

Right now, things are set up for Thomas to be released as a post-June 1 cut before the start of the new league year in March. His cap hit is only $12.4 million but releasing him would leave more than $18.1 million behind in dead money by accelerating future signing bonus hits onto this year’s cap.

If the Saints use the post-June 1 designation they’ll carry that $18.1 million cap hit on the books until the summer, at which point it drops down to $8.9 million for 2024 (deferring about $9.1 million in dead money to 2025), saving them $3.4 million. They can use that money to help sign their draft class and add more free agents ahead of training camp.

There’s another possibility we shouldn’t overlook: Saints leadership working out their differences with Thomas and agreeing on a new contract. That would kick the can further down the road but keep him on the roster where he can try, once again, to stay healthy and productive.

But don’t count on it. We’re assuming he’ll be playing football elsewhere in 2024. Some receivers we’re watching in free agency as possible replacements include Josh Reynolds, Jauan Jennings, and Kendrick Bourne.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire