The minute Michael Thomas grabbed that flip phone from underneath the goal-post padding, the world took notice.
In NFL circles, and in New Orleans especially, the 25-year-old already was a proven commodity, a receiver capable of dominating a game with his shiftiness, his competitive fire and his flair for the dramatic. But in Week 9 when Thomas punctuated an impressive 72-yard touchdown catch on Los Angeles cornerback Marcus Peters with his unexpected homage to Saints legend Joe Horn, it was clear to everyone what type of force Thomas is.
He wants the ball and he wants all eyes on him.
Like most star receivers, he’s determined to command the spotlight any way he can. And soon, the receiver no one can guard (according to Thomas’ own Twitter account @CantguardMike) will be seeking big money from the Saints.
Thomas, who surpassed Odell Beckham Jr. in November for the most receptions in a player’s first 40 games, is one of the best receivers in the NFL. But does he deserve to get Beckham money?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
There’s no question Thomas — who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 — deserves to be paid well. He was the difference-maker last week in the Saints’ come-from-behind win over Philadelphia in the NFC divisional round, catching 12 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. But with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line Sunday, even more will be expected of Thomas against the same Rams defense he caught 12 passes against for a franchise-record 211 yards.
“I think a lot of people underestimate Mike,” Saints running back Alvin Kamara said Thursday of Thomas, whose 171 yards were the most receiving yards in a postseason game in team history. “I think that’s one thing that’s amazing about his game.
“You might look at him and you might not see a Julio Jones or an Odell, or some of those guys. He kind of has an unorthodox style about him but if you really watch him, and you really know football, the stuff he does is amazing. The way he gets open, the way he catches the ball, the way he separates, the way he runs his routes. He has a knack for getting open and getting the ball. So, definitely — shoot, I think he’s the best receiver right now. And if we’re looking throughout this year, and the past two years, he’s one of the best.”
A sampling of NFL insiders, such as agents, team executives, salary-cap analysts and contract experts, suggest Thomas’ representatives will use Beckham’s five-year, $90 million extension from the Giants as a benchmark in negotiations. But the real question: How much are the Saints willing to spend?
NFL’s first $20M a year receiver?
Many expect Thomas’ camp to try to make him the NFL’s first $20 million-per-year receiver.
Because Beckham’s extension includes an additional $5 million that is earned only if several incentives are met, the deal really averages out to $18 million a year. So, Thomas’ agents likely could come to the negotiating table asking for $22 million or $22.5 million a year, in the hopes of securing a deal in the $19 million to $20 million range. One contract expert suggested Thomas seek a minimum of $70 million in overall guarantees, with at least $50 million fully guaranteed at signing.
But asking for that kind of money is a far cry from receiving it.
‘Odell is rare’
He led the league in receptions (125) during the regular season, had 1,405 receiving yards (which was 272 yards behind league-leader Jones) and nine touchdowns (tied for 10th in the NFL).
Still, people in the league aren’t convinced Thomas is worthy of a Beckham-sized deal.
“He’s good, but he ain’t that good,” one front-office executive told Yahoo Sports, in reference to the hefty extension the Giants gave Beckham this past summer. “Odell is Odell. Odell is rare. Thomas will get below that.”
While NFL insiders don’t view Thomas on Beckham’s level, Thomas’ production warrants that he should get a deal that ranks him near the top of the wide-receiver market in at least one contract metric — i.e., annual per year (APY), total guarantees or cash paid in first three years.
Beckham is tops in all three of those categories:
APY: $18 million.
Total guarantee: $65 million.
Cash paid in first three years: $58.5 million.
Saints don’t pay often
One recurring theme in these conversations was the Saints’ reticence to pay big money to players.
If the Saints give Thomas the APY he wants, they will likely offer Thomas a lower total guarantee than what Beckham received.
It’s expected that New Orleans will use Beckham’s rare gifts and the fact that Thomas is catching passes from a future Hall of Fame quarterback as arguments against Thomas breaking the bank. That’s why some suggested Thomas might be better off waiting for Jones and Tyreek Hill to move the needle first.
But another strong performance by Thomas in the NFC title game only strengthens his case for a sizable new deal in the not-to-distant future.
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