From the Basement | What happened to Michael Thomas?

Jeremy Rosen, Sports Editor

Elisabeth Keigler

Three seasons ago, Michael Thomas was on top of the world. In his first four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, he had done nothing but rack up stats and accolades, becoming one of the elite receivers in the NFL. With three pro bowl appearances, two first team all-pro selections, the most receptions in a season ever and the coveted Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2019, he seemed well on pace to surpass Marques Colston as greatest receiver in franchise history — and maybe even earn a spot in Canton. 

However, it’s been all downhill since his record-breaking 2019 season. Since then, he’s been completely hampered by nagging injuries that cannot seem to go away. He’s only been able to play in ten games over the past three NFL seasons after missing just one game with the Saints prior to 2020. 

In the opening game of the 2020 season against the Buccaneers, he suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out for six weeks. While he did make it back onto the field by week eight, he was clearly still hampered by his ankle injury and missed the last three weeks of the regular season with a hamstring injury. After catching nine touchdowns the previous season, he failed to grab a single touchdown in 2020.

Things only got stranger for Thomas moving into 2021. With all-time great quarterback Drew Brees retiring that offseason and few other receiving weapons on the team, the Saints’ offense needed Thomas to return to his Pro Bowl form to stay competitive. He chose to undergo surgery midway through the 2021 offseason to repair his lingering ankle injury, which meant he was going to miss the first few weeks of the season to recover. 

There was a great deal of confusion and controversy surrounding the surgery. An apparent rift between Thomas and the Saints organization seemed to form in the offseason. The Saints believed that he would need surgery early in the offseason to be ready for the season, but Thomas wanted to avoid surgical intervention and try rehab on his own. He ignored several calls from the organization over several months to check in on his rehab status, frustrating the team. His attempted rehab was unsuccessful, and he got the surgery in June of 2021.

Then head coach Sean Payton expressed a lot of frustration when asked about Thomas’s status in training camp. “It’s disappointing. We would have liked [the surgery] to have happened earlier rather than later. And quite honestly, it should have,” Payton said. There was clearly a great deal of friction between Thomas and the organization, and trade rumors surrounding him only continued to hurt that relationship.

Even when rehabbing his injury during the season, Thomas couldn’t escape the injury bug. After week eight of the season, he announced that there had been “another small setback” in his ankle recovery and that he would need to miss the rest of the season. This announcement was a huge blow to the Saints offense, who opened the season with a solid 5-2 record despite limited receiving weapons and Jameis Winston’s ACL injury. Without the starting quarterback and top receiving option, the team stumbled to finish 9-8 and missed the postseason.

Finally, after all of the injury setbacks and chaos, Thomas seemed ready to make his comeback for the 2022 season. He was supposed to be a part of a strong trio of Saints receivers, playing alongside free agent signing Jarvis Landry and fellow former-Ohio State Buckeye Chris Olave. 

In his first two games, it seemed like Thomas was able to recapture some of his 2019 magic. In the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, he had two pivotal touchdowns to complete the comeback win. In week two, he hauled in five catches for 65 yards and another touchdown. Then in week three against the Carolina Panthers, he had to leave the game in the second half with a toe injury.

He was expected to miss some time with this injury, but there was still a great deal of confusion surrounding Thomas’s injury. He was expected to miss about four weeks to recover from the toe injury, but he had a chance to return sooner. Head coach Dennis Allen refused to place him on injury reserve, stating that it’s tough to rule out a “player of that caliber” when he could potentially return ahead of schedule. When he was still out four weeks after the injury, Saints fans didn’t know what to expect.

Then, exactly one year after Thomas announced the setback in his ankle recovery, Allen announced that Thomas would be placed on injury reserve, and he would likely miss the rest of the 2022 season. His injury appeared more serious than initially expected, sustaining a dislocated second toe that would require surgery.

Teammates like Alvin Kamara have defended Thomas’s work ethic and desire to be on the field, but it has not stopped the widespread criticism by fans and the media surrounding his injury woes. Most fans have given up on him reclaiming his status as an elite receiver after so many lingering injuries, and a lot of questions remain surrounding his future with the Saints. 

His $96 million contract extension from 2019 keeps him on the books until at least 2024, greatly limiting the Saints’ ability to make additional signings. The team would need to take on a hefty $25.5 million in dead cap if they were to trade or cut him before June of next year, so Thomas will likely remain on the team for at least another season. Even if the team could easily move on from him, it’s impossible to gauge what his value would be with so many injuries and a hefty contract.

Even with him still on the Saints, the team will likely shift to Olave being the primary receiving option for the foreseeable future. The team spent a premium draft pick on him as either a compliment to Thomas or as an insurance policy in case of further injuries. After missing almost another full season, it’s looking more and more likely that Olave will need to be the number one guy. He’s had a solid rookie season despite inconsistent quarterback play, hauling in 46 catches for 658 yards and two touchdowns so far. 

With an aging roster and questions surrounding the long term quarterback and head coach, the Saints are likely to try to make drastic moves to reshape the team. Once that happens, it’s anyone’s guess how many more times we’ll see Thomas don the Black and Gold.

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