Michael Thomas ready to scale mountain

Published 11:00 am Thursday, June 8, 2023

By John DeShazier

The New Orleans Saints

It wasn’t much, it wasn’t full and it wasn’t a totally game-ready player but unmistakably, it was Michael Thomas.

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In a limited capacity, the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 took to the field for the New Orleans Saints’ offseason training activity Tuesday morning, caught a few passes from quarterback Derek Carr, went through some mental reps and easily was the most noticeable on-field addition to the Saints’ workout.

Over the last three regular seasons, encompassing 50 games, Thomas only has been available to play in 10. Hounded first by an ankle and then by a toe injury, he missed the entire 2021 season and was available for the first three games last year before being sidelined.

So his presence for two days – he also caught passes from Carr on Monday, when the media did not view practice – was another positive step for the player who set the NFL single-season record with 149 catches in ’19.

“We’re going to be ready for training camp, fresh Day 1, out there with the team ready to go full speed, just like the old days and what everyone is used to,” Thomas said.

“It’s a blessing any time I get to put on the Saints uniform and get to contribute. Put on the (No.) 13 (jersey) in the black and gold. Just to come out here and be around the guys, the camaaraderie, that’s what I miss the most. Just talking ball.

“First day of school, that’s kind of what it felt like. Talking football with Derek, getting on the same page, talking to the coaches, just game planning. Just basically building that camaraderie to be able to build something special and chase something special and win a lot of games.”

For Carr, the presence of Thomas played a factor in his signing with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent. On film, there was plenty Carr saw that he liked. In Thomas’ first four seasons, he averaged 118 catches for 1,378 yards and eight touchdowns.

“A big part of my decision was Mike Thomas,” Carr said Tuesday. “Just his mentality alone. The football player, the mentality, that’s the thing that I fell in love with him.

“He’s a violent route runner. There’s a few guys that are like that. There are very few guys that run such violent routes and catch the ball and get back downhill. Like, a lot of guys like to catch that ball and dance around. He gets north and south. He turns what should be second-and-5 into second-and-2, and that changes a football game. To the naked eye, it’s just another slant, it’s just another stick (route). But it’s what he’s doing after the catch.

“When he’s rolling, he dictates coverages. You have to account for him because he’s so talented, he’s so aggressive at the catch point. Even if he is covered, you can still throw it out there and he can body them up and he extends his hands. Strong hands. He’s a bigger receiver so you can trust him with those kinds of throws as well. The back shoulder throws, he can win over the top and catch those. Late hands. Those are the things that as I was watching the film, very attractive to me.”

Thomas, too, has been pleased with the addition of Carr.

“He’s been amazing,” Thomas said. “I can’t wait to play with him. And just be out there and execute and create something special with him, a connection. I just like the way he demands the huddle, the sense of urgency, just the way he handles himself. He’s a pro. I respect him a lot and I’m always watching him and talking football with him. He loves football.

“It’s not hard working with him and it’s not hard showing up and doing what he asks you to do. It’s pretty much going to be a good thing on the other end if we execute. He tells me what to do, I tell him where I’m going to be and we’re on the same page. We can execute at a high level against anyone.”

Thomas’ presence as a leader also was felt. Last season he mentored rookies Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed, and his presence undoubtedly will benefit them and the rest of the offense.

“I know everyone was excited to see him,” Carr said. “Everybody loves him here. They love his work ethic, they love his competitiveness, his leadership, the way he plays, the way he practices, he prepares. From the outside looking in, he’s such a worker, that’s probably why.

“Sometimes injuries happen when you play that hard and work that hard. You don’t ever ask a guy like that to tone down. You’ve got to keep going as long as you can. You talk to him on the phone, you feel like you can win a football game with just you two out there. And being around him now, he just brings that energy about him that you feel the same way.”

For Thomas, the energy has been easy to bring. Always has been, for a player whom coaches have tried to help dial back, to no avail. Thomas hasn’t played since Sept. 25, 2022, but is more than ready to continue the work that’ll lead him back to the field.

“I love football,” he said. “This is what I like to do. I enjoy football. This is why I spend my offseason training, to become a better football player. All my lifestyles, from nutrition to off-the-field stuff to on-the-field stuff, it’s all about football and becoming a better player. So coming and showing up to do football activities has never been a hard thing for me.

“It’s just been grind (the last eight months). I know what’s expected of me, I know what my job is, I know what type of player I’m capable of being. At the end of the day, my job is always beating the man across from me, so the last eight months is just finding ways to get better to beat the man across from me.”